What are unions doing to organise precarious workers?

More than any other union, large or small, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has led the way on fighting bogus self-employment and precarious employment amongst cleaners, couriers and drivers. It has used legal means like Employment Tribunal applications as well as collective actions and social media campaigns. 

But it has not been alone in doing this. Its small sister unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), United Voices of the World (UVW) and Cleaners’ and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU) have also made considerable headway in successfully fighting for the rights of precarious workers. The IWW has c.1,200 members while the IWGB has c.1,000 members, the UVW c.300 and the CAIWU c.700 members.

As small, under-resourced unions, this raises the question: why have they been able to do so much with so little compared to their much bigger and better resourced counterparts? To answer this question, raises other questions like:

  • Are the longstanding unions either too general ad diverse or too narrow and specific in their memberships to prioritise organising these precarious workers?
  • Are these precarious workers are too expensive and resource intensive for these larger unions (with their greater overheads) to organise?
  • Are the smaller unions better at doing so because they are necessarily more grass root- and activist-based and more democratic, participative and self-reliant than the larger ones?
  • Are the smaller unions more authentic because they are small and closer to their members?

This article can do no more than raise these questions and point to some of the salient information needed to answer them.

First, larger unions have sought to organise precarious workers. For example, the GMB is organising in Addison Lee, Amazon, ASOS, Hermes and Uber and amongst foster carers, and Unite in Sports Direct, and in hotels and restaurants. Like the IWGB, both GMB and Unite have used individual Employment Tribunal applications to try to establish collective precedents to benefit other members and workers in these types of so-called ‘gig’ companies. They have also used mainstream and social media campaigns. So there is some overlap and duplication between the larger and smaller newer unions in methods, if not also outright competition.

Second, there are examples of new approaches being adopted by larger unions and their organisations that are more redolent of the smaller unions. Among these are the STUC’s Better than Zero, Unite’s Fair Tips and BFAWU’s Fast Food Rights campaigns.

Third, it may be thought that the smaller unions are more nimble and fast acting simply because they are smaller and concentrated in fewer areas (primarily London). Moreover, what may bind them together is not just anger against the employers but also previous experience of other unions (both large and small) so that the common identity they hold is tighter and more pervasive.

Lastly, and conversely, as democratic organisations, it is maybe natural than larger unions take longer to agree policies and implement them. Moreover, they may be in the habit of using full-time officers to carry out major tasks because they have these officers to hand (while the smaller unions do not).

Within the union movement, a productive debate needs to be undertaken on these issues so that unions can learn from one another to the benefit of all their members.

  • Gregor Gall is Professor of Industrial Relations at Bradford University

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *