We are in the middle of a revolutionary moment. Rapid growth in self-employment, the growth of the gig economy, and the rise of automation represent a seismic shift for the world of work. The trade union movement must respond with a revolution of its own, or face an irrelevance that will have major consequences for workers everywhere.
Five million people in Britain are now self-employed, new technology is facilitating the growth of the ‘gig economy’ and fundamentally changing the nature of work, and automation is already happening in many businesses.
Initial analysis of the impacts of automation has shown that self-employment is likely to continue to grow in response. We let our members down if our answer is to stand in pure opposition to globalisation and technological advancement. Both are happening, whether we like it or not. It falls to trade unions to find ways to make this change work for working people.
Community believes flexibility and fair work are not mutually exclusive. The challenge for trade unions is not to rid the world of self-employment and the gig economy, it is to make these growing ways of working work for everyone in a meaningful, fair and decent way.
Economists have observed that self-employment and insecure forms of employment tend to rise when developed economies are struggling. For example, self-employment has risen in Greece to over one third of the workforce (twice the EU average) and the trend has been replicated across a number of other economies in southern Europe.
This was also true of the UK in the 1980s when self-employment started to rise in the face of mass unemployment; and it is true of Community’s experience in certain parts of the UK where traditional employment is limited or traditional industry is declining.
We saw a rise in self-employment in Redcar after the steelworks closed in 2015 as our members in the area chose different employment routes. A few would have preferred a permanent employee job, but this is not our experience of self-employed workers as a whole and it should not be our view about self-employment in general.
The trade union movement’s response to these changes in the labour market has been mixed. There are legitimate concerns that unions share about the potential for exploitation but responses differ as to how this can be prevented and how workers who want to be self-employed can be supported.
In many cases self-employment or freelance working creates more opportunity, encourages transparency, flexibility and innovation and we should not look to inhibit this or take away from the benefits that consumers gain because of this innovation.
It would be wrong to assume all companies using self-employed workers are exploitative. There is a balance to strike that encourages innovation, meets the needs of consumers and is fair to workers. Work must work for everyone and it must be fair and decent.
Traditional trade union models and structures may not survive the changing world of work. The growing parts of the workforce are demonstrably different to the way the labour market looked when trade unions were founded. Increasingly people switch jobs, careers and sectors. The traditional employment contracts trade unionists are used to seeing are no longer as common. More and more workers do not have contracts at all.
This requires us to think differently about how we approach, recruit and represent these workers. And without doubt it requires us to think differently about how we approach and work with employers. Even when working in traditional employment settings Community’s experience is that traditional trade union approaches may not always be the most effective or right way to keep achieving the best for workers.
This is backed up by the research undertaken by the Changing Work Centre. Young people in focus groups said they quite liked their employers and wanted to work with them. They recognised that they may have issues, but they wanted to resolve their issues in a way that didn’t cause tension with their employer at a later point.
Anecdotally, our younger members also prefer to work in this way – only resorting to harder tactics as a last resort. They want their union to support them through each stage of resolving each issue, including the nuclear options if necessary, but unions unsurprisingly put potential members off by neglecting to promote the partnership working they do successfully day in, day out.
How does this fit with the way that trade unions work today? A piece of Unions21 research compared responses to trade unions between 1993 and 2012, finding people tended to view unions as ‘angry’ in the early 90s, but twenty years later they saw them as ‘furious’. The emotive language used to describe arguments (‘battles’), criticisms (‘attacks’) and campaigning (‘fighting’) was concluded to be contributing to the negative perceptions of trade unions.
That is not to say there is not a place, when needed, for traditional trade union approaches and tactics. It is likely that workers will join trade unions in different sectors and workplaces as a result of a mix of traditional and new ways of working that inspires them to do so.
It is crucial that trade unions go back to the essence of why they were created to establish the new way forward: collective power. Across the world trade unions have used their knowledge of collective organising to establish new ways of representing workers within non-traditional workforces, and it is fair to say the UK is lagging behind:
In the UK, broadly sector-specific unions such as Bectu, the NUJ, the Musicians’ Union and Equity have been innovating in this area for many years, providing collective bargaining arrangements with employer bodies and running general campaigns on improving pay and conditions within a sector. The challenge is slightly more difficult for non-sector-specific unions who have growing self-employed memberships that are naturally more disparate and work with multiple clients, rather than working for one big company.
There is clearly a role for trade unions to support and empower these workers to organise, as is happening in companies such as Sports Direct and Pizza Express where unions are creating change outwith the traditional industrial models. Community worked with members in Simclar Intl Ltd to win employment tribunal awards, along with local MSPs, and won awards totalling £1.1m for members despite not being the recognised trade union.
Another example is the creation of the Safe Betting Alliance in partnership with the Association of British Bookmakers, Metropolitan Police, local authorities and the Institute of Conflict Management, to design a set of minimum standards to keep betting staff safe, which also led to a reduction in crime within betting shops.
How do trade unions stay relevant in a world where one worker has a multitude of employers, no collective agreements and no shop floor? There is no easy answer. Evidence shows that organising in these areas is expensive, both financially and resource heavy, and the returns in membership numbers are not always as high as unions would like. Workers in these areas are hard to organise and hard to reach. There is little data and research on them.
For our part, Community has set up a partnership with a co-operative called indycube which has established over 30 co-working spaces in Wales over the last six years. Indycube brings empty office and retail spaces to life by providing a working environment – desks, refreshments and meeting space – organised through its online payment platform where users can book desk-space as required over a day, a week, a month, or longer.
Indycube’s approach brings benefits to all involved. As a cooperative, members have a say and any surplus goes back into providing a better service for users. The users can collaborate in a business environment and also participate in a real, live working environment. Landlords of the previously empty space receive an income and once empty offices and other spaces are buzzing with work. We have developed a trade union and cooperative partnership which brings trade union membership to the users of indycube spaces.
This partnership will aim to increase the number of spaces available to users right across the UK – expanding the self-employed and freelance network of users and organising them into a collective group with a voice on the issues that matter to them.
The provision of services for self-employed workers is not new. Organisations such as IPSE and the FSB have offered benefits and services to self-employed people for many years. However, collective representation and the strengthening of the voice of self-employed workers is lacking outside the aforementioned sector-specific unions. And the reality is that many of those who face low pay and poor conditions are in these types of employment. So there is a duty on us to change our normal practices to ensure we continue to fulfil the purpose for which we were created: to empower workers to come together and improve their lot.
Pointing out the problems or concerns around working independently isn’t enough. Trade unions need to recognise that working this way – whilst not always a choice – isn’t solved by saying that everyone needs to be directly employed and involved in a rigid employment relationship with an employer.
The challenge falls to trade unions and their members to modernise so that trade unionism is relevant to workers who want to organise their work differently. This means arguing for fairer working conditions that maintain the principle that self-employed workers are free to work as they please.
Good work is the route to prosperity. It is the answer to inequality and the driver of progress.
Our country’s greatest achievements have been won by those who come together, with a common purpose, delivering change for all. These are principles that sit at the core of the trade union movement.
We owe it to our predecessors who fought for progress, and to the next generation who will fight to overcome a more precarious world of work, to strive to get the best deal for workers – delivering greater employment rights while maintaining the freedom of flexibility.
Lauren Crowley is head of research and policy at Community and associate fellow at the Changing Work Centre