New Worker Banner

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain


The new unions

by New Worker correspondent

NOT ALL of Britain’s trade unions are affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC). Amongst those that aren’t are three small, recently formed unions active amongst precarious workers.

These are the Yeovil-based Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), with 1,730 members (all figures quoted here come from their end-of-year accounts for 2018 to the Trade Union Certification Officer). There is also the London-based, 1,200-strong United Voices of Workers (UVW), founded in 2014; and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWUGB), with a membership of 3,810, which was founded in 2012.

All three unions are run on a shoestring. The annual income of the UVW is £129,711, which would not cover even the salary of the General Secretary of most TUC-affiliated unions. Its expenditure was £121,124 and it had £53,382 in reserves. The giant amongst this group is the IWUGB, with an income of £250,220 and expenditure of £355,571, and with £139,571 in the bank. The IWW had an income of £92,266 and spent £70,907, and has £94,942 tucked away.

One wonders what will happen to them if they lose a big court case or if one or two of their staff get fed up on the low wages paid, but they are doing the basics of trade unionism similar to the New Unionism of the 1880s when unskilled and workers such as dockers were organised into what became the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).

These street unions were established to fill a gap in the market. They are closely focussed on very specific occupations and so do not need large research departments to service their members.

The giant unions such as Unite, Unison and GMB, which in theory organise in the same areas, have not been effective enough. In particular, it has been claimed that whenever these unions proudly announce a campaign to organise precarious workers such campaigns amount to little more than a photograph of a grinning General Secretary posing beside an ethnic minority member for an article in the union journal, which is then reprinted in the Morning Star, with little or no follow up. In at least some cases these grumbles are justified. This correspondent has seen unopened boxes of multi-lingual recruitment leaflets piled up beside the bins at the rear of a Unite office several years ago.

UVW

Soon after its foundation UVW hit the headlines when it secured victories for workers at Sotheby’s auction house, Harrods and the London School of Economics (LSE). It concentrates on outsourced industries such as cleaners, caterers, porters and security. It also represents people at the lower end of the legal profession such as trainees, pupil barristers, assistants, administrative staff, paralegals, solicitors and barristers.

One of its branches is United Strippers, which last month won an important legal victory against Chandler Bars at an employment tribunal that rejected the boss’s arguments that they were self-employed and therefore not entitled to rights such as sick pay or holiday pay.

More generally it campaigns for all members to receive at least the London Living Wage, contractual sick pay and other rights. It also opposes outsourcing because it creates two-tier workforces in order to slash wage bills and deny important rights.

It claims to be the first union in the UK to beat outsourcing, citing a victory at the LSE where it organised the largest cleaners strike in national history and forced the LSE to bring nearly 300 cleaners in-house, giving them the same contractual terms as the professors. Other parts of the University of London such as SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies], King’s and Goldsmiths have followed suit.

Apart from the more normal union activities, UVW also organises English language classes.

UVW has an equal wage policy, meaning that its few staff are paid the London Living Wage plus £1 per hour.

At present it is battling on behalf of cleaners at the Thameside Adelphi building, owned by Amancio Ortega, one of the richest men in the world, where cleaners have complained of being forced to attend work (and therefore take public transport) despite the building being empty and neither they nor the building’s tenants being defined as ‘Key Workers’. UVW Caseworker and Rep, Petros Elia, said: “We’ve managed to force JPC to backdate these workers’ pay and to pay them the London Living Wage, but this isn’t enough. It is disgraceful that these cleaners are having their health and the health of their families and the wider public put at risk. They are not Key Workers, something which JPC have acknowledged, so there is no reason for them to be risking their lives cleaning the empty offices of multinational firms.”

UVW is also taking on the Crown by launching a £750,000 race discrimination case on behalf of a group of agency-employed cleaners and toilet and playground attendants. They are mostly black African and claim they are treated differently to the mainly white admin staff who work directly for park managers, Royal Parks Ltd. This, UVW say, is a landmark “test case” that could set a precedent affecting up to 3.3 million outsourced workers across Britain.

IWUGB

IWUGB also represents mainly low-paid migrant workers, such as cleaners and security guards, but is active in different areas such as bicycle couriers, Uber drivers and foster care workers, almost entirely in London. It has seven branches, including one for cycle instructors. Here it campaigns for instructors to be paid for maintaining their essential qualifications, and opposes wage cuts in exchange for securing regular employment benefits. It also wants representation on the board of The Bikeability Trust.

Their Legal Department provides representation on matters such as disciplinary processes, grievances, private hire licensing and employment tribunals. It has success in establishing that private hire drivers and couriers are proper employees, entitling them to a range of employment rights previous denied by employers.

Recently it has been advertising for a full-time organiser for its Game Workers Unite branch, which was established in 2018 to cater for a new un-organised industry.

Wobblies Revived

The IWW claims to have been founded in 1905 but its earliest official registration in Britain was in 2012. It has indeed been around since long before 2012 but largely as a political group reflecting the syndicalist traditions of the once mighty north American syndicalist union, known as the Wobblies.

It claims to be a revolutionary trade union and is the only one of our three with a nationwide network having branches from Aberdeen to Brighton, albeit with a single branch covering whole counties. Its Clydeside Branch has anarchist links and seems to enjoy musical activities a great deal.

Recent battles have involved a dodgy English as a Foreign Language school and winning back staff meals for workers at a trendy café in south London that refused to close, calling the supply of £3.65 loaves an essential service.

One wonders why there are three such unions doing broadly similar work, or whether their energy and dedication could possibly be put to more productive use in strengthening the left in the long-established unions. But newcomers would argue that they have already done that and been badly let down in the process by the mainstream union bureaucracies.