1 September 2016
Some have written off trade unionism as a relic of a bygone age. But reports of its demise are premature, argues Jo Lateu, for a 21st-century revival has already begun.
by ImageZoo/Alamy Stock Photo
A cheer goes up every time a taxi driverhonks his horn in solidarity. Passers-by stop to sign our petition and ask questions. A couple of well-heeled women hurry towards the hotel entrance, averting their eyes from the cluster of hospitality workers waving flags and chanting: ‘What do we want? Fair tips and a union! When do we want it? Now!’
We’re here on a busy London street, as the evening rush hour gridlocks the city, to support Robert, a Hungarian waiter at the luxury five-star Melia hotel, who has been sacked. His crime? To question the restaurant’s unfair practice of sharing tips – on which waiters depend to top up their low wages – between senior managers as well as waiting staff.
Robert had joined the London Hotel Workers branch of Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, and through its support found the courage to speak out. There is a lot to speak out about, because the capital’s hotels and restaurants are getting away with murder, exploiting the fact that most hospitality workers are migrants, desperate for jobs and unaware of their rights. ‘Hotel workers in the Philippines have more collective bargaining rights than those in London,’ says an exasperated Dave Turnbull, Unite regional officer.
Over 1,000 kilometres away in Barcelona, undocumented street vendors from Senegal are also fighting for their rights. As illegal migrants they cannot join an established union, so they have come together to create one for themselves: the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes (Popular Union of Street Vendors). Its activity, concedes Clelia Goodchild, whose documentary film El peso de la manta features Barcelona’s street vendors, is chaotic, because it has no experience, no contacts and often fails to communicate with its members properly – but it is a start. And it has already had some success, with the city council recently offering five street vendors the opportunity to attend a fishing course, which will then lead to papers and a regular job.
Organizing and collective action – whether with the backing of a national union, like Robert, or the support of a handful of co-workers, like the Senegalese street vendors – is a must in the 21st-century fight-back against rapacious employers and neoliberal governments. But it is not easy. In many countries of the Global South, trade unionists put their lives on the line every day to fight injustice, and many are murdered.
Public-sector workers in Argentina staged a one-day walkout in February – 21,000 state employees had lost their jobs in the two months since President Mauricio Macri took office in December.
Matias Izaguirre/Le Pictorium/Alamy Stock Photo
The power of transnationals is increasing, thanks to free-trade agreements signed behind closed doors by governments either in cahoots with the companies or lacking the political clout or will to object. The globalization juggernaut, in which profit is king and to hell with the workers, is dragging down industries from manufacturing to healthcare in a race to the bottom: zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, privatization and sub-contracting are all weapons in the transnationals’ armoury. Previously hard-won workers’ rights – gains we in the West take so much for granted we barely register that they were fought for at all – are being shot to bits.
Though trade unions have been standing up for workers for nearly 200 years, it’s fair to say that they have been on a roller-coaster ride. There have been highs: winning an eight-hour day and a five-day week; the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, when employees’ rights were enshrined in law in the US and Britain. But there have also been lows. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher systematically dismantled trade unions in a full-scale attack on workers’ rights, as part of their neoliberal free-market agenda. Australia’s John Howard followed suit, introducing draconian legislation at the turn of this century which resulted in many unions losing half their membership.
Trade unions also have a proud history of international solidarity. In the 1860s, Lancashire cotton workers supported the unionists in the US Civil War. In 1997, dock workers in 27 countries struck for a day in solidarity with the Liverpool Dockers, who had been on strike for two years. But there have also been moments when corruption, poor leadership and infighting have risked bringing the whole movement into disrepute.
These days, the lows seem to outnumber the highs. Trade unions, it would appear, have their backs to the wall just when we need them most. Governments continue to pass anti-union laws: between 1982 and 2012, 200 restrictive labour laws were passed by federal and provincial governments in Canada, and after 9/11 the US used the ‘war on terror’ as an opportunity to deny many federal employees the right to unionize – threatening to invoke anti-terrorism laws to stop strikes.,
But all is not yet lost. After a period of introspection in the 1990s, when the battered and bruised Western trade unions mutated into little more than a mediation service between employer and employee, offering member benefits such as cheaper insurance on the side, the movement has begun organizing again. There is a new sense of urgency and optimism among many unionists, who have dusted themselves down and are ready to resume the fight. But which battles? And with which weapons?
David – or Goliath?
There is little doubt that the movement needs to adjust to a new reality. Just as the world of work has been transformed, so, too, must trade unions adopt new tactics in order to take the fight to the frontline. In recent decades, one method of shoring up worker power has been for smaller unions to join forces, creating ever-larger unions and federations. A century ago, for example, there were 1,300 unions in Britain; by 2005, there were just 226, with the biggest 11 sharing three-quarters of total membership. This route is still advocated by those who believe that there is power in numbers. It’s the Goliath option: bigger is better.
But another way has also emerged, via the example of grassroots social movements. Rebuilding trade unionism from the bottom up provides an opportunity to create smaller, more agile units. As David discovered, victory can be secured through a series of well-placed slingshots.
Advocates of this approach argue that power comes not from numbers, but from consciousness. Unions are wasting their time and money if they use their resources simply to recruit new members. What they should be doing is talking to workers and non-workers about local, national and global issues that affect everybody, and which are rooted in social, economic and environmental injustice. Unless workers believe that unions are relevant to them and their communities, they won’t join one or commit to paying their dues from their oft-meagre wages. So the first challenge is to educate – and that means talking politics.
This is nothing new for trade unions, which from the early days understood the importance of a working class educated in political matters. The GMB union in Britain contested school-board seats as early as the 1890s. Karl Marx, speaking to the International Workingmen’s Association 150 years ago, stated that it was the duty of the working classes ‘to master themselves the mysteries of international politics; to watch the diplomatic acts of their respective governments; to counteract them, if necessary, by all means in their power; to combine in simultaneous denunciations, and to vindicate the simple laws or morals of justice’.
Politics, however, is not always seen as a sexy subject and is frequently tarnished by the self-serving behaviour of politicians. The young, who have enough on their plate paying their rent and clearing their debts, are particularly hard to convince. ‘Young people don’t see much relevance in trade unions,’ explained one student at a political education event at Ruskin College in Oxford in June. ‘And they are as cynical about unions as they are about political parties.’ But with an ageing and declining membership, trade unions desperately need to reach young people; it is this generation who arguably most need union support.
Look at grassroots movements across the globe agitating for climate justice and democracy or against austerity, and it is evident that young people are engaged, and they do care about the future – their own, and the planet’s. So why are they turned off from what is, after all, the biggest social movement in the world?
Part of the problem is that workers in their teens and twenties may doubt their concerns will be taken seriously by unionists twice or three times their age. But there are other reasons, too. Phoebe, a young worker at McDonald’s and member of the Bakers’ Union, says that getting the opportunity to talk to her peers about unions is ‘almost impossible’. ‘It’s exhausting trying to recruit people,’ she explains. ‘We’re not even allowed to say the word “union” at work.’ Shift work and a high staff turnover don’t help. Yet Phoebe won’t give up. Having experienced sexual harassment by her manager, she says that ‘the union has given me a voice to speak out about these issues’.
'Young people are as cynical about unions as they are about political parties’
So the second challenge is for trade unions to meet young people where they are: out on the streets, at their places of recreation, and online.
New and emerging technologies offer an opportunity for today’s trade unions both to engage a younger audience and to increase international co-operation and solidarity. Social media is a cheap and quick way to mobilize and educate workers. In New York, an app has been developed by the Precarious Workforce Initiative with input from migrant workers to provide basic labour-rights information and enable workers safely to report wage theft and abusive employers.
News of victory in one country can travel quickly via the internet and social media, with workers taking inspiration from international successes in their own sector. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, the government recently passed a law banning zero-contract hours, thanks to pressure from Unite NZ, which backs workers in the hospitality sector. For Robert and his colleagues in London, such victories offer hope that their own struggle may not be in vain.
Infighting and image problems
While putting the world to rights, trade unions also need to work on their image. Simply put, they have a branding problem. They don’t get much media coverage, unless they have called out their members on strike, in which case they are usually portrayed as a nuisance and have to tread a fine line between raising awareness and keeping public opinion on their side (as the junior doctors succeeded in doing in Britain recently). Union leaders in the West often fail to reflect the membership – the ‘male, pale and stale’ stereotype of white, middle-aged men on union executives still holds true far too often, despite some efforts to address the problem. Workers living with disabilities, or those from ethnic minorities or the LGBT community, often struggle to find anyone from their background on the executive that purports to represent them.
Infighting within and between unions has also taken off some of the shine. Between 2008 and 2010, unions in the US spent $140 million fighting over structure, membership, organizing strategies and leadership. So busy bickering were they that they missed an auspicious moment in history – Barack Obama entering the White House – when a concerted, joint effort could have made a real difference to workers’ rights. And discrimination is still rife within unions. According to The Center for Union Facts, US labour unions faced 13,815 charges of abuse of equal-opportunity rights in the first decade of this century, including 4,248 related to race and 3,386 related to age.
Time to listen
From the Seattle anti-globalization protests to the Occupy movement, and from the Arab Spring uprisings to the climate-justice demonstrations at the UN talks, a new generation has been mobilizing from the grassroots – trade unions would do well to listen to their experiences.
‘We’re worth it!’ Members of the German ver.di trade union make a noise ahead of wage negotiations in April.
dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo
A new form of activism is moving into the space between grassroots campaigning and traditional trade unionism. It has taken off recently in North America and is now spreading to other Western nations, but it has its roots in the Majority World, where workers have for decades been on the frontline against the sort of political, social and economic injustice not seen in the West for centuries (though now beginning to make a reappearance). Many trade unions in the Global South were born of the struggle against colonialism, slavery or apartheid. Their current fight against global capital means they are well placed to instruct Western trade unions on how to organize, particularly in strategic sectors such as shipping and logistics. They are also bearing the brunt of climate change, a subject that trade unions in the Global North have been studiously ignoring for years, especially those representing workers in the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries. But a just transition to green jobs is finally being addressed.
In the West, early trade unions were active in social and community issues. Before the advent of the welfare state, British unions helped provide education, housing and healthcare for workers and their families. In the Global South today, trade unions have a similarly broad approach, seeing their members as ‘whole people’ and tackling issues in and out of the workplace. They may not even call themselves trade unions: the Honduran women’s collective CODEMUH, for example, refuses to define itself in this way because its focus is women’s issues in their entirety, not just women’s workplace issues.
Being the change
There is a new sense of urgency and optimism among many unionists, who have dusted themselves down and are ready to resume the fight
If the trade union movement is to flourish in the 21st century, it must draw on the best of its traditions and history but also discard dated beliefs and outmoded structures. This means learning from grassroots social movements and joining forces with them on issues of mutual concern. It means engaging in local issues of importance to workers and non-workers, while at the same time putting collective pressure on governments and corporations through targeted, international campaigns. It means overcoming its own problems of corruption and power imbalance while also addressing these same issues in our global economic system. It means being a ‘political watchdog, not a political lapdog’, and it means believing that another world is still possible.
Robert’s story has a happy ending. Following pressure from the London Hotel Workers, Melia agreed to give him his job back, and to enter into talks about workplace union recognition. Though he will need courage to return to work and face his bosses, for Robert, having the backing of a powerful union has made all the difference.
We know what we’re against. But what are we for?
Trade unions defend workers against the worst excesses of a free-trade neoliberal global economy. But why stop there? One alliance from the Global South is pushing for a fairer economic world order.
As the forces of globalization squeeze labour rights around the world, resistance cannot stay localized. That was the internationalist vision of the Southern Initiative on Globalization and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR), begun in the 1990s by South African trade unionists who dreamed of a new style of democratic trade unionism.
As it grew (SIGTUR now has affiliates in 35 countries across four continents), its leaders began to realize that solidarity actions across the shipping and logistics sectors could seriously disrupt trade in the just-in-time global economy.
Similarly, solidarity between employees from different countries working for the same transnationals led to a cross-fertilization of ideas and more fighting power. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions, for example, has worked closely with the Korean Council of Trade Unions to block attempts by the Hyundai Motor Corporation in both countries to put its employees on casual contracts.
Challenging the worldwide market system requires an analysis of its power structures, contradictions and weaknesses. But on its own this isn’t enough. SIGTUR realized it needed to focus on the alternatives as well.
Its participating unions had fought long and hard against the current economic system without articulating what they were struggling for. So in 2010 it established a Futures Commission to develop a grassroots alternative to neoliberalism.
The commission, which met most recently in March, is considering such issues as tax justice; moving from free trade to fair trade; transformation of the public sector; and a just transition from fossil-fuel capitalism. First steps in a long march to freedom from the tyranny of the free market.