Category Archives: Low Pay

Why the young in Germany do not mobilize against precarity

by Vera Trappmann

Vera Trappmann

Employment in precarious conditions in Germany as in many other countries is above all young, feminine and migratory. More than half of German under-24-year-olds have only a short-term work contract; of the under-35-year-olds this is still 30 percent; half of all temporary workers are under age 35; 23 percent are employees in the low-wage sector; 26% of 18-24-year-olds live under the poverty line. As if that were not enough, one-fourth of those in educational transitional programs, 10% are neither in work nor in training, (so-called NEETs,) and 6% of young people leave school without any qualification. However, interestingly, the young precarious workers do not really mobilize against precarity, at least not massively. Even under conditions of sectoral relaxed labour markets, young precarious workers tend not to engage in conflict with their employers or participate in protest but rather remain passive, sympathetic supporters of trade unions and wait until their earning situation is no longer precarious before they mobilize (Thiel and Eversberg 2017).

In the following I will try to explain this puzzle by looking at subjective factors that lead to or hamper mobilization. The focus on subjective factors does not dismiss the role of context and norms (Menz and Nies 2016), it is just a dimension that has been neglected so far. I will use Hirschman’s (1970) scheme of exit, voice and loyalty as potential reactions towards precarity and explain in turn what leads to individual strategies of loyalty, voice or rather exit. We can distinguish push and pull factors on the individual biographical level for each phenomenon. The analysis draws on results of the PREWORK project[1] where we conducted 60 biographic interviews with precariously living young adults under age 35.

Voice, Exit and Loyalty as strategies towards precarity

Voice

Voice is understood here as the mobilization of workers. Other than classic literature on mobilization I will not look at organisational factors (Kelly 1998) but at individual biographical motifs.  First, and very uniquely, mobilization in our sample occurred only among those who have high cultural capital (higher academic degrees), and second who ascribe to their occupation a high priority. They had a strong occupational identity with intrinsic work motivation, such as in knowledge workers, researchers, artists or medical doctors. If the occupation has no high priority in life, there is no mobilization.

Furthermore, third, a precondition for activation seemed to be a consciousness of injustice, or the experience of injustice in the course of one’s biography, and particularly social injustice. The critique of concrete working conditions in a profession then led to engagement in the field of work and especially mobilization. Fourth, we found that a highly developed feeling of self-efficacy is vital for mobilization. By self-efficacy we follow Bandura’s (1997) understanding as being the conviction that one can achieve through one’s own behaviour certain results, while the dimension “environmental control” distinguishes whether events are influenced through individual actions (agency [i.e. indirectly]) or rather through external circumstances such as luck, destiny, or other powerful persons and the like. He distinguishes four types of self-efficacy— based on the self-perceived level of self-efficacy and possibility for controlling the environment — that lead either to social engagement and protest, to apathy and resignation, or to an over-conformity to the environment.

Fifth, in all mobilized respondents there occurred a conflictive separation from parents. It appeared almost as if the widespread modern approach to upbringing leads to an a-politization, and that the rejection of parents’ lifestyles promotes political engagement.

Pull-factors played also a huge role, it were a strong recruitational field of societally critical student groups, subcultures, personal role models and a range of available ideologies and appealing narratives that sound demanding but not impossible.

If we look at Noah as an example. He is 28, broke off his studies and took up a carpenter’s apprenticeship. His trade he considers almost an artistic activity, and it provides him with a strong occupational identity. For Noah, it is less the concrete working conditions in a firm that are important, and more the general working conditions in the capitalist system, that he rejects. Therefore, he joined a cooperative in which the incomes of the members are pooled and divided among all, so that all members are less dependent on individual orders and less on the ability and necessity to work constantly. For Noah the process of separation from his parents had a strong influence on his engagement in the politics of work. As his parents separated in a painful custody battle, Noah fled into in the punk scene and lived on the street. At age 18, he travelled for almost two years by bicycle through Europe and during this time] read leftist literature. His experience of the failure of the small-family model drove him to seek togetherness in alternative, collective structures. He lives in leftist-oriented communal housing project and engages himself in an anarchist union movement. His activity in the politics of work is for him a strong expression of his estrangement from the failed life-model of his parents.

Loyalty

The contrary case – no critique of conditions, but rather adaptation to them — presumes, one could say, is the absence of all these factors, though we can in fact elaborate a few own factors that foster loyalty. Above all this is an effect of the normalization of precarity: it is no longer perceived as something bad. Rather, it is considered something temporary; a difficult situation that can, when the youth phase has passed, or with a substantial educational investment, resolve itself. Here a strong belief in meritocracy is of consequence. If I invest enough, the system will reward me. Here is also the reason why, with equally high self-efficacy as in the “voice” type, no collective action ensues, but instead the logic of individual maximation prevails, with precarity remedied individually. At the same time, here the individual resources of actors are already significantly taken up by the management of the challenging, stressful youth phase. Too many things are waiting at the same time, above all the social pressure to “find yourself”. That is accompanied by the so-called neoliberal, unauthentic Self which, in the words of the economist Wrenn (2015), totally inflates the perception of one’s own ability to act, and in particular the control over the environment and tries to make the individual believe that all changes to the environment should be possible on the basis of individual agency and individual responsibility for everything. The unauthentic Self cannot recognize structures anymore. Adaptation or perhaps rather blockade; to undertake something in some direction; these motivations originate in great measure from precariousness. As Butler (2009) does, one can speak here of the physical and emotional vulnerability of all life, against which individuals try to immunize themselves. Many of our blocked subjects still suffer today from effects of childbirth, childhood neglect, the experience of violence, or chronic health problems. The experience of chronic illness or social mobbing may lead to loneliness and isolation. It is possible however that individuals in this type of situation may over the course of their biography decide on voice mechanisms if their precarity persists even beyond youth.

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Anna is an interesting case in Loyalty. Anna is 30, has two Master’s degrees, several internships behind her, international work and academic experience and up to now has had still no work contract lasting more than 6 months. As an adopted child in an upper middle-class family, she enjoyed generous support during her education and is financially secured against sudden need by her parents as well as by her long-standing boyfriend and now husband. Despite this, the long job-application phase after her studies she has spent in a state of depression. Anna is still searching for a suitable occupational profile for herself. Although she suffers from insecurity and her current work situation in a public administrative position and complains of the short-term contracts, she holds fast to the idea that through sufficient effort she will at some future time find a secure position.

Exit

The third variant, exit, means here above all the retreat into the private, or, if within employment, a switch of sector, a change from formal work to informal or even illegal work or resignation from employment. The escape motif ranges from taking a sabbatical, regular pauses, leaving on a trip or bike by bus, or all the way to founding a permanent commune in Spain.

Among biographical factors in taking the exit option we identify the lack of recognition. But also, young adults who are trying to find their initial place in the occupational world and fail, may then rather give up especially if the work is disagreeable and makes them sick, and then also choose the exit option. And when an alternative income is available, one can also rather afford to choose exit. The welfare state makes possible for some young women an early motherhood that, also after a separation from the partner, is financially secured if only on a low level, and thereby the mother role may replace the employment or occupational orientation.

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Cynthia is a good example for a highly qualified person who due to lack of recognition chooses exit. She is 35 at the time of the interview and like Anna she has both a German and international Master’s degree and had already collected a multitude of positions in her work history, in precarious jobs in different areas (at university, gastronomy, logistics). The option of doctoral studies, research and teaching she rejects because in her experience, university working conditions are unhealthy (overwork, stress, lack of security and recognition). As co-researcher in a research project in which she was employed for two years on renewable research-assistant contracts, she received — despite her responsible job — no sufficient pay, job security, social security or the possibility of co-determination in the organizational unit.

Though Cynthia saw in this work at least in part an opportunity for her own self-realization, this ultimately did not turn out so for her, so that she gradually withdrew from the labour market and [finally] emigrated to Spain to live in a commune.

Any scope for change?

We have shown here to what extent, irrespective of labour market, sector, or welfare state institutions, the mobilization of workers depends on biographical resources. If biographical factors play a huge role, then it is legitimate to ask if and how can biographical conditions be changed to make young workers more critical towards precarity? The answer is mainly through changes in the conditions of social context. The management of the effects of a traumatic childhood is best left to therapists, but the framework conditions for the politicization of work can however be adjusted by diverse societal actors, certainly unions, but also media, politics, NGOs and researchers.

In Germany, the protest of the precarious youth in comparison to other countries developed late. Possibly the protest will continue. Strikes by deliveroo drivers (i.e. riders, couriers), and collective wage increases for student part-timers could be an indication. It should however succeed to create communication spaces in which collective identities are formed that can exercise social criticism. In consideration of the scarce effect that can be had on biographical push-factors in the short term, only pull-factors remain as an arena for action, above all the attraction of ideology; here it should succeed to underscore the fact that social inequality is not an economic necessity or the result of different individual investments, but rather the result of political struggles in the arena of work. (Bourdieu 1998)

[1] www.prework.eu

 

References

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy in changing societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Bourdieu, P. (1998) Gegenfeuer. Wortmeldungen im Dienste des Widerstands gegen die neoliberale Invasion. Frankfurt: Büchergilde Gutenberg.

Butler, J. (2009) Frames of War. When is Life Grievable? London, New York: Verso

Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states. Cambridge, Mass. [u.a.]: Harvard Univ. Press.

Kelly, J.E. (1998) Rethinking industrial relations mobilisation, collectivism and long waves. New York: Routledge.

Menz, W./ Nies, S. (2016) Gerechtigkeit und Rationalität – Motive interessenpolitischer Aktivierung. WSI Mitteilungen, (7), 530.

Thiel, M./Eversberg, D. (2017) Normalisierte Prekarität und kollektive Solidarität. Eine junge Beschäftigtengeneration entdeckt die Interessenvertretung wieder, in: Berliner Debatte Initial, (3), 58.

Wrenn, M. V. (2015). Agency and neoliberalism. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 39(5), 1231.

 

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“Revolting Prostitutes” Book Launch

Book coverOn the 8th of November, CERIC hosted a panel discussion as a book launch event for the highly anticipated book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith. Mac and Smith are sex worker rights activists with SWARM and SCOT-PEP, and their book is a deeply researched yet highly accessible analysis of current sex work debates. Juno Mac is also known for her TED talk ‘The laws that sex workers really want’.

Revolting Prostitutes discusses current debates on sex work, national and international sex worker self-organisation, and how sex worker rights fit within an intersectional critique of inequality in society. Challenging both sides of the sex work debates in the UK (those who see sex work as a vocation and those who believe sex work is inherently violence against women), Mac and Smith argue that sex work is inherently violent not because of the sex involved, but because it is work.

CERIC is one of the leading research institutes in the UK when it comes to expertise on sex work as a topic of labour and work. The organiser and panel chair Lilith Brouwers is a CERIC postgraduate researcher into employment relations in sex work in England. Joining Juno Mac and Molly Smith on the panel was Nadine Gloss, CERIC postgraduate researcher into sex worker self-organisation and representation in Germany.

After an introduction of all panel members, Mac and Smith explained about the importance of seeing sex work as an issue of labour, and the influence this has had on their book. With an analysis of sex work as a form of labour, academics and activists can use a rights framework for their work, strengthening the demands sex worker organisations make of institutions like governments, police, NGOs and employers.

Nadine Gloss discussed the main obstacles she found in researching sex worker organisation: gaining access to and trust from sex workers and sex worker-led organisations. With any labour ethnographic research comes the challenge of finding participants willing to be observed within their organisation, but understandably sex workers are more wary than most of researchers misrepresenting their work.

Another point of discussion was the differences panel members had noticed between sex worker organising in the UK and in Germany. While sex worker led organisations in Germany aim to present sex work as a free choice – in response to discourses which present sex workers as victims – UK sex worker rights organisations identify closer to working class movements which do not present work as inherently positive. This identification specifically as workers also builds solidarity between other social movements such as the migrant rights, prison abolitionist, and LGBT+ rights movements.

After questions from attendants of the event, Mac and Smith were kind enough to sign copies of their book during the wine reception following the panel.

Book Launch

CERIC Doctoral Conference 2018

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Emma Partlow

By Emma Partlow, Postgraduate Researcher, Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology (University of Birmingham)

I was honoured to have been invited to present my research at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) Doctoral Conference on the 20th June at Leeds University Business School. As a doctoral student from the University of Birmingham, it was a pleasure to network within a room full of people who articulated original and innovative research in such an engaging manner.

The conference encompassed a wide-range of disciplines, including: Social Policy, Languages and Cultural Studies, Psychology, Performance and Cultural Industries and of course, Business and Management in its many forms. It was exciting to see how a diverse range of talks could marry together under the banner of Inequalities in the Workplace. These talks encompassed everything from: sexual harassment in the workplace, strategic human resource management, apprenticeships, inequalities in skills developments during recessions, collective labour conflicts in China, case study on the Nigerian Electricity Distribution Sector, sex work, organisational stress management, pay gaps and inequality, labour insecurity, marginalisation of theatre lighting designers, power in modern management, and the employment experiences of people with Multiple Sclerosis. Not forgetting the key note talk from Professor Chris Forde who kicked off the day so eloquently with the ‘Inequalities of Work in the 21st Century – The Rise of the Gig Economy’.

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Participants of the Doctoral Conference

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to present my research project looking at the impact of equalities legislation on disabled people in the workplace, which critically analyses the concept of ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the policy context of the Government’s White Paper Improving Lives. The audience were receptive to my theoretical framing, which sees me draw upon the concept of bio-power and subtle coercion in the form of Libertarian Paternalism.

Doctoral students eloquently presented their work and the day flew by with methodological discussions, engaging debate and suggestions within an entirely supportive and ‘safe’ space. It has to be said that this was one of the most supportive academic spaces I have had the pleasure to participate in. The development of spaces where doctoral students can engage in supportive discussion about their work is important and something we must actively continue to arrange.  I am sure I am not alone when I say that questions, comments and suggestions received in this manner are invaluable and can go a long way in supporting a thought-process or the development of ideas.

I would like to thank CERIC and Leeds University Business School for their generosity and hospitality. Not only did they host this doctoral conference and provided refreshments and lunch but prizes were provided for the prize winners and I am honoured to have been chosen as one of these prize winners. The prizes were put forward to help with the cost of attending conferences of choice; I think this is an excellent incentive to encourage people to share their work, regardless of the stage they are at within their doctoral journey.

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From left to right: joint 1st prize winner for best paper presentation Maisie Roberts (CERIC), Dr Jo Ingold, joint 1st prize winner  Marina Boulos (CERIC), joint winner for the best poster presentation Sophie Morrell (Bradford) and 2nd prize winner for best paper presentation Emma Partlow (Birmingham)

The success of this doctoral conference has inspired me to adopt the theme of ‘Inequalities and Work’ to host a conference at the University of Birmingham so please do watch this space! It would be my pleasure to welcome some familiar and friendly faces to Birmingham and to hear how your work has developed since this event.

CERIC members publish Work, Employment and Society Special Issue

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Early career researchers, Gabriella Alberti, Ioulia Bessa, Kate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney have published a Special Issue of the high-ranking journal Work, Employment and Society.

The issue “In, Against and Beyond Precarity: The Struggles of Insecure Workers” contains pieces spanning geographic contexts from China to Chile and Britain to Brussels. The issue follows the 2016 Work, Employment and Society conference which was organised and hosted by Centre of Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds. Authors from Finland, Hong Kong, Germany, Denmark, Peru and the UK have contributed excellent pieces on workers including taxi-drivers, couriers, managers, mine and public-sector workers. In the round, they offer a close interrogation of the notion of precarity and the insecurity it produces, bringing in issues relating to worker struggle, the standard employment relationship and supply chain.

In their introduction, the CERIC editors take to task the concept of ‘precarity’, arguing instead that a focus on ‘processes of precarisation’ may be more analytically helpful for understanding the range of contexts in which the term is applied. They also point to the need to think about work and labour in the broadest terms, emphasizing a ‘need to address precariousness in the realm of social reproduction and post-wage politics’ as well as more formal studies of employment.

The Special Issue is on Open Access until 2nd July.

CERIC to host workshop on Universal Basic Income and the Future of Work

JPEG Yellow-BlueKate Hardy, Vera Trappmann and Charles Umney

In the face of widening disparities of wealth, changes in work and employment in which low pay dominates and the ability of work to lift people out of poverty declines, debates about the future of social protection have come to the fore. In contexts from the Global South to the ‘developed’ North wage labour appears decreasingly able to distribute social wealth or protect individuals and households from poverty.

In this context, scholars, activists and policy makers have begun to examine alternatives to existing systems of welfare, including negative income tax, cash transfers and universal basic income and guaranteed minimum income. Basic income has become the most visible and perhaps most contested of these proposals. The notion of a universal basic income – a non-conditional base income for all citizens – has attracted increasing popular purchase within social movements, institutions and governments. Numerous academic pilot experiments from Canada to Namibia and India have been undertaken, while governments are rolling out experiments in Finland, Barcelona and Utrecht. Proponents of basic income have been drawn from across the political spectrum, finding support from Milton Friedman and Bill Gates to Frances Fox Piven and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

On 26th January, CERIC will host a workshop bringing together theorists, practitioners and social movements to this day long workshop will explore these questions, focusing on basic income, wage labour, work and employment, by asking:

• How does basic income relate to changes in the labour market, including the growth of the digital and gig economy?
• How does it impact on work and employment?
• How might it effect women’s rights and gender equality?
• What can we learn from basic income experiments in progress?

This will be is a CERIC event to discuss key contemporary issues in work and employment.

The event is sponsored by the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC) and Leeds University Business School (LUBS).

 

Teachers and the Summer 2013 uprising in Turkey

Burcak_Ozoglu
Burcak OZOGLU- CERIC

The grand[i] uprising in the Summer 2013 in Turkey raises important questions for social scientists and prevailing conceptual frameworks for understanding social movements and resistance. This blog examines the dynamics of the uprising in terms of class struggle via the case of school teachers.

The spark that ignited the uprising, at the end of May 2013, was an environmentalist issue, protesting the destruction of one of İstanbul’s few green public park areas (Gezi Park at Taksim square). However, the action on the streets quickly transformed into an anti-AKP[ii] /anti-government movement. The brutal intervention of the police force, at the instigation of president Erdoğan, provoked demonstrators, as the sphere of resistance shifted from Taksim Square to the whole country.

Hundreds of young teachers also took to the streets, participated in public forums and marched at the rallies in the Summer 2013. Although their primary revolt was about their basic social rights as a citizen and against the government’s brutality via the police, they also had their own agenda. Whenever teachers were chanting “Everywhere is Taksim!” they meant their schools and classrooms as well as the streets of their neighbourhoods. Boyun eğme (Do not surrender!) was a call for them not only to fight back to the authoritarianism of the AKP government over their everyday lives at home, but also against the deteriorating labour processes and employment issues at work. In otherwords, the young teachers were rebelling against the brutal police, the oppressive government and their coercive “employer”.

Three key points of argumentation should be noted:

1)  The provocative role of the AKP government, led by Erdoğan, was a key factor triggering the 2013 Turkish uprising. For more than a decade, Erdoğan and his governments meticulously followed an aggressive path of neoliberalism as well as an obscurant and oppressive strategy. The AKP government has sought to restructure processes across public employment in general, including increasing reforms of the education sector.

The reforms have covered recruitment and appointment systems at the primary and secondary levels in the public education sector in Turkey and have led to an obvious deterioration in the employment relations of teachers:

  • Teaching as an occupation and professional has been trivialised.
  • A precarious and iniquitous employment model has been formed.
  • Considering the yearly teaching time and the time spent at work, teachers in Turkey are working considerably more but teaching less than the OECD average.[iii]
  • Teachers are being paid less than the OECD average.[iv]
  • By the newly introduced applications of performance management and business like appraisal methods, teachers have been experiencing loss of autonomy and control over their labour processes and high level of deskilling.

2)  The uprising in Turkey might have been triggered by environmentalist concerns of the urban middle classes but was in no way an apolitical gathering of the It should be noted that there is a particular history of unrest in the country. Tensions have been gradually rising for more than a decade.

Before the uprising of 2013, August had become the month for teachers’ demonstrations. The candidates, who have their university degrees but have not yet been appointed as a teacher, met every year on the streets of the main cities of the country. By March 2012, there had been 30 suicides as a consequence of not being appointed as a teacher.

On the other hand, the obscurant policies of AKP had been turned into direct pressure in the schools over the teachers. The backward changes in the curricula besides the new laws regulating Islamic religious schools and courses created an intense unrest within the teachers as well as the parents.

3)  The last issue relates to the presence (or absence) of the so-called traditional forms of employee organizations. Although the overwhelming working class character of June 2013 is now accepted, neither the unions, other representative association or any of the opposition parties played a key role in the actions. Teachers, for example, would name their neighbours, relatives or friends before their unions as comrades of June 2013.

I have to note that, current industrial relations` regulations in Turkey do not provide industrial action rights for public unions. In the education sector unionisation is more than 65 percent (1 007 865 employees of which 651 234 are union members), but with no rights for collective agreement and strike action.

Despite these constraints, I would still argue that unions largely neglected their members` struggle politically during June 2013 uprising.

Revealing these points, the teachers’ actions can be considered as an illustrative case for discussing the anti-capitalist characteristics and the class struggle dimensions of the uprising in Turkey and the movement beyond.


[i] Beginning from the end of May for more than three months, millions of people in most of the big cities of Turkey were active in one way or another in the protests. AKP government executed an improportionate force to the appeal of the people in response. Summer 2013 has been over, closing the first round with 6 deaths, couple more still struggling in coma, tens of young people who left their eyes and many others with serious injuries. Yet the tension has never decreased, on the contrary new agenda has been raising constantly since last summer. People who have been killed by the police forces has reached to 10 people.

[ii] AKP Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party), the political party currently holding the government of Turkey with a 49.9% vote power from the general election in 2011. The overall vote percentage of AKP has only decreased by 4.3 points (45.6%) in the `post-Gezi` local elections at March 30th 2014.

[iii] OECD 2009 Education at Glance Report

http://www.oecd.org/document/24/0,3746,en_2649_39263238_43586328_1_1_1_1,00.html#4

[iv] ibid

Fast food workers strike in the US, but who will unionise the UK’s chippies?

Jane Holgate WEB
By Jane Holgate, CERIC, University of Leeds

Low-waged workers in small workplaces are, statistically, the least likely to go on strike. They are unlikely to be unionised, are under close supervision from the boss and are easily replaceable. Traditionally, unions have paid little attention to these workers. Organising in small workplaces with high staff turnover provides little return for lots of effort.

Yet in the US, thousands of fast food workers from outlets such as McDonald’s, Domino’s and KFC have walked out of their workplaces taking their colleagues with them in a series of day-long strikes that began in 2012. The most recent of these involved coordinated action in 150 cities across the US last month.

But nothing of a similar scale has happened in the UK, and it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon. The reasons for this go to the heart of the differences between unions on either side of the Atlantic.

Poverty wages

It is easy to see why campaigners in the US have targeted fast food. The industry’s workers are the lowest paid in the country, according to government data. Their median salary is just $11,000 per year. They also suffer a high degree of “wage theft”, where employers dock their pay or force them to work unpaid hours.

Workers are demanding the right to join a union and are pushing the Obama government to increase the minimum wage nationwide. Currently, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 but individual states and cities have the power to set their own rates above this figure. Since the strikes began minimum wages increases have been secured in seven states and two cities. SeaTac, near Seattle, in Washington State was the first city to win an increase to $15, followed by the city of Seattle itself.

Complex labour laws mean unions face difficulties getting recognised by employers and the unions often experience expensive legal challenges from employers. The unions and unionised workers also face intimidation and bullying from multi-million dollar union-busting companies. To avoid this, unions have adopted a new tactical approach to organising in this sector.

New tactics

Campaigners have targeted the state and federal legislatures to increase the minimum wage. As many fast food restaurants are franchises, the owners have little room for manoeuvre when it comes to wages, as the price of supplies and food is set and regulated centrally by companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s. Low profit margins mean the owner of an individual McDonald’s franchise has little scope to increase wages.

The unions also chose to organise fast food workers in the community as opposed to in the workplace. They set up Fast Food Forward – a community coalition – where they have funded organisers to work with local groups and workers centres. Faith leaders in local churches and community activists have shown their support for the strikers. In one example, from late last year in New York, “Clergy and city council members walked a Wendy’s worker back in after her manager told her she was fired. The high-powered delegation convinced the manager to ‘unfire’ her”.

Workers are also legally protected from dismissal (largely), as it is unlawful to fire workers for attempting to organise a union.

Could these tactics work in the UK?

One reason this form of organising hasn’t spread to the UK is that local councils don’t have the power to set minimum wages. A minimum wage campaign could be directed at the national government, but unions in the UK have tended to use their political links with the Labour Party to press for demands for worker-friendly legislation and are unlikely to think it worthwhile to demand progressive labour laws from the current coalition government.

Unions in the UK also tend to be too focused on servicing their current members rather than on expanding into new, non-unionised workplaces. While some unions have adopted the language of organising, where this does take place, it tends to be where unions already have membership. For a typical UK union, a trip round the local high street’s fast food places would be a leap into the unknown.

It’s a leap the unions might be willing to take, if it weren’t for another problem: they simply don’t have the resources of their US counterparts. The UK trade union sector has seen merger after merger (a consequence of a failure to invest in organising) as unions need to consolidate in order to cut costs and survive.

In the US, unions are able to draw strength from being part of a wider tradition of community-based organising, including a number of national networks of faith-based and community coalitions. Geographically based community organising – while starting to take place in Unite, the largest private-sector union – is not a feature of UK trade unionism. But even Unite’s community membership is aimed at organising those not in work to campaign for social justice rather than workers in the workplace.

For unions in the UK looking enviously at the success their counterparts have had across the Atlantic, there are lessons to be learned. British trade unions could recast themselves as broader social justice organisations where their role is to create benefits for all workers rather than just their members. Forming genuine common-cause coalitions with progressive community organisations campaigning for social justice, instead of just requesting assistance when unions need support for an industrial dispute or campaign, could prove valuable in reaching into communities where unions do not have a base.

Further, the campaign for a living wage began in London in 2001 when London Citizens – a community coalition explicitly based on US organising tactics – began working with unions to secure wage increases for hospital workers in East London. Since then, this small organisation has managed to persuade dozens of employers to pay a living wage of £8.80 in London (£7.65 outside of London) per hour – £2.49 (£1.34) more than the national minimum. More than 100 local authorities have now committed to paying the living wage.

At the same time they have managed to shift the political discourse around low wages to that of a “living”, rather than a “minimum” wage, such that the Labour Party has committed to its introduction, should it be returned to government.

Unions need to get smarter and more flexible in the way they organise in order to adapt to the constantly changing labour markets and laws that make organising workers difficult. It can be done, but it requires a fundamental shake-up of the way unions currently operate and the adoption of more innovative and tactical approaches to organising.

Jane Holgate does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.