How relevant are the TUC and unions today?

On the march. David Jones / PA Archive

As the Trades Union Congress (TUC) meets in the city of Brighton for its 148th annual gathering, it faces, in one way or another, the same challenge that it has essentially had for the last 40 years. This is to increase union membership and then to wield the resources this gives in a powerful way. The aim: protect members’ interests in the face of hostile employers and governments.

The TUC is the major federation for organised labour in Britain and still comprises the overwhelming majority of unions and their memberships. Very few significant unions stand outside it. But the TUC is facing quite a few problems.

Membership has fallen from just over 12m in 1980 to 6.4m in 2005 and 5.8m in 2015. Of course, membership numbers are not the whole story. It is what is done with membership – or what members do themselves – that is equally, if not more, important. The most obvious measure of this is the resultant power from using their main weapon: striking.

The TUC has only ever organised one general strike in its long history – in 1926 to support the striking miners. The strike was not a success after it was called off after nine days and excluded many groups from participating. The next time the TUC called for a general strike was over the Conservative government’s Industrial Relations Act 1971. It did not need to call the strike as the government backed down before the appointed day.

With the arrival of Thatcherism in 1979, the TUC talked tough and promised in 1982 to organise a something akin to a general strike to oppose the new government’s anti-union legislation. Nothing came of this or the demand from certain unions for a general strike to support the striking miners during their epic battle in 1984-85.

Since the age of austerity beckoned after the financial crash of 2007-08, the TUC’s main mode of action has only been to call demonstrations and pass a motion in 2013 which mandated it to examine the legal and logistical challenges in mounting a general strike.

So at the times of greatest need, the TUC has not exactly stepped up to the plate nor covered itself in glory.

The challenge today

Today, the TUC and union movement in general face the challenge of organising in a world of work that has similarities to earlier years but with some fundamental differences. Work and employment still, as ever, take place under capitalism. But the way work is organised has radically shifted.

The “gig economy” is now the most obvious example of how the “proletariat” – with regular, secure, full-time employment – has increasingly been changed into a “precariat”, which is dependent upon insecure and irregular work.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in delivery companies in London using couriers and drivers to ferry documents and meals around the streets of the capital. These workers are not even offered “zero hour contracts” because they are not technically employed by the companies they carry out the work for. Instead, they are self-employed “independent contractors”.

With self-employment, the workers are not eligible for sick pay, holiday pay and have to pay their own national insurance. They also have to pay for their own means of transport and the cost of running this, as well as their means of communication (like mobile phones). They are not guaranteed a minimum level of work or a minimum level of earnings.

Being bold and assertive

This might offer some flexibility for some but for others it equates to unfair and exploitative work. And for those that want to protest their treatment, it has been a fledgling, tiny non-TUC union that has set the pace in standing up for their situation. The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), established in 2012, has quietly been winning higher and fairer payments at a series of courier companies in London, through a series of flashmob actions and social media campaigns.

The union has just 1,000 members, but it successfully mobilised them to fight a recent contract change by Deliveroo and shown what a bold and assertive minnow of a union could do in contrast to the more conservative, longstanding and bigger counterparts that form part of the TUC.

Gig economy workers are believed to be difficult to organise, as they work alone and are in competition with each other for work – so any compulsion to band together is undermined. Yet at Deliveroo the introduction of a new payment structure showed how a collective grievance could be turned into a springboard to successful collective action.

Deliveroo’s new proposed structure increased the amount paid to workers per delivery but it removed the hourly guaranteed earnings. Couriers saw this as an attempt to reduce their income. After six days of increasingly well reported and energetic protests outside the company’s London headquarters, Deliveroo agreed to only introduce the new payment structure in a limited number of pilot areas and to maintain the existing payment structure. The success of this collective action then inspired couriers at rival UberEATS in London to protest in a similar fashion when the company began to remove its bonus system of payments.

The couriers applied pressure on Deliveroo in the form of damage to its brand and reputation in the eyes of customers and investors through their social media activities. But it was the old-fashioned nature of collective action that halted and disrupted the operations of the business that was critical to explaining its success.

Solo operator. Môsieur J/flickr, CC BY

Traditional strike action requires giving notice to employers before taking place. But because Deliveroo workers are technically not employees, they can legally strike without giving any official notice – what’s traditionally known as a “wildcat strike” because it can take employers by surprise.

So while there is mileage in social media campaigns and protests (as practised by the IWGB, as well as the much bigger and older Unite and the GMB unions) and in changing employment law by taking cases to employment tribunals (as again the IWGB, Unite and the GMB are doing), only the IWGB stuck its neck out to make the seemingly impossible possible – mobilising self-employed workers, scarred by their insecurity, to fight for their rights in well-organised collective action.

This should be a lesson that is well studied by the TUC because it holds the seeds of what could reawaken organised labour. Ninety years on from the failed 1926 general strike, it is a lesson that needs to be learned and implemented quickly if the TUC is to re-establish itself as a strong and vibrant collective force for workers in Britain.