We need trade unions now more than ever

OULC member Lydia Parkes reflects on the recent strike action among UK hospitality workers and what this says about the future of our unions.

“From plough, from anvil, and from loom,
We kindle not war’s battle fires,
We come, our country’s rights to save,
By reason, union, justice, law.”

These words were written by George De Bosco Attwood in the hymn ‘The Gathering of the Unions’, now known as ‘The Song of Freedom’. The hymn is famously associated with the Tolpuddle Martyr George Loveless who hurriedly wrote down two of its stanzas, after being sentenced to penal transportation for forming the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers with five of his fellow workers in 1833 to defend their income from wage cuts.

The UK’s economy has moved on from the era of the domestic domination of the plough and loom. Today, the country’s largest employer is the NHS, while over three quarters of national income relies on the output of the services sector. While the nature of our work may differ, we are united with our predecessors who lived centuries ago by the rights that they fought for and that we endeavour to save. Increased wages to reflect the value of work, improved working conditions, bargaining power: these causes are as significant today as 200 years ago.

The Equal Pay Act of 1970, which was a result of female sewing-machinists striking at the Dagenham Ford factory in the previous year provides an example of the legacy and lasting relevance of trade unionism today. The strike inspired trade unionists to form the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women’s Equal Rights, leading to the Act being passed.

“Contrary to the opinion that young workers are apathetic about trade unionism, the joint strike demonstrated their capacity for solidarity.”

However, internationally, trade union density is in decline. According to the OECD, Scandinavian regions have the highest levels of workforce unionisation; but these levels, too, have declined. In Denmark in 2000, 74% of workers were in unions, falling to 67% by 2016. In the United Kingdom, union density in early 2018 was 23%, formed of 13.5% in the private sector and 52% in the public sector. This is a drop from 30% in 2000. The TUC has attributed this problem in the UK to a generational division, as less than 8% of 16-24 year-old workers are union members, compared to over 30% of workers aged 50 and over. Speculation may arise as to why this is the case. Are young people unaware of trade unions? Can it be attributed to rising individualism in our society? Has austerity demotivated workers from organising? Taken at face value, the statistics suggest a continual decline in trade unionism due to an apparent apathy among the younger generation. But recent events regarding young hospitality workers refute this conclusion.

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, wrote for openDemocracy UK in October 2018, arguing that the organisation of hospitality workers into trade unions is particularly difficult due to the restrictions of anti-union laws and the precarious employment that characterises the gig economy. Despite these factors, on the 19th to 21st of September 2018, hundreds of Uber Eats couriers spontaneously organised in reaction to pay cuts, blocking the roads outside of the company’s London headquarters. They demanded the cancellation of the ‘boost’ system of payment, which makes pay vary according to demand, and results in the company paying less than minimum wage to its workers. Instead, they called for a minimum of £5 per delivery and £1 per mile travelled while working in London. This strike demonstrated the role that messaging apps and social media may play in organising workers, as the spontaneous action was coordinated on WhatsApp in a matter of hours, and publicised on Twitter.

“Having a Labour government committed to socialist principles would mean that trade unions would have allies in the highest seats of power.”

Even more recently, fast food workers of McDonald’s, TGI Fridays, and JD Wetherspoon held a joint strike on 4th October 2018, organised through the trade unions Unite, and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). Their demands were a minimum hourly wage of £10 and union recognition. Uber Eats and Deliveroo couriers, who are united in the Industrial Workers of the World Couriers Network, struck in solidarity. Tactics like Solidarity strikes have been legally prohibited since the 1980s. Yet, due to trade union law not extending to ‘independent contractor’ gig workers such as couriers, they were able to utilise this method. Contrary to the opinion that young workers are apathetic about trade unionism, the joint strike demonstrated their capacity for solidarity.

Trade unions fight for their workers in other ways too; judicial changes are currently being sought for Deliveroo riders, aided by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). In arranging a High Court challenge to the ruling that they are self-employed, these workers have raised two important issues. Firstly, the legal definition of ‘self-employed’ cannot be adequately applied to companies that are structured like Deliveroo. Secondly, the rights of self-employed workers should be reassessed. The self-employed are not protected by employment law, illustrated by Deliveroo riders having to pay for their own method of transportation and being deprived of access to rights such as paid sick leave. As in-work poverty rises in the UK, young workers in trade unions are driving forward the cause for legal changes to provide more protection and security for workers.

While the impetus for change has come from below, the government can play a role in the revival of trade unionism in this country. Having a Labour government committed to socialist principles would mean that trade unions would have allies in the highest seats of power. Negotiation would become a more viable option to settle disputes. Restrictive labour laws such as the 2016 Trade Union Act (which imposed limitations on picketing and campaigning and levied more costs on unions) could also be reassessed to prioritise and serve the interests of workers and the public.

As the economy changes, we face new challenges concerning workers’ rights. Precarious employment is on the rise. But young workers, those who experience the real impact of the gig economy, are increasingly engaging with trade unionism to address these issues and negotiate better terms for workers. In July 2018, Jeremy Corbyn called for schools to teach children about workers’ rights and the trade union movement. They would reach adulthood and become workers with the awareness that their rights and liberties are a result of the struggles fought by previous generations, and that the fight to maintain and advance them is never over. Recent events prove that trade unionism is as relevant and necessary as ever, and that there is hope for its revival in the future.

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