As capitalist attacks on workers’ rights escalate, a livelier response than we have been used to seeing from the established unions has been popping up in the form of ‘do-it-yourself’ unions dedicated to the defence of the rights of those whose dependence on the so-called ‘gig economy’ renders their own economic position ‘precarious’ in the extreme.
These include workers from an eclectic range of fields who at first sight might seem to have little in common: security staff, cleaners, company interns, cycle couriers, college lecturers and cinema workers. Yet outsourcing, casualisation, zero-hours contracts and phoney ‘self-employment’ have all conspired to shove all these exploited workers into the same leaky boat, obliging them to get organised or go down.
In some cases existing unions have tried to help (for example the RMT has a good track record with organising migrant cleaners), but for the most part they have been either absent or inactive when it comes to recruiting and defending ‘precarious’ workers, viewing them more as a threat to the conditions of their regular, subs-paying members than as a group of workers in urgent need of combative mobilisation.
Increasingly, such workers have been, as the song says, doing it for themselves. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), already active in the struggle for employment rights for Deliveroo workers, is now giving a lead in a struggle being waged by the University of London’s security officers, who complain that their pay has stagnated whilst that of other workers at the University has risen.
In time-honoured fashion, the University has been ducking its responsibility for paying the security guards a decent wage by outsourcing them to a private company, Cordant. The IWGB has mobilised the majority of the 60 guards behind a spirited campaign, demanding an end to zero-hours contracts, properly itemised payslips, and a 25 percent increase in pay. For the lowest paid this would yield around £12 an hour.
On 25 and 26 April, a number of University College London (UCL) buildings were shut down as the guards went on strike. When Cordant tried to bring in replacement guards, also on zero-hours contracts, to break the strike, this backfired as several of the would-be scabs instead came out in sympathy and joined the IWGB. (University of London security officers to go on strike 25-26 April by Patrick Laredo, IWGB, 10 April 2017)
Another prestigious academy of learning, the London School of Economics (LSE), similarly tries to evade its responsibilities as an employer by outsourcing its cleaning services to another private company, Noonan. Most of the cleaners paid by the Noonan agency are black or Hispanic and are expected to keep their heads down and put up with much worse pay and conditions than the mostly white staff in the direct employ of the LSE.
Campaigning behind the slogan ‘no longer invisible’, the cleaners came out on strike on 15 and 16 March, and are considering further strike action. United Voices of the World (UVW), a small union that earlier came to prominence through its campaign to challenge the exploitation of Top Shop cleaners, is now taking a leading role in mobilising the LSE cleaners.
The general secretary of UVW, Petros Elia, is scathing about the LSE’s record: “LSE has been cut-throat in their response to the cleaners. They are excluding, undermining, degrading and disenfranchising their most badly treated and worst-paid workers.” According to Elia, the LSE have officially recognised Unison as the union that they are negotiating with, thereby claiming the legal right not to recognise the UVW. Yet Elia claims that Unison has not been active in mobilising the cleaners, unlike UVW, which is the union most of the cleaners belong to. (‘No longer invisible’: LSE cleaners’ strike all too familiar in two-tier UK by Patrick Laredo, IWGB, 24 April 2017)
Similar complaints come from another group calling itself the Precarious Workers Brigade, whose website describes it as “a UK-based group of precarious workers in culture and education”. The organisation’s Brighton branch has taken issue with the University and College Union (UCU) for its decision to suspend planned strike action on 26 and 27 April at the University of Sussex.
It seems that, whilst the University has agreed to reinstate the promotions system for full-time lecturers, lecturers in computing, engineering and mathematics continue to be demoted to hourly-paid status, with no guarantee of reinstatement. In the view of the brigade this is “nothing less than a betrayal of some of the most precarious teaching staff by UCU, and their collusion with the very people who exploit us”. (IWGB website, 25 April 2017)
The message is plain: either existing unions will shape up and start leading resistance, or workers will in the end be forced to invent forms of organisation that will get the job done in their stead.