I belong to a generation that has been told there is no other choice other than to be flexible in the labour market. It means being flexible about where you go to work, when you go to work, and about what work you are going to do. For many of us, the idea of a long-term employment contract in a company where there is the possibility to progress belongs to another time.
This is a major challenge for one of our fundamental human rights: the right of workers to collectively bargain for better conditions. In most countries, labour law protects workers who take industrial action from disciplinary action – provided they follow the right procedure on balloting, giving notice to employers and so forth.
Unless you are an employee, however, there is no such protection. In this respect, the likes of Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders are in a grey area. If they take industrial action, they face being removed from the platform that pays them. For many in the so-called gig economy it’s not even clear who their actual employer might be, since they give their labour to numerous different ones at the same time.
Most trade unions in Europe have been slow to wake up to this problem. They still tend to be in the narrow position of defending the specific interests of their members, which means employees. In effect, they close doors to workers that don’t fit in the old boxes. This may even be contributing to the fact that their membership has fallen to the lowest levels since the war. In this brave new world, what should they be doing differently?
UK trade union membership
Future of collective action
In the UK at least, there is the prospect of some workers in the gig economy gaining legal protection to bargain collectively after Uber taxi drivers won a landmark employee tribunal case in 2016. If an appeal hearing in the autumn goes the same way, workers like these will become employees under the law.
Even then, it doesn’t change the basic issue. Other countries may not follow the UK’s lead on what constitutes an employee; and the speed at which employment is changing may well mean that the ruling becomes obsolete as new types of working arrangements come to the fore. In all likelihood, non-employees are here to stay.
Many trade unions therefore need to rethink who they serve. Admittedly not all of them focus on employees – for example, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain was behind recent threats of strike action by Deliveroo workers. But making more provision for non-employees is only half the battle. Trade unions also have to develop protest strategies that assume that more and more workers will not be protected by labour laws.
This was a hot topic at the recent International Conference of Europeanists in Glasgow. One speaker pointed out that trade unions’ power of bargaining has been weakened by the recent national legal reforms on collective bargaining in Europe, signalling the need for a new approach. Another argued that workers who don’t fit in the traditional system of representation might need to organise collectively at a bigger scale – crossing national boundaries if necessary.
I want to make a couple of different suggestions. One is that trade unions should make it easier for workers to organise and communicate outside of where they work. Why not, for example, create spaces where the likes of Deliveroo riders could share and exchange openly about their concerns and working conditions – online if necessary?
Second, when dealing with non-employees, traditional forms of collective expression such as strikes are not suitable. Instead, there is a need for trade unions to look to empower workers without placing them in a situation where they could be disciplined or dismissed by their employers. The point of pressure has to be shifted somewhere else – to consumers.
Suppose for example Deliveroo riders were struggling to negotiate better work conditions. Trade unions could call on consumers via social media not to use Deliveroo during a certain period. Just like with a strike, this has the potential to hurt the company’s profits. When the workers have secured an improvement that is considered suitable, the trade union could instruct consumers to start using the platform again.
Of course, this system would only work if it is supported by enough consumers. But in an era where Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn can secure 40% of the vote in the UK election on a left-wing platform, this could well be possible if trade unions modernised the way they use their mobilisation skills.
By using social media to inform consumers and make them more aware of their responsibilities towards workers, it could be the start of an exciting trade unions revival. If they can reinvent themselves to recognise how employment has changed in the 21st century, they could become the lynchpins in a big societal movement where everyone who wants to play a role can do so.