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Adapt or die?

The very much alive Unite is at the forefront of 2018 workplace life
Hajera Blagg, Monday, March 19th, 2018


It was their horrific workplace conditions that brought them together – and now the three nightshift workers at a London hotel are the best of friends.

 

Within a few months of starting, they suddenly had their paid breaks taken away – without being notified. They were forced to take on duties that they weren’t contracted to, doing what one of them describes as “three jobs for the price of one.”

 

They are supposed to be trained in fire safety, bomb threats, food hygiene and premises licencing but instead of receiving training, their signatures were allegedly forged by managers saying that they’d been trained when they hadn’t been.

 

As practicing Muslims, they aren’t allowed to consume or handle alcohol – which is why they choose to work night shifts after alcohol is no longer served – but they say management bullied them into bartending after licenced hours.

 

Ali, Mahir and Abdul – young men in their 20s, the children of migrants, and up against a labour market dominated by insecure, low-paid jobs  – are in many ways the face of the UK’s modern world of work.

 

They face a vastly different sort of capitalism than existed 50, 20 or even as recently as 10 years ago. They will never retire on a final salary pension  scheme; homeownership for them and others of their class and generation is now a mere a pipe dream. They’re witnesses to an unprecedented era of income inequality and the slow but steady unravelling of the UK’s public services under a decade of Tory austerity.

 

But to tell Ali, Mahir and Abdul that modern trade unions such as Unite have little to offer them – as Guardian columnist John Harris suggested today (March 19) – is to describe a reality far removed from theirs.

 

“These young men have dived headfirst in the union,” explains Unite hospitality co-ordinator Charlotte Bence. “They’re now taking their employer to court with Unite’s support; they’re recruiting and organising in their workplace and through Unite’s training they’re representing their colleagues as lay reps too.”

 

She says that their case epitomises Unite’s member-led approach.

 

“It’s a very backward and old-fashioned idea that leadership only comes from the very top,” she said, highlighting another recent campaign at TGI Friday’s on tipping practices and unpaid trial shifts which is being led virtually singlehandedly be two young women.

 

She takes issue with Harris’ assertion that union leadership is, as he says, the “preserve of middle-aged white men”.

 

‘Leading the union’

“Of course there is a conversation to be had about greater diversity among trade union general secretaries but a fixation on them misses the fact that our lay reps and activists at the coal face in their workplaces – especially in hospitality – they’re all young, they’re people of colour, they’re women, they’re migrants. They are the people leading this union.”

 

Charlotte describes the innovative work Unite is doing in hospitality to organise a sector that’s historically been difficult to crack – one reason for this being language barriers among a migrant-heavy workforce.

 

“At one hotel, we’re providing free ESOL classes to members and non-members alike. Once they have the vocabulary to articulate their rights; to understand their contracts, they’re empowered to stand up and advocate for themselves.”

 

Head of Unite Community Liane Groves says the “unions as dinosaurs” is a trope regularly trundled out by the media but at Unite, looking ahead to the future is something that is constantly on the union’s agenda.

 

“Five years ago we recognised that there were many, many people who aren’t in traditionally paid employment who have still have a vital role to play in their communities and so we founded Unite Community,” she explains.

 

This was the first time in modern history that a trade union expanded its scope to organise those not in work – and now Unite Community is a force to be reckoned with.

 

Its’ members played a vital role in Unite’s Sports Direct campaign — they headed a major drive to raise awareness of the company’s practices and in the end, Sports Direct workers secured  £1m in back pay; an end to zero-hours contracts among other reforms; and ongoing scrutiny from politicians, the media and shareholders alike.

 

“It was Unite Community raising the plight of these workers through their protests that really captured the public’s attention,” Liane explained. “Before that campaign, many people may never have heard of a zero-hours contract. Now, everyone knows what one is.”

 

Liane says that Unite Community is possible only through a trade union with the resources and campaigning ambitions that defines the union’s varied membership.

 

Unite national offer Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe points to last year’s victory following the biggest cleaners’ strike in British history as the sort of campaign that shows what Unite can accomplish with members at the helm.

 

‘BAEM women at front and centre of campaign’

“The Serco St Barts campaign was led by BAEM women who were at front and centre of the campaign,” he said.  “Without doubt the cleaners, porters and hospitality staff that were campaigning for a Living Wage were heroic and used union structures to get a better deal at work.”

 

But he adds that it was Unite’s resources as the biggest union in the UK which enabled these workers,  through strike pay, to down tools for 24 days last summer – action that saw them win a substantially increased pay offer and an end to zero hours contracts.

 

Unite’s political and legal work has also had a massive impact, Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke tells UNITElive.

 

He points to the recent campaign in support of GKN, a well-established firm now fending off a predatory takeover bid from ‘turnaround specialists’ Melrose.

 

“Unite has the resources and the expertise to make the arguments against a very complex financial takeover bid,” he explains, highlighting a recent hearing in Parliament at which Unite gave evidence against the takeover.

 

Stopping the takeover could save thousands of jobs, just as Unite’s campaign against Bombardier tariffs ended in a victory that preserved the livelihoods of thousands of workers.

 

‘Leading the way on Brexit’

“We’ve been leading the line on Brexit in way that no other union has and we’ve achieved victories for all workers – whether or not they are members,” Burke adds. “Take for example, the legal case over average holiday pay – that was a win that benefits us all; it was an instant pay rise for all secured by Unite.”

 

As for looking toward the future, Unite, Burke says, is tackling head on issues that for many of us might feel a like a lifetime away.

 

“Far from ‘burying our heads in the sand’ – as John Harris puts it – we’re ahead of the curve on issues like automation. We’re planning now for a revolution in work that’s coming fast.”

 

Whatever is in store for trade unions’ future, one thing, Charlotte says, is certain – they’re continued relevance depends on raising people’s expectations of work.

 

“It’s not just about raising terms and conditions, it’s about raising people’s thinking over what they have a right to expect. It isn’t just a question if you join the union we’ll have a conversation with your boss about a pay rise – you have a right to expect better.

 

“People deserve to be treated with respect; they deserve a wage they can live on; they deserve a voice in the workplace. At the moment, too many people believe they don’t deserve that.”

 

Unite Community is only one of the various forms of membership available through Unite – different rates are available for members based on their pay and employment status. And as the UK’s largest union, it represents workers across all sectors in the economy. Find out more here.

 

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