Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
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Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
The global economic crash of 2008 has created a jobs market shaped like an hour glass with a shrinking number of well paid secure jobs at the top, a squeezed middle income group and an expanding base of low pay, zero or tiny hours, agency and self employed jobs at the bottom. Our members and potential members jobs are hit with a triple whammy of Austerity, Automation and Precarious Working. To continue to grow our unions, we need to better understand why this is happening, how this process will affect our members lives and then evolve and adapt our organising tactics in anticipation of changes to come.
Our primary target for growth will continue to be workers in permanent jobs in industries where trade unions already have a presence and whose jobs and hours are threatened by this process. Unions need to continue to do better in building workplace membership through re-building collective bargaining. Secondly and in order to better understand the challenges we will face over the next decade we will target todays precarious workers in new or long standing industries.
In the last 10 years we have grown our unions from the bottom up in both good and bad economic times and under Tory, Coalition and Labour Governments. We can and will adapt to more than meet the challenge and opportunities of the “Hour Glass” economy and secure our long term future whatever Governments, employers and the economy throw at us.
Our future size and strength as a movement is a matter of choice not chance
The emerging “Hour Glass” economy – a broken labour market.
The overall effect of Austerity, Automation and Precarious work is of two emerging types of jobs. Firstly a shrinking “core” group with standard 40 hour a week contracts, often working well over 50 hours a week, with residual pensions, and set hourly pay. And a second growing group where technology creates an on demand working culture dominated by their smart phone of precarious, low paid, zero hours, tiny hours, agency, self employed jobs.
Todays precarious jobs are not all new jobs created by new employers. Many full time permanent jobs in the public and private sectors have been converted to precarious work. Far from working too many hours, these workers often cant get enough hours and get locked into erratic work patterns trapped in working poverty and dependent on in work benefits, tax credits and loans. They often have multiple employers and workplaces and for them the smartphone is the basis of securing and keeping work and managing in work benefits and loan companies. Some estimate the precariat to be at least 8 million strong today.
Austerity, Automation and Precarious Work squeezes jobs out of the middle of the jobs market and forces most of them to the bottom. This creates a key feature of the Hour Glass economy – the lack of previous mobility from jobs at the bottom end to jobs at the top through apprenticeships and in work vocational training – enhancing the opportunities for unions to grow through offering in work and outside work training opportunities. The Hour Glass economy is characterised in the UK today as follows:
Official ONS survey of employers up from 180,000 in 1997 and still climbing.(7)
This process has been developing for many years, but has accelerated greatly since 2008. As long ago as 2003 for example economists suggested the labour market was dividing between low paid zero hours insecure “McJobs” and highly paid, permanent “MacJobs”. The pace of change is increasing and can no longer be ignored by unions with large groups of members working in the shrinking middle of the economy. (12)
The race to the bottom for working people’s wages and conditions has become the dominant trend for our members and under-employment has begun to bed in as an equally significant factor as unemployment for us to tackle in the UK politically, industrially and socially for the first time. It is clear that for many employers work can only be made to pay in this economy with massive public subsidy and the labour market is broken and failing our members and our economy.
In the old world of work jobs were classed as full time, part time or occasionally temporary. And self employment meant running a business. These terms are less useful in an economy moving towards multiple employer, multiple workplace, task based jobs beyond the traditional employment contract. Our benefits system is similarly out of date and creaking based as it is on the assumption that people were either in full time work or unemployed – George Osbornes’ “Shirkers” and “Strivers”. Many precarious workers are in reality trapped by Amazon and others in a revolving door between in work and out of work benefits.
We have two parallel workforces and they need different approaches and union appeals to organise collective solutions to the exploitation they face. One size will not fit all and we need to create the tools to be flexible and grow in both parts of the Hour Glass Labour Market but first and foremost with workers facing Austerity, Automation and Precarious working in the “old” economy right now.
The opportunities that Austerity, Automation and Precarious Working offer for union growth in the next 10 years.
The UK population has grown by 15 million in the previous 5 years increasing demand for what economist now call the “Urban Services” sector and where a number of unions currently organise: Care Homes, utilities, commercial services, public administration, education, logistics, health, leisure, catering, retail, cleaning, transport and so on. A large proportion of current union members work in these “Urban Services” and are spread across the public, private and privatised sectors. The distinctions between “public” and “private” sector jobs and terms and conditions are disappearing for our members as Urban Services employers engage in a race to the bottom at their expense – making private sector pay and conditions the new benchmark for all.
Many of the jobs union members currently do and the jobs where we have successfully built our unions in recent years are vulnerable to the effects of Austerity, Automation and Precarious Working. Jobs in Schools, Hospitals, Care Homes, Utilities, Town Halls, call centres and shops are increasingly vulnerable to all three attacks.
We know that trade unions are not built as a result of the gratitude potential members feel for our past achievements – but by developing and offering credible solutions to the problems and threats people feel right now to their jobs and livelihoods. We will continue to have great opportunities to build our membership as more and more working people face these threats – but we need to better understand how these factors work to develop our organising strategy for the future.
Few economic forecasters expect the wider economy or the public finances to improve significantly between 2016 and 2020. The belt tightening climate of “austerity” will continue to hit union members in two ways:
It was not investing in our schools workforce or paying health workers properly that collapsed our economy in 2008 but the blind pursuit of shareholder value and stock market results by the private sector inflated the bubble that when it burst triggered the initial banking crisis. The obsession of Governments with achieving unsustainable GDP growth at all costs meant they responded by making a private sector crisis a public sector catastrophe – nationalising the losses of the failed banks but privatising the gains. Today most experts expect the State to continue its retreat from public services through rolling privatisation programmes in the NHS, Local Government mergers such as One Barnet and converting schools to Academies.
Austerity has already lead to a sharp decline in union membership in local government which has been more than matched however by membership growth in Academies as we respond to the privatisation of schools by organising the workforce. It is likely that after an initial explosion in the number of Multi Academy Trusts in the next few years, as with street cleansing and refuse contracts during the 1980’s and 1990’s the number will shrink to possibly 5 or 6 major schools companies. But at the same time some unions estimate that the schools workforce could reduce from around 750,000 to 375,000 by 2025 as a result of forced Academisation. To better engage potential members in these services and organise them we will need to review how we can better formulate pay claims across Public Services, better consult all our members in a dialogue about pay and earnings and mobilise members to get more closely involved in union pay and job protection campaigns and ballots.
In the fast growing privatised sector in both Local Government, Care and the NHS union members now operate in 2, 3 or even 4 tier workforces, eroding the concept of a rate for the job and triggering us to organise in different ways through cross contract forums and stewards combines.
Trade union members and potential members in these jobs want and need the protection we can offer and in most of these areas we already have the key ingredients of a successful organising campaign – Access to talk to workers, Issues to mobilise them around and the Momentum provided by existing collective bargaining agreements and strong union Branches.
Our organising work will be enhanced further by the fact that legal protections through Employment Tribunals for working people affected who are not union members are fast disappearing beyond their reach. The EU model of the Social Europe which previously offered some regulations and protection are under potential threat as a result of the Brexit vote but will be further eroded whatever the result of our exit negotiations by the introduction of global trade deals such as TTIP and TISA, threats to TUPE and the wide use of the Swedish Derogation for agency workers. We can expect employers to take pre-emptive steps to challenge the key EU Directives our members rely on prior to negotiations completing. Organising to fight back within the union is an increasingly credible and viable proposal for these workers and the organising approach remains a sound basis to reach out and organise.
In the private sector key businesses continue to face long term reductions in profits as money in their customers pockets becomes tighter. In the key union growth area of retail for example profits are down from 8 pence in the pound in 2007 to 5 pence in the pound in 2016(13) and major retail, distribution and commercial services employers are likely to seek to further recover these losses through attacks on our members pay and conditions.
Since the economic crash our members pockets and our public finances have been being heavily raided by the private sector as businesses seek four new and aggressive ways to maintain profits in this deflationary environment – industrial scale tax avoidance, reducing jobs through company mergers to secure market share, cutting costs through embracing automation and digital business and shifting to publicly subsidised precarious employment models to cut labour costs.
As the effects of austerity continue to bite into the public, private and privatised sector, thousands of union members working patterns, employers and even workplaces are in as much danger of becoming flexible as their wages and hours and we must adopt equally flexible organising approaches to respond. Strongly flexible and mobile union and community networks and organisation will be ever more relevant to members and potential members looking to organise.
Over the next 5 years the vast leaps being made in technology threaten union members in a number of specific sectors: in traditional retail jobs as click and collect and self check out takes off, in logistics and distribution through direct automation, in manufacturing jobs as direct digital production develops from “3D printing” and even in service and admin jobs such as call handling where work can now often now be computerised. To illustrate the pace of change In May 2016 ADIDAS launched its first pair of trainers made entirely by machines.
In many workplaces faced with these effects unions have collective bargaining agreements and existing foundations of membership and organisation. Our traditional workplace and employer focussed industrial and bargaining approach will continue to assist us to get the best deal possible for our members through increasing union density and building organisation. It is essential for however that we show an understanding of and can explain to our members and potential members the size and scale of the automation in process and how strong union workplace organisation can protect them.
Hundreds of thousands of workers will be affected in workplaces where unions have access and collective bargaining rights- but who are not yet trade union members. Significant opportunities for membership growth will present themselves through bargaining to reduce the impact on jobs, bargaining for re-skilling and bargaining for transition arrangements for our members to access the new jobs that will be created.
Current trade union members terms and conditions, whether they work in the Public, Private or Privatised sectors, are being heavily influenced by the emerging labour market at the edges of our society where the zero hours, precarious and flexible working practices of McDonalds, Amazon and Uber are the norm. We call this the “Uberisation” of our members jobs and it provides sound opportunities to grow our unions by mobilising working people to join their union and get active to defend themselves in new ways.
To understand how this will impact on trade union members and provide organising opportunities, it is useful to have a sense of the major social and economic changes technology is bringing into our world and how new business are forming to take advantage. These business models are not yet a dominant part of our economy but point the way to how the world of work may change for our existing and potential members in traditional jobs over the next 10 years – more networked, home based, short term jobs secured through smart phones for some and low paid temporary zero hours jobs for traditional employers for others.
Technological advances that effectively make business information free and readily available to everyone encourages businesses to find cheaper ways of selling their goods to customers , helping drive the move to precarious working for new and existing jobs – as in self service checkouts in supermarkets and online retail in general. Organisations that sell information to a public that now expects to secure it for free such as news outlets, iTunes, and software developers are struggling to adapt as are agencies that seek to charge customers a fee for finding them workers, sending a cab, or selling their house. A union organising model that focusses on providing personal financial and legal services and granting access to information on employment rights for a monthly fee for example is unlikely to work well in this environment.
Traditional “middle men” organisations such as Travel Agencies , Employment Agencies, Letting Agencies and Estate Agencies, alongside mini cab offices, already feel a bit last century as direct on line buying of their products develops on free to use platforms on smartphones. Our High Streets are rapidly becoming dominated by empty pubs and shops or places pushing cheap labour, expensive loans and second hand clothes.
The future of the High Street is likely to be click and collect stores at best and Amazons business model has effectively ended the concept of paying for “post and packaging” when ordering goods online. The culture of openly sharing products, services and information through on line networks for free is likely to be more deeply embedded by 2020.
At the outer reaches a brand new economy of digital work is building where people earn their main incomes from offering personal and professional services including driving and office work through the network apps of, Uber, Deliveroo, Upwork and TaskRabbit, evolving the basic idea of the employer/worker relationship to one of owner/earner. Even if not earning their income through these new ways it is estimated that half the workforce by 2020 will have grown up in the mobile digital age – heavily influencing how they expect to interact with the world of work including trade unions.
This new economy does not provide major opportunities to build trade unions right now sufficient to shift organising resources immediately. But the technology it uses (as specific examples digital shift rostering and digital performance management) and the cultures, expectations and aspirations it creates and builds upon will begin to change the wider world of work over time. As only one example home based working through employer digital networks has expanded deeply into public service jobs from its base in Banking and City Financial institutions and has grown from 2.3 million in 1997 to 3.5 million in 2012.(18)
Some of the businesses that have most strongly adopted these Human Resources policies are also these most strongly attacked by campaigners for their tax evasion polices. We have argued that Amazon, Sports Direct, Next and many others are both wage dodgers and tax dodgers and that they in truth rely on a massive hidden subsidy from the taxpayers in the form of tax credits and in work benefits for their low paid staff. They know they can keep working hours and wages low because the benefits system will step in to help with rent and living costs.
Government moves to reduce the in work benefits bill such as with the introduction of the National “Living Wage” of £7.20 have created strong opportunities to build unions through union living wage campaigns around £10 an hour as some employers such as Wilkos seek to recover the costs through removing premium payments for Sunday working
The next section of the report sets out experiences, both positive and negative of organising around the hour glass economy in recent years.
Delivering sustainable trade union growth in the emerging labour market.
The organising agenda and approach to union building
The organising approach to union growth is a set of policies rooted in some of the longest standing organising and industrial traditions of the movement and has helped many unions to reverse decline and grow over the previous 20 years. It recognises that unions can only be built from the bottom up It now faces a new external challenge with a rapidly changing economy and jobs market but its core principles are robust and can be flexible enough for us to grow in this new environment.
Organisers recognise that successful organising work tends to focus on who or what the members and potential members identify with – often their employer or their workplace for people in stable permanent work. However in todays jobs market many members can expect to hold 10 to 20 jobs in their working lives and a growing number can expect to hold many more – and 2 or 3 jobs at once.
For these members an industrial and organising approach that focusses only on securing bargaining and regular pay deals with a single employer or workplace is less attractive than one seeking to build power from the bottom up across an entire occupational group or sector. It is clear from our sectoral and occupational organising work and disputes in NHS contractors as one example that more emphasis should be put on the principles of self organisation and networks for these workers.
Organisers set out the 5 key principles for effective workplace organising: Being in regular Contact with all members and potential members affected, having clear Campaign goals and stances, ensuring our stance on the issues workers face is Credible, that we Communicate and consult well with all workers affected and that we Commit to building power with the members involved over the long term. These principles hold good for workplace organisation today but can be applied flexibly to help workers organise who have a looser connection to their employer and workplace.
Uber, Amazon, ASOS, Net-a-Porter will not provide the opportunity to achieve sustainable membership growth in and of themselves in the immediate term. But if we don’t push unions into the growing “Uberised” workforce to any great extent over the next 10 years our fears will grow that we may well be drinking from a shrinking water hole.
In the medium term and to protect our members facing precarious work today, we must assess how better to reach out to the peripheral workforce to build new forms of collectivism with them. This may mean new services and offers, new organising tactics and new support for individual members to attract them into membership initially and give them the tools to build collective power in a way that seems realistic and credible to these workers. This often means organising precarious workers through networks outside of the workplace focussing on building power through small gains to build more slowly to formal recognition and collective bargaining
UNION.NET – An emerging organising model for the emerging labour market
The trade union movement has organised whole workforces outside of the workplace using a combination of community organised networks and digital networks, built a sense of collective self organisation and won results alongside peripatetic ambulance staff, self employed cab drivers, tattoo artists and entertainment workers; in food production and logistics.
This section sets out the lessons learned from our successes and failures into a coherent set of policies that allow us to evolve our organising approach to be credible to workers facing new realities. We need to know more about what working life is like for these workers and how they think unions can help them organise.
Organising Issues for Precarious workers
The following is based on the findings of surveys conducted by unions of low paid and precarious workers and other research conducted into the reasons workers in precarious jobs would want to organise unions. The research is clear – precarious workers want to organise and support unions but need new approaches and union structures to encourage them to do so
the exploitation they face while at work – soaring rents, childcare costs and debt repayments made worse by too few hours and an unresponsive benefit system with tapers designed more for the core labour market. For these workers the workplace is no longer the sole or even the main place where they feel the exploitation capitalism dishes out.
Bob Crow famously attacked the emerging notion of a “flexible labour market” some 20 years ago by
pointing out that all it produced was flexible wages – and rents weren’t flexible, nor gas bills nor shopping bills. What was a good political line to ridicule the idea that you could build a successful economy on a precarious work model is now one of the biggest social, political and economic issues of the present day as we replace the old battle lines around unemployment with those around under-employment. We need to show an understanding of these issues in the offer we make these workers to be credible to them as potential members.
UNION.Net – Networked Organising for Precarious Workers
Further Research undertaken by Essential Media Communications for GMB and by German, Australian trade unions and the Greater London Assembly has asked precarious workers themselves the question: “What do precarious workers want from trade unions to help them organise?” and found:
Overall these workers exist in a failing labour market that benefits only their employers. UNIONS.Net attempts to help them find ways to make this labour market work better for them through new organising methods and networks aimed at collectively undermining the bullying, secrecy, exploitation and normalisation of a no rights environment
The following initial set of possible new union tactics and services to organise precarious workers flow from the analysis above and on what we know works from our own experiences. Changing our approach will not be a simple exercise and many other unions across the world are starting to address the issues Further debate and wider input will no doubt produce more and better suggestions. A number of these ideas are fresh but others are being tried and tested by unions in Europe and beyond. These tools are designed to be organising tools deployed for members to use in specific campaigns rather than open access for all members or the public.
Ideas and Recommendations:
Information Networks – using their own smart phones and a Union provided platform or App for members to share information in real time across specific shifts, work sites, employers and sectors in the peripheral labour market on hourly wage rates, shift patterns, contracted hours, actual hours worked and so on… as a precursor to making individual bargaining collective. Top down pay data from the LRD is not rapid enough but should be shared openly on such platforms by unions to trigger real time information networking. Sharing information with each other as members will better equip our members to bargain for shifts and build basic solidarity. This is imagined as a members only organising tool deployed by regional organisers or Union Branches, tailored for specific organising targets rather than an all member App.
UnionActive – a digital and social media based learning package to equip members who cannot
access formal trade union courses with basic information and skills on union building, negotiating wages and hours and employment rights. Providing “How to” guides supplemented by e-seminars, moderated Q+A sessions and podcasts to build self supporting networks – and where possible meetings and discussion groups of the most committed, involving Branches as appropriate
MyUnion – a digital platform for members to rate their job, tell their stories and advise others of jobs they hear about. As a self organised network with no input from their union beyond reactive moderation this network would be free of employment agency rules and liabilities. Unions could research and publish on MyUnion the hourly rate of profit per worker each targeted business is generating.
Union Combines and Precarious Workers Networks – work undertaken already shows the potential power that can be built through sectoral networks comparing pay and hours across employers in the same sector – particularly in care, retail, distribution and Public Services contractors. These are physical organising meetings but could be enhanced by digital platforms. Working with sectoral or general Branches where appropriate to connect members with the local union.
New Officer and Branch Training:
Benefits and Debt Advice Networks – a set of information resources, training and advice for officials on the implications of Universal Credit tapers for their bargaining and organising work with advice of third party agencies to refer members to. Development of self organised local support networks of member experts through Branches.
Basic Language support and training – to engage key migrant communities in the precariat at an initial level of greeting and introduction.
Union Family – although not all precarious workers are young workers by any means, a proportion are and discussions have already started about developing basic advice services for family of current members entering the labour market. Run through Branches, this potentially could help us find ways in to the peripheral workforce.
Union Credit Unions – External research points to large numbers of precarious workers living in constant debt swapping and negotiations with a range of loan companies. With relaxations in the credit union rules around defining a “community of interest” Credit Unions time may have come and should be re-assessed.
UnionCampaigns – as set out in the GMB/CLASS 2014 pamphlet How Unions Can Make Work Pay, rent, housing, childcare etc.. are now core trade union issues having a direct impact on the earnings particularly of our members in precarious employment. We should bring campaigns that affect most of our members such as for £10 Now, A Living Rent, Living Hours and Childcare costs closer to the centre of our operation and invite members in precarious jobs to get involved – positioning ourselves at the heart of this activity. At the same time issues and debates such as those around Citizens Income are coming out of the fringe and into the mainstream debate. We can begin to discuss them as a means to show we are looking forward and seeking to re-model the economy – not trying to recreate the world of the 1970’s
Union Communications – a revised communication strategy that focusses on communicating relevant sectoral information to activists and members relevant to their sector digitally or by magazine in preference to the national magazine. This would include the development of more integrated digital architecture and more open use of social media to promote the new Apps and networks proposed in this Special Report. Our public face should fit in with the perceptions and identities of our members similar to the series of Union@xxxxxx publications and newsletters produced in target industries over recent years. Many employers of precarious workers are highly sensitive about their brand image and we should continue to use our media and communications work as an organising tool to secure access to organise and secure gains for our members.
Union Organising Centres – discussions should start about how our Branches can better use our network of union offices as union organising centres within local communities to assist in the development of sectoral networks across employers.
Union Membership rates for precarious workers – In general membership rates charged by unions for members joining in precarious work tend to reflect their contracted hours of work rather than the hours they may work in any one week. This is a pragmatic solution to the ultra flexible jobs market
In response to the crash and the crisis that followed private sector and Government policy has been to tear up as much employment protection as they can get away with. Some years ago Frank Cousins famously said: “if there is going to be a free for all in the labour market as public policy then society must expect that organised union members will demand and insist on being part of the “all”.
Traditional organising tactics and strategies and UNION.NET working side by side provide the tools to do just that
Face to face consultations with ACTU and VerDi, New Economics Foundation, Royal Society, TUC Organising Department, Resolution Foundation, Labour Party and New Economy Organiser Network
Publications: GMB and CLASS How Unions Can Make Work Pay 2014
British Retail Consortium “Retail 2020 Fewer but better jobs” February 2016
TUC “Tracking the labour market recovery” January 2016
Paul Mason “Post Capitalism – a guide to our future”
Chris Walton and Erik Locke – “The case for change. A place for unions in modern
Australia” January 2016
UNIEuropa and University of Hertfordshire – “Crowd Working Survey” February 2016
GLA Economy Committee – “The London Economy” January 2016
UK Commission on Employment and Skills – “Working Futures” Report April 2016
Essential Media Communications Five Point Plan for Working People GMB 2015
Australia” January 2016
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