The new face of trade unions: meet the young workers fighting back against exploitation
FLASH mobs, occupations, pickets and colourful, kick-ass campaigning … welcome to the new face of the trade union revival, led by young people fed-up of being exploited by employers and landlords and now determined to fight back.
It is claimed that the trade union movement, which has been in decline for decades, is being revolutionised by a new breed of precarious workers standing up to unacceptable employment practices such as zero-hours contracts, sexual harassment and bullying at work, unpaid trial shifts and having pay docked illegally for uniforms, breaks or till shortages.
Though over-all membership continues to fall, unions claim they are now seeing under-represented groups coming forward including young women and people from ethnic minorities, many of whom are also facing discrimination in the workplace. Creative campaigning techniques include “guerilla” stickering protests, banner drops and occupations of council buildings, all captured on video and circulated through social media.
Leaders of the STUC, whose conference starts in Aviemore tomorrow, claim the new youth members represent a “resurgence” of a movement which has sometimes been written off as outdated and irrelevant. It is being driven by campaigns such as Better Than Zero, launched at Congress three years ago, in response to concerns about the increasingly routine use of zero-hours contracts in Scotland, particularly in sectors over-represented by young people.
It is estimated that about 75 per cent of workers in the hospitality sector, traditionally not unionised, are on contracts which offer no guarantee of shifts. Zero-hours contracts are also routinely used by call centres, supermarkets, bookies and delivery firms, and often go hand-in-hand with exploitative practices.
Claire Galloway, Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union activist and a Better Than Zero organiser, said the campaign was now receiving between 20 and 50 direct messages per day, with tens of others responding to social media posts detailing breaches of their workers’ rights. In response, Better Than Zero has been running training sessions to inform people of their rights and encourage union membership.
“Trade unions have become quite old-fashioned in the eyes of young people and we need to make them relevant,” said Galloway. “We are trying to make them more modern, more cool … and we are listening, which traditionally is something trade unions have not always been doing. It’s also about including those who are under-represented: women, young people, ethnic minorities.”
Dave Moxham, STUC deputy general secretary, said: “We knew young workers wanted to challenge exploitative employment practices, but we had to create a space for them to do that within our movement. Given that chance, young workers have made the campaign the foremost movement against precarious work in the UK. What started as direct action has become worker-led, union-supported organising in workplaces across the hospitality, fast food and service sectors. This represents nothing less than a resurgence of trade unionism, taking tested methods of the movement into the workplaces where they are most needed.”
Bryan Simpson, organiser of Unite Hospitality, who has also been involved with Better Than Zero since its inception, said he has seen a dramatic increase in young union members. High-profile campaigns he has been involved in include claims of “Victorian working cultures” at major UK retailer Sports Direct to the fight for fair tips at TGI Fridays – the restaurant chain is facing the first strike over proposals to redistribute 40 per cent of service charges paid on credit and debit cards to back-of-house employees in lieu of a wage rise. Others have targeted Edinburgh Fringe venues and worked to end unpaid trial shifts.
He has also supported staff at numerous restaurants, bars and fast food outlets across Scotland with some now taking employers to tribunal. “Next month we will be supporting a collective group of young workers to take on the largest hospitality employer in Scotland, the G1 Group, for unfair and wrongful dismissal,” added Simpson. “This is an incredible achievement.”
Last month, Better Then Zero joined forces with Living Rent, a Scottish tenants’ union born from youth-led campaigning work in 2016. Tactics have including occupations of council buildings, colourful protests outside the Scottish Parliamentand letting agent pickets.
Emma Saunders, the organisation’s chair, said: “We are seeing that precarity is something that affects both work and home lives. If you don’t have a stable job it’s very stressful to be renting if you don’t know how many shifts you might have in any given week. Wages have not increased but rents have increased a huge amount. In a way what we are doing is simply reclaiming old union tactics and using them to drive change.”
THE HOSPITALITY WORKER
Jennifer Tombe, 26
When Jennifer Tombe, who works in hospitality, was first offered a week of shifts with a Glasgow football club it looked like a great opportunity. She took a week off her normal job but turned up on her first day only to be turned away. “When I arrived they said they didn’t know anything about it,” she says. “I called the woman who had booked me and no-one got back to me for days. When they finally did, they told me to Google the HR policy. In the end they paid the money into my account for that day but I wasn’t paid for the rest of the week.”
The experience left her angry. “I emailed Better Than Zero and they sent me to a couple of workshops and that was me hooked,” she says. “It was the first time I’d been somewhere that people weren’t just sitting around moaning about work. They were actually doing something. It was really positive.
“I also started hearing so many horror stories that were worse than mine and I wanted to help people. I was hearing from people who hadn’t had their wages paid at the end of the week, who had been told they would be sacked if they complained. One had found out that he was being made redundant from his call centre by reading some minutes on a server that everyone had access to.”
While she has only been involved since February, she claims to have learned a vast amount and last week started her first union role as a secretary of Unite’s new service branch. “It’s exciting to be involved in this,” she said. “Young people are the catalyst for changing this. A lot of older people might be settled in a job and have their pension secured. But we are still fighting for ours. The terms have changed. But we’re not taking it any more.”
THE CAFE WORKER
Kelianne O’Reilly, 24
For many years O’Reilly thought the sexual harassment and poor treatment she experienced working in bars was par for the course. Ditto the cancelled shifts and being undermined and bullied by managers.
“One of the big ones is finishing really late at the weekend, like 1am or 3am, and no-one as much as asking me how I was planning to get home,” she says. “On minimum wage getting a taxi that costs £5-7 is not realistic. I’ve had to walk past Queen’s Park [in Glasgow] very late at night by myself and it didn’t feel safe. There have been incidents – including a murder – in that park. I’d always be vigilant but you shouldn’t be forced into a situation where you are scared just getting home from work.”
When a friend joined the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union and started telling her she was entitled to fight for her rights, she began to think differently. “She told me that those were things I could speak up about and that’s how I ended up joining too,” she said. “I felt that now I had someone behind me I could stand up for myself.”
At a training course she listened as a roomful of young women shared their stories of frightening walks home – one woman admitted her partner walked for an hour to meet her so she didn’t have to make the journey home alone. Together they decided it was not good enough and Better Than Zero is now planning to launch its Safe Home campaign, based on the experiences of its members, imminently. “It’s making a huge difference because now you’ve always got back up,” says O’Reilly, who now works in a cafe. “We’re rallying around each other.”