26th September 2016
The Studio, 41 Greenland St, Liverpool, L1 0BS
THE FUTURE OF THE UNIONS
How can precarious, temporary and dispersed workers organise? What does 21st century collective action look like? Should we fight to modernise our Unions, or do we need new forms?
Solidarity Makes Sense
By Minnie Stacey
With a panel of Union representatives who were all women, it was a packed studio audience at Liverpool’s Black-E where tough questions about Trade Unions in the 21st century and the challenges they face were addressed.
Panel Chair Alice Martin from The New Economics Foundation introduced the session in the context of workers’ rights in the macro-economy. How can communities have impact on company policy in a country where research has linked low levels of Union membership with functional inequality? While company profits for a privileged few is the surplus value from human capital which punishes workers through income reduction and mass deterioration of terms and conditions, less than a quarter of the UK workforce are Union members.
Tracy Edwards is PCS Union’s Group Secretary for Culture. She talked about workers increasingly drawing the correct conclusions from their ongoing experience in an exploitative economy and the importance of Unions in this climate. Following a massive struggle, PCS has recently democratised and reorganised itself as a Union for the Left. It’s re-affiliated to the Labour Party and is supported by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. With a bottom-up approach, the Union is developing strategies to link the many issues their workers have in common, as it takes time negotiating with 40 employers in the sector. PCS is set to ballot workers to build consensus and solidarity across companies. They’re looking to co-ordinate strikes, link campaigns and increase confidence in workplaces.
Panel member Kelly Rogers works for Picturehouse and is a Union rep for BECTU (now merged with Prospect and disaffiliated from Labour). She said that fighting for and winning a 26% pay rise proved strikes and action works. They’re now campaigning for the living wage, maternity/paternity pay and sick pay. It’s been a massive boon for them to get duty managers on their side. Corporate owner Cineworld is a multi-million pound profit-making company and is refusing to negotiate. Kelly stressed the need to learn lessons from past struggles like the Match Worker Women. Capitalism is still Capitalism, the precarious workforce is nothing new and still has power. If we’re not a money-catch for certain ossified Unions which can tend to concentrate on selling and pushing insurance, we need to organise our own activism and campaigns, she said.
Nilufer Guler pointed to the crisis of power for all workers in neoliberalism, where a holistic approach is needed. She’s a waitress and active in Unite’s hotel workers’ branch. With a largely female workforce and many migrants, Unite is helping to collectivise the voices of these workers with a branch philosophy in response to their initiatives – for example in the campaign around fair tips. The hospitality sector has only 3.6% Union density because Unions haven’t been interested and many people are not aware of what a Union is. A huge amount of workers suffer the insecurity and massive oppression of zero-hours contracts which make it difficult to even pay rent. The sheer intensity of exhausting and isolating physical work for up to fifteen hours a day makes it harder for Unions and workers to organise. Many are taking drugs to keep up with the speed and there’s no time for leisure, a social life and hardly even a home life. Workplaces are robust with manipulative, chauvinist divisions, with managers giving opportunities to favourites, awarding tips along racial community lines, and flirting. Sweet-talking a manager or becoming a supervisor is seen as a way out and is the opposite to the collective solidarity of an organised workforce. Nilufer recommended that Unions use their huge resources to skill people up, acknowledge their rights, give them confidence and have a facilitating approach in building power from the grass roots up.
Elly Baker is an organiser for GMB and a member of Momentum. As with other panel members, she came with the message of deeds not words, how Unions need to organise at the sharp end with the spirit of the collective. After all, GMB was formed from precarious gas workers queueing up to get work in 1889. She spoke about using smartphone technology and finding and developing physical spaces where workers can and do come together to communicate. With the ratcheting up of workplace surveillance, workers may not be keen to accept Union leaflets at the gate while company cameras are watching their perimeter. Agreeing with the panel that workers are always going to organise in the face of oppression, Elly’s question was – are the traditional Unions going to be involved or not?
In the face of all this, the panel picked out positive actions: we should be proud of being Union members, demand progressive Union leadership, support and get involved with activism and organising inside traditional Unions, demonstrate locally and counter the attacks on facility time. We can be dual card-carriers with upcoming Unions not affiliated to the TUC, crowdfund, embarrass companies on social media, come up with ideas and strategies for publicity, break through atomisation and educate each other. If company management is being squeezed from both sides, be sensitive to their situation and get them on yours. Look at ways to reach non-unionised workers in small companies and find ways to overcome the issue of geographical distance and juggling jobs. The panel was keen for Unions to get involved in communities with action against racism and domestic abuse, good mental health policies, rent controls, decent housing and saving our NHS. We can encourage Unions to be more imaginative, more political, transparent and outward looking, to democratise and be less bureaucratic.
New forms of Unions are springing up like United Voices of the World. Foster Carers are unionising, there are Rent Unions and Pop-up Unions, and the IWW is expanding its reach. An audience member told us about Unite’s disabled members in a community branch playing a role in exposing the malpractice of Sports Direct. The panel referred to effective campaigns such as the recent success of Deliveroo workers with flying pickets, demonstrations and a wildcat strike. National Museum of Wales’ workers fought back against a £3K pay cut with continuous and ad hoc strikes, and immigrant cleaners at Wood Street won the London living wage by an all-out strike with UVW .
Should our work, our very lives, be based in a system which rewards managers and supervisors for being the mercenaries of organisational hierarchies in the name of ruthless profit-making? In addressing this, is concession bargaining in the best interests of workers if Unions can be handing victories to management through split workforces – i.e. those on decent contracts and those not? Should jobs come with gruesome societal and catastrophic environmental price-tags when we can run with practical, viable alternatives?
There was a call for Momentum to foster solidarity beyond the workplace, provide a space to connect the dots, be a link between community and Unions and encourage people to join them. Socialist programmes to build workplace solidarity and effective leadership are important. When Ken Loach spoke to #TWT2016, he highlighted the need for us all to share and tell our stories. As the working class, we have our story – let’s get it out there!
The Tory Government is fracking democracy and digging a grave for our NHS. We’re being privatised by corporate Union-busters like Sky and Virgin. Further anti Trade Union legislation is coming into law. So let’s connect what we have in common and come together to end austerity and corporate theft. Even in the event of a general strike, at some stage we go back to work and the question of who’s in charge remains – under whose control, theirs or ours? Each one of us can be a force for change in the collective that is where we live and work. Like with the Labour Party, this upsurge in grass roots energy is because when solidarity is banned it’s a political issue.
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