Academic journal article Capital & Class

Precarious and Migrant Workers in Struggle: Are New Forms of Trade Unionism Necessary in Post-Brexit Britain?

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Precarious and Migrant Workers in Struggle: Are New Forms of Trade Unionism Necessary in Post-Brexit Britain?

Article excerpt

With the prospect of significant changes to the legal and regulatory framework around migration, British exit from the EU, coupled with the implementation of the 2016 Trade Union Act, is set to make the lives of British and immigrant workers even more precarious. It is a commonly held belief that the proliferation of the so-called 'gig economy' and otherwise precarious work is rendering labour organising historically redundant. Migrant workers, now threatened not just with unemployment, poor working conditions and low pay, but also rising anti-immigrant sentiment and potential deportation, face particularly severe obstacles to workplace organising. Drawing from interviews with five trade unionists, this article will seek to argue that, despite these obstacles, not only is it possible for workers in precarious situations to organise industrially, as we can see from the strikes and campaigns discussed here, but also that in a context of declining union activity and wholesale attacks on migrant and workers' rights, the trade union movement should be looking to these cases for answers. These cases do not, however, represent 'new forms of trade unionism'. Rather, they show us that we should seek to return to some of the oldest and most rudimentary forms of industrial action to combat conservatism in trade union bureaucracies, and to build a politicised, militant and more effective organised rank-and-file.

The first of these interviews (II) is with Petros Elia, general secretary of the United Voices of the World union (UVW). UVW primarily organise and represent Latin American and West African migrant workers in service industries. They recently won a campaign for the retention of tips for restaurant workers in Harrods, London, and are at the time of writing (May 2017) organising a cleaners strike at the London School of Economics (LSE) over pay, hours and pensions. The second interview (12) is with Daniel Randall, industrial rep on the London Underground, in the National Union of RMT Workers, and centrally discusses the organisation of London Underground cleaners, chiefly comprising West African and Eastern European workers. The third of these interviews (13) is with Ewa Jasiewicz, who was an organiser for the London Unite Hotel Workers' branch. The branch has been organising campaigns around union recognition, pay and conditions, such as workload. The fourth interview (14) is with Agata Adamowicz, who works at the Ritzy Picturehouse cinema, and is currently on strike with colleagues across the Picturehouse chain for the London Living Wage, sick pay and other demands. The final interview (15) is with Callum Cant, a Deliveroo cyclist in Brighton and union representative with the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). He organised a strike in Brighton, following successful strike action by Deliveroo workers in London. Each of these campaigns has won key demands or made significant gains in recruitment and organisation, as well as garnering considerable attention from the press and general public. They also demonstrate that not only are precarious and migrant workers getting organised, but that they are at the forefront of some of the most exciting industrial disputes today.

Living and organising precariously

Between 2007 and 2015, British workers saw the largest fall in wages of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country other than Greece, and increasingly, workers in industries who were traditionally more secure, such as education and transport, are seeing the implementation of casual and zero-hour contracts. It is estimated that 3.2 million people in the United Kingdom now work in insecure jobs (TUC 2016a: 3-5). This decline in pay, and erosion of job security and employment rights, has taken place in the context of historically low levels of industrial disputes (ONS 2017). Brexit has led to fears that a number of rights that stem from EU membership are under threat: while in some instances, laws that resulted from EU directives are well accepted, such as anti-discrimination laws, there are others that are likely to come under attack post-Brexit. …

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