The Tolpuddle Tree

20 September 2016 By Martin Smith, GMB National Organiser The labour market faces massive changes in the next ten years – laying down a challenge to the trade union and labour movement to adapt to the new needs and aspirations of working people by developing new forms of collective organisation, campaigning and action.

Commentary icon20 Sep 2016|Comment

20 September 2016

By Martin Smith, GMB National Organiser

The labour market faces massive changes in the next ten years – laying down a challenge to the trade union and labour movement to adapt to the new needs and aspirations of working people by developing new forms of collective organisation, campaigning and action.

Traditional jobs lost or made precarious through austerity and automation will leave few union members and potential members untouched. GMB estimates that, largely as a result of job splitting, there are now upwards of 8 million workers in the UK working in insecure, low paid jobs – including the bogus self-employed, people on zero hours or tiny hours working arrangements, and people working via agencies. Under-employment is fast becoming as big a challenge as unemployment.

With industrial scale corporate tax avoidance and low wage subsidies to businesses, many household names have become both tax and wage dodgers. For millions of working people it has never been clearer that wealth trickles up and working poverty trickles down. And many union members rightly fear what 2020 and beyond will hold out for their job security, hours of work and expected pay and pensions.

We can and have been growing trade union membership in this environment. Working people threatened by precarious work practices and others under threat from automation and job cuts are still keen to organise and defend what they have. We must redouble our efforts to build union density, strong union structures and active bargaining in these areas.

It is also clear that those already in precarious insecure work are seeking new ways to organise within the unions but look to union organisers for ideas and leadership. It is for the trade unions to find new ways for this emerging jobs market of turning fear into anger and hope – based on the bottom up, self-organised collective approach we have proven to work over many years.

But to build our membership in this environment requires us to evolve our tactics and strategy by listening to working people to better understand how to apply our organising principles to the realities of the new workplaces they are currently in or will shortly face. Our starting point should be to redouble our efforts to use existing collective bargaining machinery to build union strength in workplaces threatened in the future with job losses and job splitting.

But unions need to start now to build a relationship with people already struggling to make a living in the precarious jobs market as these workers’ experiences show the way work for many of us could go in the medium term and point the way towards the new organising tactics and tools unions need to adopt to re-build collective bargaining.

GMB research shows that precarious workers’ outlook on work is very different than workers employed by one employer for a predictable length of time, with regular working hours and pay levels. For many the employer/employee relationship feels more like owner/earner arrangement where they may well land a single shift in a big name workplace but via an agency employed by another agency and on an open ended basis – one shift at a time.

For some workers they will have several of these arrangements running at one time meaning they do not identify with any one organisation as their “employer”. They operate in an employment law-free zone at the beck and call of digital shift rotas or waiting for the next phone call with no loyalty or contract in either direction and can expect to work in dozens of workplaces over their lives. Organising campaigns that use networks around sectoral and occupational identities to build collective power and bargaining are becoming more useful than previously.

Our research shows that far from being “bargaining free” zones these workplaces often introduce atomised individual bargaining where workers expect to engage several times a week with supervisors to negotiate their next shift or to challenge the digital shift pattern for the next month.

Introducing collective bargaining into such an environment is tough but the employer has often sown the seeds of bargaining for us. Union organising campaigns can successfully focus on building the case for collective bargaining by supporting individual bargaining with new digital tools, training and back up.

For many workers in precarious jobs, the bullying and harassment built in to digital micromanagement and atomised bargaining represent the bulk of their complaints at work – low pay and insecure hours having already been accepted. This allows union organising campaigns to use rights of representation and workplace and networked-based organising techniques to support members and hold big name employers to account.

Most precarious workers are reliant on Housing Benefit, Tax Credits and pay day loan companies leading unions to adopt the issues of rents, welfare reform, tax avoidance and credit rules as core collective industrial issues to organise and build solidarity around. When an entire workforce has been trapped in working poverty and debt by a household name company making millions of pounds in profit we can no longer shy away from becoming the experts on these issues.

Part of the solution involves developing networks of members to promote and support self-organisation across employer boundaries and within specific sectors where workers have a strong identity. Some of this work involves old fashioned community organising meetings that have long been part of our traditions.

But it also means developing new social media and digital applications and tools that have the potential to help precarious workers build powerful self-organised networks that can have a very real impact on both union building and bargaining.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs met under the village tree to plan and organise as their employer could not see them in that space and counter their campaign. For many precarious workers today, the smart phone is both the source of all their work and the only private space they have away from their supervisor’s gaze. Perhaps the smartphone has become the new Tolpuddle Tree.

Martin Smith

Martin Smith, GMB National Organiser Martin started as a community organiser for Battersea and Wandsworth TUC in the mid 1990s before helping set up and run the TUC Organising Academy. As National Organiser for GMB since 2005 Martin has helped the unions substantial growth - building membership under Tory, Labour and Coalition governments and in times of both boom and bust.