Loreta Younsi had been working as a cleaner at St Mary’s Hospital in central London for 12 years when she joined a new union and organised her first strike.
For nine days in October last year she and her colleagues, who are employees of outsourcing firm Sodexo, stood in front of the hospital with a banner reading: “We are not the dirt we clean.” They beat drums and used a megaphone to denounce low wages, turning the protest into a party with food and music. Then they crashed a board meeting to insist on their demands.
“We had to knock and knock. Nobody paid attention to us,” she says. “But if you make a big noise they have to hear you.”
The cleaners at St Mary’s are members of United Voices of the World, a new trade union of mostly precariously employed migrant workers at the heart of a movement disrupting labour organising. Their demonstration was a typical UVW action: jubilant, noisy, confrontational and uncompromising, led by workers at the sharp end of insecure, low-waged employment.
After Ms Younsi and her colleagues took action, Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, the body that runs St Mary’s, brought forward plans to increase the £8.21 minimum wage to the London Living Wage, which is now £10.75, and suspended the process for renewing the outsourced contract. Members are now waiting for a decision on their main demand — that they become in-house NHS staff. An offer of anything less, they say, will result in another strike.
The upstart unions are a reflection of several powerful trends in modern economies such as the UK’s. As insecure and gig economy work becomes more common, especially among migrant and young workers, newer groups are developing to meet demand from workplaces with few protections — and in the process, they are leaving established unions struggling to protect their turf
Since it was founded in 2014, UVW has organised more than 20 workplaces and won in-house contracts, wage rises or sick pay at organisations including the Daily Mail Group, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the London School of Economics. It now has more than 3,000 members and says it is attracting 200 more every month. Its sister union, Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, has 4,800 members. It has challenged Uber’s classification of drivers as“partners” in court and won pay rises and recognition rights for couriers’ unions.
Jason Moyer-Lee, the general secretary of IWGB, believes that the scope for unions like his to grow is huge. “People are really craving representation and to change the conditions they are working under,” he says.
The energy of these small, confrontational labour associations follows decades of decline in workplace organising and mainstream unions — even if the bigger unions have enjoyed greater influence in the Labour party in recent years. In 2018, 23.4 per cent of employees in the UK were union members, half the 1979 peak.
At the same time, the growth of unstable gig-economy contracts have transformed the world of work. The Trade Unions Congress, the UK’s federation of trade unions, estimates that around one in nine UK workers — 3.8m people — are now in precarious employment, including zero-hours contracts, agency work or self-employment for low pay.
While the upstart unions have scored notable successes, they face challenges both from outsourcing groups and gig-economy companies such as Uber and Deliveroo, which have sought to disrupt organisation by workers and deny them the status of employees; and from mainstream unions suspicious of their tactics. Both factors could hamper their ability to grow.
Michael Dooley, a membership development officer for GMB, a union with a 130-year history which has 630,000 members, says the union has been focused on building up its membership base at St Mary’s. He believes UVW has been quick to strike despite the significant risks: days of lost wages and the risk of a demoralising failed campaign.
“You get your army first, then your army leads the way,” he says. “We weren’t going to commit people to taking serious industrial action until we had sufficient numbers to make a short, sharp shock.
The “precariat”, a term popularised by economist Guy Standing, has little or no in-work benefits, are likely to be in non-permanent contracts and have low pay. They are both always on-call and never guaranteed work.
They are also less likely to be organised. UK union membership is weighted toward middle-income earners in permanent, full-time, professional jobs, and 77 per cent of members are over 35. Across OECD countries union membership has dropped from nearly 30 per cent to 16 per cent since 1985, and people in “non-standard” jobs, including those on fixed-term contracts or temporary workers, are 50 per cent less likely to be members than other workers.
The UK’s largest unions are trying to respond to this changing world. Last year, GMB secured holiday pay, improved pay structures and representation for couriers working for Hermes, the delivery company. As far back as 2008 Unison won the London Living Wage for cleaners at Soas, part of London University, and both unions represent low-paid workers at St Mary’s alongside UVW.
Ms Younsi, however, believes the big unions do little for the cleaners, even if they are members. “They don’t make meetings,” she says. “They just take people’s money and disappear.”
Mr Dooley says this is “simply not true”, saying GMB is doing the invisible work of building a strong membership capable of winning campaigns.
But Ms Younsi’s disillusionment is shared by many activists. UVW co-founder Petros Elia says he set up a new union because others were not changing their approach for workers beyond the traditional sectors they cover. Workers such as Ms Younsi face major challenges if they want to unionise. They often work in disparate locations at unsocial hours, with no employer contact beyond an app. Insecure contracts make them easy to replace. Many migrant workers speak limited English, and working more than one job is common.
UVW and IWGB have adapted their tactics for this precarious workforce. They run breakfast stalls where cleaners can drink coffee and meet colleagues when they finish a shift at 7am. Meetings feature not just union business but language classes, childcare, music, food, games and legal clinics. Strike action is colourful and loud, usually with a soundtrack of Latin American music and flares of red smoke. Speeches, casework and community activities are done in both English and Spanish, and members are encouraged to get active and lead campaigns quickly.
They also take an uncompromising approach to their demands. Both unions are quick to call strike action, often with short work stoppages of several hundred employees that take place alongside protests designed to generate a social media buzz and exert public pressure on an employer. IWGB also uses litigation as a tool — in 2016 it successfully challenged Uber’s characterisation of its drivers as independent contractors.
“We tell workers that they need to take action, serious action, protracted action until they win,” says Mr Elia. “The demands we make are non-negotiable. We want everything we ask for.”
Uber, which is appealing the decision at the Supreme Court, says “drivers are at the heart of our service “drivers are at the heart of our service and our focus is on how to make their experience better”, while Deliveroo says “our riders have a strong voice within the company and our flexible model is based on their direct feedback”.
The confrontational route means negotiations look different to those of established unions. Both IWGB and UVW are ambivalent about recognition agreements, which oblige employers to negotiate directly with the union: so far they have two agreements between them. Mr Elia describes the focus on recognition as a “red herring”, diverting resources from the high-pressure tactics that force bosses to come to the table.
For established unions with upwards of 1m members, the gung-ho approach of upstart unions is unsettling. Becky Wright, of Unions21, a think-tank, says unions that do not have recognition agreements and take confrontational action put members at risk.
“Collective bargaining is important. If you want a long-term approach to industrial relations you need that approach,” she says.
The different methods have generated tensions. At University College London, IWGB represents several hundred cleaners and security guards, but employers refuse to negotiate with them, opting only to talk with its officially recognised union, Unison. After IWGB declared strike action last October, demanding an end to disparities in benefits like pensions and sick pay between in-house and outsourced staff, UCL announced it would meet requests within two years. But while IWGB declared a partial victory, Unison and UCL announced the changes were a result of negotiations between themselves, making no mention of the smaller union that had put pressure on its employers.
When IWGB cleaners and security guards picketed UCL on a freezing cold morning last November — pushing for improvements to be introduced sooner than the two-year timetable proposed by the university — they said the new union had already transformed their working life. Issues that had been stuck with middle management went straight to the top, and workers had grown in confidence.
“Unison never raised a flag here,” says Adam Lunat, a security guard. “They’re more about meeting and talking and eating.” His colleague Bendor Ansa-Otu agrees. The new union, he says, is “seen as a bit more radical” and has been “marginalised”. He hopes the university will negotiate directly with IWGB, which is stepping up its campaign to push for outsourced staff to be brought in-house.
IWGB’s Moyer-Lee cited Justice for Janitors as an inspiration for the new unions in London. The US social movement used direct action and “extralegal tactics” such as shutting down roads and city hall offices to win significant wage hikes and improved working conditions in the 1990s.
“We wouldn’t win if we kept to the law,” says Stephen Lerner, who founded the campaign as an offshoot of Services Employees International Union, a larger union.
At St Mary’s, Ms Younsi, who was organising protests within months of joining the union, says she relishes her UVW responsibilities. “We become family. If you’re disappointed you feel it as a group,” she says. “I really feel like I’m working with the union. My job is not boring any more. It’s a social life.”
Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust says it has “always been committed to good working conditions for all employees”. Sodexo says. “We listened to staff concerns at St Mary’s about pay and conditions. We have ensured all our staff are entitled to standard employment benefits and, with the Trust’s agreement, pay everyone at least the London living wage.”
According to Mr Elia, the new unions want to show that these precarious workers do have power to win improvements for themselves and others. Perhaps most importantly in Mr Elia’s eyes, direct action brings them together with other workers
When St Mary’s went on strike last year, it did so as part of a co-ordinated action with low-paid staff at the Ministry of Justice, ITV and Channel 4, the Royal Parks and Greenwich University. In 2017, when IWGB took Uber to court over workers’ rights, it called a “precarious workers strike back”, action, bringing private-hire drivers, couriers, security officers and other low-paid workers out in solidarity.
These members are being joined by workers in different sectors. UVW has recently launched branches for workers in the architectural and legal sectors as well as the sex industry. IWGB is now organising foster carers, and has a branch for producers of video games.
With no shortage of potential members in low-paid, unstable work, the membership of both unions has the potential to grow significantly, bringing a bigger range of workplace problems and long-term employer relationships that will shape their development.
Jamie Woodcock, an academic researching precarious work, is a member of both IWGB and UCU, a much larger union for academic staff. He says he thinks of unions such as UVW as “laboratories”, where members can take risks and challenge the status quo.
In November tens of thousands of UCU members went on strike in universities across the UK as part of a long-running dispute over pensions and workload. On the final day of the strike, at UCL, academic staff angered by low pay, insecure contracts and overwork stood on the picket line with security guards and cleaners.
“It’s showing people they can do things at work,” Mr Woodcock says of the new unions. “They become powerful examples of how the rest of us can do it.”