Workers need unions now, more than ever. The irony is that the workers who need unions the most are the ones least likely to be members.

Members of the Swiss union Unia demonstrate the unity is strength.

Time to organise!

Productivity – and profit for the bosses – has soared since the 1970s. Wages have stagnated. In the West, we have an economy that relies on consumption – but workers aren’t paid enough to be able to buy the products they produce. Capital gets around this classic contradiction by encouraging people to take out debt.

In the West, union membership has been in decline since the early 1980s. This is a consequence both of direct attacks – Thatcher’s attack on the miners, and Reagan’s defeat of the air traffic controllers – and of a changing employment environment.

In order to undermine and bypass unions, labour law has been made more restrictive, and contracts of employment changed to become more “flexible”. Most of the media presents this as “inevitable”, “modern” and “necessary for competition”.

It is, of course, a race to the bottom which also undermines the basis of our economy. The corporations are making plenty of money, and they need to pay us more. It’s up to us to make them do it.

The rise of productivity (value created by workers) compared to the compensation paid to workers,

The rise of productivity (value created by workers) compared to the compensation paid to workers

The typical union member is now older – certainly over 40 – and in the public sector, and in those few parts of skilled manufacturing and transport that still exist. Sometimes it seems as if these are the people who need unions least: they typically have reasonable terms and conditions, and work for organisations that have established HR processes more sophisticated than blatant favouritism.

At the other end of the economy we have the precariat, the people without fixed terms and conditions, whose work is determined at the whim of a boss or manager. Precarious work has been the norm in construction, catering and retail for some time, but it’s spreading into other industries and undermining conditions everywhere. For instance, Higher Education has seen an explosion of zero hours and fixed term contracts.

Precarious workers tend to be disproportionately young, female and immigrant. They are the migrant workers who clean hotels and offices, the young people with expensive degrees who work in bars and coffee shops, the unpaid interns, the people on zero hours contracts, the ones stacking shelves for free at Poundland as part of workfare, the early career academics desperately trying to publish articles.

Many of these workers are isolated, in small workplaces, working unsociable shifts, having to compete with each other to get enough work to live on.

These are the people who need unions the most. And yet they are the most poorly organised. Why is that?

The answer is that they are, structurally, very difficult to organise. Their employment conditions are deliberately created to make organising difficult. And today’s unions just don’t have the resources to put into organising these workplaces effectively. Unions know they need to reach out to these workers, and they invest considerable resources into organising. It’s effective too: despite massive job losses in unionised industries, unions in the UK are recruiting and putting on members. There is a net growth in union membership.

However, unions don’t have the resources to organise everywhere.

It comes down to simple economics: organising a workplace is expensive. Unions need to employ organisers and researchers, pay expenses and printing costs. It’s generally a long battle, against opponents who are better resourced, and often enough, it’s a battle you lose: it’s an uphill struggle. Can a union – funded by its members – justify spending a large sum to organise 20 or 30 workers in a small shop? In order just to break even, those workers will need to join, and pay dues, for many years. It might be the right thing to do – but unions just don’t have the resource to meet the organising need out there.

This leaves a lot of workers feeling disillusioned, and let down by unions. If the unions won’t stand up for them, who will?

So if you find yourself in this position, what do you do?

The answer is to organise your own union. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you.

Get organised

My first experience of organising a union was in a coffee shop in Cape Town 15 years ago. By far the most important part of the process was getting co-workers to agree to act collectively. Once we’d done that, signing up to SACCAWU was the next step. Approaching the boss with a collective voice and a union behind us made all the difference: it improved our wages and conditions, but it also made our shop better. Workers made suggestions, took ownership of their work, got more involved, and the shop became more popular. We became a cause célèbre among the lefty intelligentsia, and our boss benefited from the custom.

The first step is to talk to your workmates and get them to agree to take collective action. Grumbling over poor conditions leads to demotivation and changes nothing. Blaming unions for not coming to rescue you won’t change things either. You need to start the process yourself. Next time you hear someone complaining about an aspect of work, suggest doing something about it.

If you have contacts in a union, get in touch with them, ask for support and advice, and let them know how it’s going. But do the organising yourself, and be clear with the union what kind of support you’re hoping for from them.

Decide to form a union. Meet regularly, in person or online, and developed a democratic process. Give yourselves a name: become a real entity. Elect representatives. Develop the practice of working collectively – even if it is only in small things. What are you fighting for? What are your tactics? Who is responsible for what?

You don’t need to be part of a recognised union to agree not to undermine each other on shift allocations, for instance.

Curzon Workers: part of BECTU, but organised by the workers, and with a distinct identity

Curzon Workers: part of BECTU, but organised by the workers, and with a distinct identity

And when you’re at this stage, it’s time to join one of the bigger, recognised unions. By coming into the labour movement already organised, you come in in a position of power. You have autonomy. You can form your own branch, and be in charge of it, but also be part of the wider movement.

Compare these two scenarios, from the perspective of a mainstream union:

  1. You go to a union with three members, some potential, a pile of issues and a lot of disillusioned workers who may or may not join, and say, “please help”.
  2. You get organised, and come to a union with a group of activists and a workplace with a union identity and a history of taking collective action, and ask to join.

Which do you think is more appealing? What will get you the most respect and support?

So don’t wait for some one else to do it for you – go out there and organise your workplace.

What is a union anyway?

There are many answers to this, including the attempt to define “unionateness” in the fields of sociology and industrial relations: a union bargains collectively, is recognised by the state, has recognition agreements with employers, is part of some political labour movement, and so on.

But if we take things back to first principles – to the Tolpuddle martyrs – a union is any group of workers who agree to act collectively to further their aims in the workplace.

The ancient Egyptian artisans who went on strike at Deir el-Medina 3,000 years ago were part of a union, just like the miners and the dockers of the 80s.

There is a time and a place for state recognition. It’s not very hard to get: in the UK, you jump through a few hoops, and the certification officer will recognise you. Most countries have a similar process.

But being recognised by the state means having to play by the state’s rules – including repressive labour law. In some cases, it might be better simply to get into the habit of taking collective action without being officially recognised. The low wage workers movement in the US, for instance, is supported by the mainstream unions, but organised outside their structures. At this stage they are not seeking collective bargaining agreements – but they are taking collective action, shaming companies on social media, and creating a debate about poverty pay.

The global crisis has demonstrated that there is a place for alternate forms of unionism. Across the world, we have seen a resurgence in direct action, grassroots unionism.

Ultimately, though, if we want to win a better world, we need to come together, collectively, as a labour movement, and demonstrate mass solidarity. This means joining – and being active in – a recognised trade union, and being part of the 168 million workers organised into the world’s unions.

So if you find yourself in a workplace that needs organising – a bar, a coffee shop, a call centre, an archaeological dig – don’t wait for some one else to do it for you: get organised!

Good luck!

Need practical help and advice? email us, and we will try to connect you.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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