Unions, solidarity and working-from-home

How can unions organise their members in a work-from-home economy?

Commentary icon2 Oct 2020|Comment

Dr Philippa Collins

Lecturer in Law, University of Exeter

Whilst homework is not a novel phenomenon, its prevalence during the Coronavirus increased significantly. From media reports, it seems that many businesses are considering maintaining flexibility with regard to home-working during the longer term and some are even giving up physical office space altogether. Working from home presents new opportunities, such as increased flexibility in combining work and home life, as well as new challenges, such as the possibility of an intensification of work expectations and the possibility of electronic or even covert surveillance of staff whilst they are at home. The ILO has long recognised the need for homeworkers to have express guarantees for their fundamental rights, including their right to organise and to participate in collective activities, and guarantees that are implemented in a manner that takes into account ‘the special characteristics of home work’. Here, I consider some of the challenges, legal issues and opportunities for unions in this work-from-home era.

The ILO has long recognised the need for homeworkers to have express guarantees for their fundamental rights, including their right to organise and to participate in collective activities, and guarantees that are implemented in a manner that takes into account ‘the special characteristics of home work’.

The lack of a central, shared space, whilst currently essential for public health purposes, disrupts many of the established patterns of organising and mutual support provided by unions. The workforce is scattered, logging in from their kitchen table or home offices, and the opportunities for informal interactions that would have occurred when passing each other in a corridor or canteen are greatly reduced. These informal interactions are crucial to maintaining connections between workers, including between a local union representative and their colleagues, and to providing a sense of community. Working from home generally can lead to a sense of isolation or individualisation of work and management, so collective organisations may have to work harder to retain or build solidarity amongst staff. The flexibility that some employers may permit in terms of times of work make it more challenging to schedule meetings that are at a convenient time for everyone and inclusive of those diverse working patterns.

Technology has undoubtedly enabled the rapid shift from the traditional office to home working during the pandemic. Those professions that have been able to work from home often need little more than a laptop and an internet connection to complete their tasks, if we make the significant assumption that individuals can find uninterrupted periods of time to work in light of the disruption to caring arrangements during the pandemic. Without the need for day-to-day attendance at an office or workspace, unions may also find that workforces are increasingly spread globally and the groups that they represent are living in more diverse social and economic circumstances as a result. Creating cohesion amongst such a group may be difficult and unions may find themselves required to deal with larger bargaining units as boundaries previously determined by place of work are demolished. We may also see a wave of disintegration of the employing enterprise: now that employers have relinquished the right to daily, in-person supervision, they may seek the benefits of a flexible workforce through outsourcing or project-based hiring, for example.

Creating cohesion may be difficult and unions may find themselves required to deal with larger bargaining units as boundaries previously determined by place of work are demolished

These are just some of the challenges that unions may be required to address in respect of the membership. Similarly, countering the dual possibilities of work intensification whilst working from home and the collapse of the boundary between private and family time and work life. New work processes and varied and individual work environments must also be examined, particularly in relation to surveillance and collection of data from the home-workforce. These issues, as well as any attempts to build a union presence in a non-unionised workforce, must also be considered through the lens of a recession, the likelihood of job losses and the consequential possibility that individual workers may not feel able to resist their employer’s demands or take steps collectively. For example, a recent study on the furlough scheme found that, despite working whilst being on furlough was banned, the majority of workers surveyed had performed some hours of work. Those who were able to perform the majority of their tasks from home were particularly likely to have broken the rules of the furlough scheme and worked for the employer. This example demonstrates the desire to stay in favour with one’s employer and how it can stretch to complying with their demands, even if the demands are known to be unlawful.

Unions should urgently consider possibilities to integrate their communication and community-building methods into online spaces where workers are already logged in, and have discussions with the business about how to keep those spaces confidential and free from any monitoring, which is systemic in these online work packages.

Technology and social media present opportunities for unions to stay in touch with their members, despite the decentralisation of many working patterns. Unions already use email to share information with their membership, although they should also be aware of the risk of overloading their members who, whilst working from home, are likely to already be experiencing a significant amount of email traffic each day. Maintaining a friendly presence where staff are already interacting has been essential to recent efforts to mobilise workers in technology-centred sectors. For example, the Game Workers Union used Discord, a social space used by gamers, and Uber and Deliveroo drivers and riders are connected via WhatsApp, an instant messaging app, which has been used to garner solidarity amongst those groups. Many companies use Microsoft Teams and Slack, which have instant messaging and video conferencing functions, to enable collaboration and communication amongst their teams. Unions should consider maintaining a clear presence on these platforms, and ideally to create capacity for individuals to contact the union anonymously to raise concerns – a definite benefit of using online communications rather than relying on meetings or drop-ins. According to the ACAS Code, employers should make facilities available for unions including access to communication media in the workplace and, in collective redundancies and TUPE situations, union representatives have a right to such facilities. Unions should urgently consider possibilities to integrate their communication and community-building methods into online spaces where workers are already logged in, and have discussions with the business about how to keep those spaces confidential and free from any monitoring, which is systemic in these online work packages.

In the longer term, unions might consider the implications of representing a group of home workers such as:

  • Negotiating along the lines of a ‘right to disconnect’ and reconsidering working hours in order to combine flexibility for workers whilst protecting from potential abuses of that flexibility by employers;
  • Considering arrangements for how members use trade union services or activities ‘at an appropriate time’ to use the statutory language, given that this should not be during working time unless the employer has given permission and each individual may have different working patterns;
  • Refreshing agreements around health & safety, data and electronic monitoring to reflect the working realities of their members and ensuring members are aware of the rules and procedures on those points;
  • Transferring activities around collective action and strike online, creating a “digital picket line” in lieu of a traditional workplace that would have been central to this previous.

Dr Philippa Collins

Dr Philippa Collins is currently a lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter. She specialises in researching and teaching... Read more »