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There is a fresh breeze of political possibility blowing across Britain. It was clearly causing a stir in the Labour deputy leadership contest, when Jon Cruddas made good ground talking about supposedly ‘old Labour’ issues of inequality, social housing and employment rights. Class politics were articulated in relation to low waged service jobs, immigrant workers and those left behind by a growing economy. Cruddas spoke about the urban poor in need of social housing and decent working conditions, and, rather surprisingly, matters of class bubbled up to become central to the campaign.
Cruddas’s campaign highlighted the position of millions of workers who need collective organisation and a political voice.The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that one in five British workers are low paid and without any form of collective representation. Many immigrants and agency workers are vulnerable because of their immigration and/or employment status. Many more workers – the vast majority of them born in the UK – also face low wages, poor conditions and major difficulties in organising at work.
These are symptoms of a much deeper structural problem. Over the past 30 years, the world’s leading corporations have developed a new model of capitalism that makes it all but impossible for workers to secure the collective power they had in the past. Pioneered in large part on our own shores in 1980s, this new form of economic organisation has pulled the rug from under the feet of organised labour. At its core is what we know as subcontracting. Everything, from cleaning to transport to manufacturing, is being contracted out.
It has spread from the lowest paid services and manufacturing jobs to technicians (IT, pay roll and ‘human resources’ functions) and professionals (nursing, teaching and tutoring).The leading logistics companies who move components and goods along supply chains don’t employ their own pilots, drivers and seafarers.The leading corporations no longer employ their own domestic support.The state is now an ‘enabler’ rather than a provider, contracting out the services it used to provide,
This makes it very difficult to organise workers and to enforce corporate responsibility for employment. Today’s companies are unencumbered by the need directly to employ thousands of factory workers, sales staff, operatives, administrators or ancillary workers. Subcontracting allows them to secure the highest return on their invested capital because they can use competition to keep costs low (and force them even lower), to contract out risk and to increase their flexibility (without the impediment of expensive sunk costs). Using the geographical freedom brought to them as a result of globalisation, corporations can source goods, services and workers from the cheapest reliable places.The biggest and most significant corporations have become hollow organisations that manage networks of relationships and transactions with other firms.
The ‘real employers’
In subcontracted capitalism, therefore, the companies and managers that determine the nature of employment – the ‘real employers’ – are generally not accessible to the workers doing the work.This might be because they are physically located thousands of miles away, but it is also because there is no direct employment relationship with the workers doing the work. Collective bargaining, the sine qua non of trade union organisation in countries like Britain, is increasingly a physical impossibility.
Even if the workers in any workplace are well organised, they have no employment relationship with their ‘real boss’.The cleaners at my university or the garment workers who made my shirt might join a union but they don’t have an employment relationship with the people who determine the terms of their labour. Even if they win a pay rise or improved conditions of work, they are simply likely to price themselves out of a job.
Thus it is no longer enough to organise workers at work.To be effective, labour organisations have to find the means to put pressure on the real employers at the top of subcontracted supply chains. Mapping supply chains, identifying the power brokers and then devising a plan is just the beginning. Once they have found their ‘boss’, workers then need to find allies who can help them get to the top.
Evidence now points to successful unions being the ones that are able to combine grassroots organising with the research, capacity and support needed to tackle the real employers. As outlined by Valery Alzaga and Rodrigo Nunes, they must not only have the capacity to recruit and mobilise workers but also the strategic research capacity, savvy media management, and ability to appeal to allies from outside the labour movement that are needed to launch effective campaigns. Innovative organisation is about crossing barriers at the local level (in community unionism or social movement unionism) and jumping geographical borders at the trans-national scale (in new forms of labour internationalism).
New labour networks
These new forms of networked labour organisation include the links made between producers and consumers in efforts to enforce corporate social responsibility. For example, the small UK-based NGO Women Working Worldwide has been linking women workers’ organisations in garments, electronics and horticultural companies in the export processing zones of the developing world with consumers and activists in the global North for the past 20 years. International networking has enabled groups like this to apply pressure at the top of the supply chain in support of the workers below. Codes of conduct, social auditing and corporate social responsibility are all evidence of how the ‘real employers’ have had to respond.
The growth of organisations such as the Clean Clothes Campaign (Europe), the Maquila Solidarity Campaign (Canada), United Students Against Sweatshops (USA) and No Sweat (UK) points to the wider appeal of this kind of activism. Often unrecognised by the traditional trade union movement, a new generation has endorsed and embraced labour internationalism through new forms of campaigning. At this year’s World Social Forum in Nairobi a global labour network was created, building on the growing recognition of the importance of labour struggles in the World Social Forum process.
These campaigns often highlight the absence of traditional trade union organisation. Social movement ways of organising are proving just as effective as traditional trade union organisation in the past. In north America, for example, Janice Fine has documented more than 100 workers’ centres that support and mobilise groups of low paid workers, particularly immigrants, who have weak associations with their workplaces.
Likewise, new hybrid organisations have emerged around the living wage movement in the US. In some cases, campaigns have been led by trade unions, in others by the organised community, and in many, by coalitions of the two working together. Responding to the need to tackle working poverty, these campaigns have spread to more than 100 cities and counties across the US, winning wage rises and health care benefits for those working on public sector contracts.There is much to be gained by working in such networks, as is illustrated by the London Living Wage Campaign, which has been active since 2001.
A living wage in London
The London Living Wage Campaign is led by London Citizens, a broad-based organisation of more than 80 faith groups, trade union branches, schools and community organisations (including my own Department of Geography at Queen Mary, University of London).
The campaign has succeeded in securing living wage contracts for catering and domestic workers at a number of NHS trusts; doing the same for contract cleaners at a large number of corporate banks at Canary Wharf and in the City of London; lobbying to create the first living wage university campus in the UK; establishing living wage contracting at a number of third-sector (voluntary) organisations; organising to include living wage clauses in the Olympic 2012 procurement process; and establishing a living wage unit at the Greater London Authority (GLA).The campaign has pioneered new forms of community unionism within the UK.
At its best, the campaign has worked by adopting a twin-track approach to labour organisation.While a trade union (Unison in the case of the hospitals and the T&G’s Justice for Cleaners campaign in the case of Canary Wharf and the City) has organised from below, recruiting workers to the campaign, the wider alliance has simultaneously targeted the ‘real employers’ in the NHS trusts, finance houses and universities.
In every case, subcontracted workers have been successfully organised by ensuring that the campaign had the means to make lasting improvements to their terms and conditions of work.The most significant victories cover more than 5,000 workers in London. These include 1,000 domestic and catering staff in east London hospitals, who are now paid the living wage (currently £7.20 an hour); around 3,000 contract cleaners at Canary Wharf and in the City of London; at least 250 contract cleaning staff at Queen Mary and the London School of Economics (those at Queen Mary will be the first group of workers to move back in-house as a result of the campaign); about 1,000 support staff working for Barclays Bank; several hundred workers contracted to the GLA family, including Transport for London; and a smaller number contracted by third sector organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and the IPPR.
In those cases where there is a union able and willing to work with the campaign, the union has been able to draw on support from the wider alliance for recruitment and mobilisation, leadership development, media coverage and additional moral pressure. For example, the T&G union and London Citizens recently identified Barclays Bank as one of the poorest paying workplaces for cleaners at Canary Wharf. A demonstration was held in May, attracting about 50 protesters, including T&G members, community leaders and other supporters from London Citizens – along with the local and national press. A delegation of cleaners, local clergy (in collars),T&G officials and London Citizens campaign organisers went to meet representatives from Barclays asking for talks.
Barclays leads the way
When the talks took place a few weeks later, Barclays announced that from 1 July 2007 it would pay more than the living wage to all 1,000 support staff across its buildings in London. Rather than just encompassing the 100 or so contract cleaners at Canary Wharf, the company took the opportunity to demonstrate its ethical credentials and covered the whole city instead. The T&G is now well placed to recruit these workers and can point to the direct benefit of belonging to a trade union.
The living wage campaign has spread from hospitals, banks and universities to cover, among other bodies, cultural institutions (there is a campaign running at the Tate) and hotels (there are ongoing talks with the Hilton Group). By focusing on a simple demand – for a living wage – a wide group of people has identified with its message. And rather than starting from scratch each time, it has been able to move fairly easily from one sector to another. Over time, campaign organisers have developed a set of relationships with politicians, the media, thinktanks and corporations that smooth its progress. It has also allowed it to broaden beyond what could be expected from a union-only campaign.
In organising low paid migrant workers in London, organisers quickly came to realise the importance of immigration status as a cause of low pay, exploitation and low rates of union organisation.Thus in 2006 London Citizens launched the Strangers into Citizens campaign to secure a legal pathway into regularisation for those without permission to work. The campaign has collected testimony, met politicians and business leaders, and held a number of successful events.The alliance has allowed the unions (principally the T&G and Unison) to connect with other political, civic and social movements in the capital, increasing their profile, influence and power.
The living wage campaign has allowed the politics of class to escape from the confines of the workplace to reach a wider public.Through a shared language about justice and the common good, London Citizens has provided the institutional infrastructure for class politics to enter the everyday business of churches, mosques, schools, universities and community centres. As a result, the voices of the lowest paid workers have reached the ears of politicians, employers and the media. People have been asked to take responsibility for the impact of subcontracting on workers, communities and the quality of our public spaces and services.
There are inevitably tensions between the trade unions and this social movement approach – particularly around structures, cultures and control – but there are great prizes to be won by working together. By working together across different unions and allies, sharing resources, relationships and the keys to success, the labour movement becomes reintegrated with that of the wider community – to the great benefit of both.
Jane Wills is professor of geography and director of the City Centre at Queen Mary, University of London