Nothing remains of the old Shirebrook colliery in north-east Derbyshire. The coal mine closed in 1993 and 12 years later the site became the central hub of leisurewear retailer Sports Direct.
The massive steel warehouse, where 3,500 staff on zero hour contracts work, bears no resemblance to the old colliery. On certain days, however, when Unite Community activists gather outside carrying flags and banners to protest against the firm’s infamous employment practises, it is possible to envisage the long-gone picket lines that formed in the same location during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
The miners and their communities were in a war against a government that wanted to destroy their livelihoods and shatter the trade union solidarity responsible for improving the lives of countless working people.
And today, Shirebrook is once again a frontline in a growing conflict between those who want to exploit and isolate workers and unions that, increasingly, are winning significant victories against bad bosses and unjust jobs.
The benefits of belonging to a trade union speak for themselves – on average union members earn 10 per cent more than non-union workers, there are 50 per cent less accidents in union workplaces, members have access to workplace and legal representation and their interests are bolstered through collective bargaining over pay and conditions.
This said, the proliferation of low paid insecure employment, often through zero hour contracts, bogus self-employment and agency work, harms not only those working under such conditions but the quality of the labour market as a whole. Consequently, workers’ pay and living standards are hit. That’s why Unite is at the forefront of multiple battles against attacks on pay and workers’ rights.
In the case of Sports Direct, Unite has waged a three year campaign which has successfully highlighted the firm’s gross mistreatment of staff. The campaign focused public attention on the dehumanising practises of owner Mike Ashley’s company and has resulted in workplace reforms, £1m in backpay for staff who were paid less than the minimum wage and the scrutinising of the company’s behaviour from politicians, shareholders and the media.
“Sports Direct is still a terrible employer. It cannot be trusted to fix its culture of corporate misgovernance itself,” believes Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner. “The fact that the firm’s name came up in connection with three different modern slavery trials this year speaks for the disinterest Sports Direct’s senior management has in its workforce.
“It’s a hard slog but Unite has already made tangible gains towards improving the working conditions of Sports Direct’s Shirebrook workforce. If Mike Ashley or his cohorts think with enough lip service we will eventually go away they’re severely mistaken. We won’t rest until Sports Direct staff are given proper recognition and full working rights,” he added.
While the fight against bad work has a long way to go, a number of significant milestones have been passed in recent months.
In September, it was revealed Britain’s gangmasters authority (originally set up through a TGWU campaign) had nearly doubled its investigations since May, after its powers were extended beyond the food and farming sectors, following lobbying from Unite.
The gangmasters and labour abuse authority (GLAA) now investigates employment rights abuses, including non-payment of the minimum wage and breaches of employment agency rules on pay, working hours and contracts, across a range of sectors.
Also in September an employment tribunal ruled that taxi giant Addison Lee wrongly classified its drivers as self-employed and must pay them the minimum wage and holiday pay. The case followed similar rulings against Uber and CitySprint. Tribunals involving Deliveroo, Hermes and DX have yet to conclude. Trade unions have been active in bringing all of these cases to tribunal.
Of course winning the fight does not always come in the form of conflict, and Unite often works alongside employers to improve working conditions. In October, the UK’s leading supplier of outsourced hospitality and housekeeping services, WGC, partnered with the union and ended its use of zero hour contracts. Unite is working on similar initiatives with other hospitality service providers and an international hotel chain.
But not all employers are willing to improve conditions or right injustice for their staff. When workers are involved in industrial action or during campaigns against rogue employers, Unite Community activists can – and do – regularly provide assistance.
“We’ve had more than 80 days of industrial action (over pay) this year. Unite Community stood shoulder to shoulder with us during that time. The support they gave us was amazing,” reports Unite British Airways rep Zimeon Jones, on the now resolved dispute.
Indeed Unite Community has also been vital to the Sports Direct campaign, with branches across the country staging protests outside the firm’s stores. Recently, Unite Community members joined demonstrations in support of McDonald’s workers who are on strike for the first time in UK history over zero hour contracts and low pay.
Unite Community’s Ellen Morrison believes the fight for decent jobs is dependent on shared goals and solidarity.
“There are huge parallels between the (Sports Direct and McDonald’s) campaigns. We’re starting a movement – we’re not only showing the government, we’re showing employers too that we won’t tolerate what they’re doing to us.”
Along with legal successes and a groundswell of grassroots activity, Unite’s fightback against bad work has taken ground politically too. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has reinvigorated the Labour Party. It gained 30 new MPs during this summer’s general election, leaving the Tories with a minority government unable to wield significant power.
“As well as strong trade unions, working people need legislative changes to ensure a fair deal. That means sectoral collective bargaining, a £10 minimum wage, the banning of zero hour contracts and an end to self-employment and agency abuses,” commented Steve Turner. “Labour will help us achieve that.”
This feature first appeared in Unite’s members magazine uniteWORKS. You can read the latest edition on the Unite website here. Or as a Unite member you can receive a print or digital copy by changing your membership records through My Unite or by contacting your local regional office regional membership admin team.