Union Building in the Platform Economy – Organising for a Change


“Unions have shown we can regain our ability to maintain our faith in the power of the collective despite the atomisation of this workforce.”

By Martin Smith

Estimates vary but union builders are seeing a huge expansion of platform style working conditions across the labour market as capitalism pursues its latest method for a dramatic shift of business risk from itself to working people.

Taking the form of app based platform working, on demand shifts, digital shift rostering and robotic micro-management of insecure zero hours or self employed plus (SE+) workers, these innovations are reaching into most parts of the economy and can no longer be contained and sanitised by the quaint term – the “gig economy”

The e-retail employment algorithms shared by Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Bolt, Deliveroo, Apple, Evri and others have expanded way beyond the boundaries of the platform economy and into more traditional job areas in the care, construction, retail and logistics and education sectors as software dramatically replaces management and HR employment numbers.

Potentially up to a third of working people in the UK experience management via App in some form – and many in the form of digital shift rostering and digital monitoring. For many this amounts to an end to their right to bargain as an individual worker on their shift patterns, pay and working hours – in the name of “freedom” “flexible working” or “choice”.

For a minority with independent means of paying the rent and feeding their families this may well feel like an expansion of choice and so a “progressive” development and we hear about these lucky few endlessly in the media. For most working people faced with these terms on a take it or leave it basis the reality is starkly different. Flexible earnings offer no solution with rents, mortgages, fuel and food bills certainly not flexible and rising sharply. Although state subsidised through inflexible Universal Credit benefits “flexible” workers labour under the yoke of benefits bureaucracy after their day shifts are over to get what they are due each month.

All this feels to union builders like a permanent shift in the labour market and with a reach far beyond the new industries as more and more of the old school jobs market becomes “uberised” and the App becomes the trap. To working people caught in this web, it means an employment rights free zone; forced and/or bogus self employment, erratic and unreliable shift patterns, living wages they cant live on; bullying; harassment; unsafe and micro-managed work.

And in a historic inversion of the history of the general unions – the demand to increase working hours to a regular eight hour day by many union members today as opposed to our demand to decrease it to eight hours a day 140 year ago. For millions even before the current cost of living crisis, personal debt is up; earnings are down, under employment is replacing unemployment as a fear and the minimum wage has rapidly become the maximum for many.

Liberal, Tory and Labour politicians will wring their hands and talk to us about how the system is not working and failing the economy. Working people know that in reality the system is working perfectly and as it is designed to do – to shift business risk from employers to workers; drive exploitation and wage theft to ever wider and deeper parts of the labour market and maximise the state subsidy of low pay to a maximum to bolster failing profits.

The most exploited workers in the economy have always been the least visible. From those who stoked the gas retorts in 1889 to keep the new fangled gas lights on in posh Chelsea. Through the shoe shines, chimney sweeps, staff in service and hotel housekeepers to others who unloaded coffee, sugar and champagne on the docks of Liverpool Bristol and London for the guests at the Savoy; polite society always turned away from those without whom their lifestyles would be impossible. General unions have always set out to help invisible workers organise – and GMB and UNITE are the most genuinely general unions in our movement and have been from 1889.

Todays invisible workers still work in hotels, but they pack our online goods/fast food and deliver them to our door, they drive our cabs, clean our hospitals and schools and offices, empty our bins, sweep our streets, and care for our elderly. Ever since 1889 union builders have been told that they couldn’t help organise such invisible workers because of their low skills, or because so many of them were migrant workers. This has been proved wholly wrong on untold occasions.

But much worse is when union builders have been lectured and told by the conservative elements in our own movement that they shouldn’t organise invisible workers. Bryant and May “matchgirls”, the dockers, the gas workers, hotel staff, sex workers, tattoo artists, self employed HGV drivers, e-retail and e-logistics staff at Amazon, Evri, XPO, migrant workers, app based cab drivers and fast food couriers have all attracted the finger wagging of the labour aristocrats at some point or other. And the fallacy is always the same – that somehow if you help these workers organise you are endorsing the work they do and so, somehow, promoting their exploitation.

The reality is the opposite – if we fail to help such workers organise we are turning our backs on the most vulnerable in our society and have lost any analysis of late stage capitalism as experienced by todays working class. It is simply playground politics to hold that unions organising casino workers, nuclear power workers, defence industry workers, tobacco workers, benefit office staff, tattoo artists and pole dancers are by doing so promoting gambling, nuclear power, warfare, smoking, unemployment, body art or sex work.

As a movement we make ourselves look like outsiders and spectators to the workers we try to help organise when we adopt campaigns to boycott and ban the parts of late stage capitalism that offend middle class sensibilities but that working people have no choice but to seek earnings from.

The simple challenge facing union builders today is just as it was in 1889 – we either fit our organisations around the working class as they are today or decline into the obscurity and irrelevance of the history books. A simple truth that we forget – unions have to earn, re-earn and then re-earn again the faith of working people to build our strength. We cannot take union name recognition for granted, think that any one union is inherently better than another. And in this part of the labour market unions are not part of an establishment – we are an insurgency for social justice and must campaign and organise as such. This is a major transitional challenge for unions originally built to be part of established collective bargaining structures post 1945 – and one we have yet to conquer.

It is sometimes hard to avoid the siren calls of the marketing industry who will tell us we simply need to secure more brand recognition for our strong long standing brands in order to grow, and focus on achieving social media hits and unique visits to our website to measure our impact. Power has to built in each workplace not borrowed from social media, bought from politicians or begged from employers

The new power in our communities that is the App and Platform companies will concede nothing without demand. But our organising approach needs to be both consistent to our principles and be tailored to the new realities working people face – and seek to build unity among each group of workers in the face of the division promoted by the platform companies. And then frame the organising issues with workers, establish their demands and create clarity from confusion.

In this way security of employment agreements, minimum earnings agreements, representation before dismissal, safety and protection, holiday and sick pay have all been achieved by platform workers organising since the pandemic.

Unions have shown we can regain our ability to maintain our faith in the power of the collective despite the atomisation of this workforce, earn and re-earn the trust of platform workers and identify how workers currently organise within these brands in order to go with the grain.

But even more critical to organising in this new economy is securing access to the union free from fear for insecure workers. Free from the fear not of unfair dismissal for union activity, but of not being asked back for another shift by the SMS algorithm or de-platformed, cancelled and blocked from the App through which workers get their earnings.

The app is the trap for many but the smart phone is also the modern Tolpuddle Tree – the place where workers meet and organise out of sight.

But there the organising issues remain constant – and the two key questions for union builders to ask working people seeking to organise in the new economy remain: “How can I help?” and “What do you want to do about it”?

Featured image: Dave Ward, CWU General Secretary, addresses the “Enough is Enough” demonstration on October 1 2022. Photo credit: Ben Folley/ Labour Outlook archive

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