By Jane Hardy

Pluto Press. 248 pages. £19.99. ISBN 978-0-7453-4104-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

These are not good times for trade unions, nor for the majority of workers by hand or brain. Union membership is low when compared to earlier years, and is mostly concentrated in mass terms in areas such as the National Health Service, local government, and similar bodies. But even there the practice of contracting out services has meant that agency workers and the like are often not organised in unions. And changes in what Jane Hardy refers to as “the economic structure of Britain” have resulted in a decline in industries requiring large numbers of people and which were once central to the role of unions in representing the interests of at least a substantial part of those in employment. And they often also set the pace for improvements in the working conditions of many of those who didn’t belong to a union.

Hardy points out that “traditional areas of the economy have been replaced by innovative forms of production and changing ways of consuming”. This may have been beneficial in some ways for certain employees, but it has also brought about the creation of what is referred to as the “precariat” who “experience unstable work and Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs)”. These are people often employed in what is known as “the hospitality sector” (pubs, clubs, restaurants, etc.) but also cleaning, deliveries, home care, and any situation, in fact, where there are few, if any, guarantees of regular hours and long-term conditions of employment such as sickness and holiday pay, and pensions. There is evidence that even in a middle-class occupation such as university education there is a growing body of part-time lecturers with few assurances of any forms of permanent work and a steady income.

It’s true to say that there is little or nothing new about the “casualization” and “on-call” arrangements in the labour market. My father had served twelve years in the Royal Navy and when he returned to civilian life in 1925 he worked at a variety of jobs, including as a steeplejack, docker,  labourer, and more. He could tell tales of lining up outside the dock gates, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work, and of working all night on a railway bridge in the pouring rain with nothing in the form of protective clothing and no health and safety precautions. To question the conditions was to invite the response that “There are a hundred others waiting to take the job if you don’t want it”. During the dark days of the Depression he would walk miles in search of any kind of work. It was thanks to the onset of war in 1939 that he obtained a regular job when, too old for military service, he was directed to work in a factory.

The difficulties of organising workers in the “gig” economy will be obvious. And it’s open to question whether or not the established unions have been, and perhaps still are, unwilling to take on the role of persuading people that it could be in their own best interests to join a union. If there is a large concentration of workers in a factory or similar location then organising might be relatively easy, even in the face of management intransigence. People may feel that they have skills they ought to be properly paid for. And they may see themselves as having interests (security, pensions, etc.) in common with their work colleagues. So, they will be more susceptible to the notion of joint action through a union. But with groups of workers who often don’t have a fixed location (home carers, for example moving from one address to another and rarely encountering fellow-workers for any length of time) it needs imagination and perseverance to persuade them to unite to improve their pay and conditions. Would-be organisers will also be faced with the fact that part-time employees, which many are in the gig economy, may be reluctant to pay union dues. And there is often a high turnover among those employed on part-time or ZHC terms. Someone working in a low-paid agency job in the home care sector may find it more advantageous to stack shelves in a supermarket. A floating work force is difficult to organise from a union point of view.

There is an interesting historical reference when Hardy mentions the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), formed in 1905 in the United States with the intention of organising workers who were ignored by the established craft unions. The IWW burned brightly for a few years, primarily in America and Australia, and it’s relevant to take note of the difficulties the organisation encountered with regard to recruiting and retaining members among transient workers who followed the harvests or moved from job to job for one reason or another.

To be fair, Hardy does indicate that the established unions are slowly waking up to the fact that, if they want to build up a healthy membership, and exert any kind of influence in the workplace, wherever it is, or on the economy, they will need to broaden their tactics and their appeal. She also points to the appearance of certain new unions such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW), and that they have had some success in organising among what have sometimes been seen as the unorganisable.

The IWGB union was formed by cleaners breaking away from Unison and Unite who felt “frustrated that their action was being undermined and their participation in union structures sabotaged in their fight for better working conditions at the University of London”. There was a feeling that, with Unison in particular, a too-cosy relationship existed between the union leaders and management. My own experiences as a one-time Unison member would incline me to believe that this was probably true. UVW members are “mainly migrant cleaners and workers in other outsourced or low-waged industries and have strong associations with the Latin American community”.

The successful campaigns by the IWGB and UVF are not often reported in the press, with the exception of the Morning Star. They are admittedly mostly small-scale and don’t have the impact that industrial action by railwaymen or local government employees can have when their strikes affect day-to-day life for a large proportion of the general public. But they do demonstrate that workers can fight back against low wages and poor working conditions. I’ve recently read of inroads made into supposed anti-union establishments like Starbucks and Amazon in the USA. I’m not sure what the situation is in the UK with regard to those employers, but one hopes that if they don’t currently recognise and negotiate with unions then they soon will. Hardy refers to the notorious example of Sports Direct and the struggle to organise there. Those trying to recruit members were faced with a hostile management, and a less-than enthusiastic response from the well-established Unite union. It was reported that some officials had been overheard saying that recruiting at Sports Direct “was more trouble than it was worth”.

The impact of the current conditions in the labour market ought to arouse a sympathetic response from those, like myself, who spent most of our working lives in relatively benign employment circumstances. When I came out of the army in 1957 there seemed sufficient jobs to choose from. I lost the first one after a few months when I was sacked for “industrial misconduct”. I was young and after three years hearing officers and sergeants barking orders I wasn’t much inclined to listen to more from a bullying section-head. But I easily walked into another job in a couple of weeks and at a higher rate of pay and with less-travelling involved. Later, when I was made redundant from an oil company, I took time off to re-think my life and got along for a few months on the redundancy pay and the dole. Benefits were better then and easier to come by.

And when I quite easily found employment again I opted to work part-time in a low-grade administrative job in local government and do some part-time teaching in adult education (though it wasn’t regular or guaranteed in any way) which, along with earnings from free-lance writing, provided enough to live on. The point I’m making is that, even if my income was somewhat up-and-down at times, personal circumstances, and a more-flexible economic situation, enabled me to choose to get by in this way. The precariats now don’t have many choices. They take low-paid, insecure and sometimes temporary jobs because they have to. And to “get by” doesn’t mean to live cheerfully and satisfactorily in a modest, but intellectually fulfilling way, but to worry from week-to-week about paying the bills and eating or heating.

Speaking from a personal perspective I’m convinced that more than a few members of the current government, along with many employers, are happy to have this situation continue. It’s a handy way of ensuring that a workforce worried about sliding into the abyss of the precarious will inevitably be afraid to venture too near the edge.  There will always be doubts about what an employer can do (fire and re-hire, for example) when faced with any demands for improvements in pay and conditions. And those doubts will inhibit action.  

Jane Hardy has written a thoroughly informative and in many ways inspiring book. She gives numerous examples of the ways in which groups of workers have come together to fight back. Sometimes their actions have been spontaneous, sometimes they’ve been organised through a union. It always made sense to me to join a union, even if I never called on its support, no matter whether I was working full or part-time. She also has a great deal to offer in terms of outlining general economic conditions and the prospects for unions. The UK has some of the most-restrictive legal barriers to industrial action in Europe. These, combined with the precarious nature of many sources of employment, might explain both the poor level of union membership and the relatively low activity in terms of industrial action taken to obtain better pay and conditions. But that struggle does go on, as Jane Hardy clearly indicates in her very readable and well-researched book.