Unions and the struggles of workers around the world are the reason some of us have any rights at all in the workplace. Employment laws have been fought for by the literal blood, sweat and tears of activists around the world, with significant victories. Despite this union membership numbers declined significantly in the last two decades here in the UK- however statistics are now showing some signs that this may just be about to change.
Last year union membership rose by 103,000 overall which followed an increase the previous year as well. The figures are bittersweet, however. While female membership of unions has risen to 26.2%, male membership has fallen to 20.7%. There are also large generational gaps between union members too. 40% of workers who are part of a union are aged over 50 while just 4.4% are aged 16 to 24.
There are many reasons why this may be. Many young people do not know what the role of a union is or how they are relevant to them. Schools do not teach of the victories of unions and workers struggles. While union membership was almost standard few decades back, many young people have not grown up in a household where a parent or guardian was a member of one. With many young people on extremely low wages or zero hours contracts and without good working knowledge of unions, it is easy to see why they might see union dues as an unnecessary luxury.
There is also a huge gap in membership between those in the public and private sectors, with those in the latter having decreased by 47,000 in numbers- a huge concern, but of no surprise when we look at the lengths large corporations are going to in order to prevent their employees from unionising. Many people are also worried that joining a union will get them into trouble or cause them to lose their job and their fears are certainly not unfounded.
In August this year, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy openly threatened to fire any employee in the company who tried to unionise. In a blog post which resurfaced from 2015 he wrote: “I can’t tell you how much I want them to unionise. Just so I can smash their little union to smithereens”. When Rafi Letzer, a union advocate and writer at Live Science vowed to support Barstool Sports employees in forming a union following this, Portnoy responded with another tweet that said “If you work for Barstool Sports and DM this man, I will fire you on the spot” before threatening to sue any unionising workers for “damages and back wages”.
He is now under investigation from the National Labor Relations board as it is written in US law that workers have a right to join a union and that preventing them from doing so is a criminal offence, as it is in the UK. This doesn’t seem to faze Portnoy much though, who tweeted “So are they suing for a heartfelt apology? Is that what I really just read? How about this? Go fuck yourself. Case dismissed”.
But even bigger companies than Barstool Sports have come under scrutiny regarding their behaviour towards unions and employees attempting to organise. In 2017, the United Auto Workers (UAW) filed an official complaint against Tesla, stating that the company fired staff who were attempting to form a union, something strenuously denied by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk. However his disdain of unions isn’t exactly concealed. While he claims to be neutral on them, he has repeatedly stated that there is no need for his workers to unionise when they already have healthcare and had a “good safety record”, and he has even gone so far to try and blame the UAW for destroying the auto industry in the US.
For the record, Tesla’s safety record isn’t great at all. At their Fremont, California plant there have been twenty four investigations into factory safety, and between 2014 and 2018 they received fines for 54 violations at that plant alone. Accidents have included severed fingers, a pelvic bone fracture and a severe back injury caused by a rear hatch door dropping onto an employee who later stated he did not get adequate medical care by Tesla’s contracted clinic. When questioned about their safety record, Tesla’s vice president for environmental health and safety said “ The most important metric is fatalities, and our number is zero”. So basically, the standard is that as long as no one actually dies on the job, they’re good.
One former worker, Dezzimond Vaughan claimed he discovered that his job was on the line when Tesla somehow found out he was having meetings at his home to try and form a union. Vaughan was eventually fired following two supposed poor employee performance reviews, which had the review scores changed by upper management after they were completed. The original, positive comments written about him and his work were still visible on the report.
Musk has also accused another former factory worker who highlighted several safety issues within Tesla of being a Union plant. He also bizarrely promised frozen yogurt to employees in a letter asking them to inform them of any unionisation efforts within the company. Around about the same time as this, an employee named Michael Sanchez was made to leave company property by Tesla security after handing out pro union fliers outside the factory to his colleagues.
Walmart too, have recently come under the radar, when in July 2019 a pro union employee was fired after they posted an internal policy memo on reddit that introduced new measures which really just entailed a plan to reduce the number of managers and forcing more responsibilities on frontline workers for no extra reward. The result of this was that Walmart’s subreddit was then flooded with pro union memes in solidarity with the sacked worker who believes that Walmart corporate was monitoring their original subreddit.
Then there is the ongoing revelations about Amazon. Earlier this year, Amazon were accused of trying to dissolve its employees unionisation efforts after a leaked training video for managers emerged, with instructions on spotting union activity containing tips such as “make it a point to regularly talk to associates in the break room. This will help protect you from accusations that you were only in the break room to spy on pro-union associates”.
As part of management recruitment, Amazon also specify they want their potential managers to have significant experience in handling union organising operations and responding to union activity.
After such negative press, Amazon then made some excruciatingly awkward efforts to improve their brand reputation. They introduced ‘Amazon Fulfillment (FC) Center Ambassadors’ which if you saw the tweets, could only be described as being witness to corporate Stockholm syndrome.
The Amazon FC ambassador accounts began to appear and flood social media with robotic sounding responses about what a great place Amazon was to work. Some of the accounts were specifically anti-union, branding unions as “thieves” and stuck rigidly to a script from which they refused to deviate when other service users who engaged with them tried to bring up certain topics.
Like Tesla, Amazon claim unions are not required as their organisation is such a good one. But on Prime Day in July this year, Amazon workers organised a strike in response to pay and conditions. Because again, like Tesla, there have been serious concerns about the safety of Amazon employees. Last year, Amazon employees in the UK were reported to be urinating in bottles or missing toilet breaks altogether in order to meet arduous daily targets, and in a survey carried out by Organise, 80% of its workers stated they would never return to the organisation if they found another job. This followed an undercover investigation by a reporter from The Mirror who infiltrated an Amazon warehouse in 2017. There they found employees having to walk up to a third of a mile to go to the toilet, and reported that some staff had to be attended by ambulance crews due to exhaustion or accidents from the long, gruelling hours and compulsory overtime.
Seven former workers have also claimed they were fired due to pregnancy when they asked for more bathroom breaks and less hours on their feet.
It’s certaintly not just large corporate giants like Amazon, Walmart and Tesla that need unions. There are plenty of stories within organisations like the NHS and charity sector- organisations seen by the public as ‘caring’- that are rife with tales of poor treatment of their employees. Disciplinaries where workers are demonstrably unwell, combined with constant harassment from HR are almost standard in today’s workforce.
And here lies one of the major problems, particular when it comes to our younger workforce. There is a danger that we are beginning to be conditioned into accepting that low wages, poor conditions and corporate harassment as simply a part of working life. If your boss or company is anti-union, that is the biggest indicator that you are probably going to be most in need of one.
Because they are as relevant now as when they first formed, regardless of how you feel you are treated at work. I’m lucky, in that my boss is approachable, fair and has acted appropriately with regards to a recent health issue I have had. And I’m still part of a union- well two actually- and I’m happy to pay my dues. Why? Because things can always change and while things are going well for me personally, it might not always be the case. Either for me, or other colleagues, or for workers from entirely different organisations who it is important to show solidarity with. An injury to one is an injury to all, as the Industrial Workers of the World say.
Know your history. Every right we have as workers was fought for by workers before us and by unions. They were not given to us out of the goodness of a bosses heart, as they will claim, and we are in stark danger of losing these. Because there is an apathy, an assumption, that once we have won a battle, the reward can never be taken away from us, that our rights then become carved in stone. But while oppressive state structures are in place, the struggle will always be there, and they will always test how much we will endure.
On May 4th, 1886, Chicago, what became known as the Haymarket Massacre took place, and preceded one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in American history as four anarchist labor activists were hanged in response. Around this time, many immigrant adults and children were working in factories for 60 hours a week for $1.50 an day. Unions were calling for safer conditions and less hours- “8 hours a day, with no cut in pay”- across the US. The rally in Haymarket Square was organised by August Spies, editor of the anarchist publication, Workers Times. The day before the rally, police had opened fire on workers striking at Chicago McCormick Company plant, killing two of them. During the gathering, police moved forward trying to shut down one of the speakers. At this point a stick of dynamite exploded, killing the officers it landed near and injuring others. To this day it is unknown who threw the explosive, but one thing that is clear was it was not any of the men who were executed for it: August Spies, Adolph Fischer, George Engel and Albert Parsons. Another man, Louis Lingg, committed suicide in prison and another two were eventually pardoned for a crime they had no knowledge would even take place.
But from this outrage and the corrupt trial that the activists endured, came change. Support for the Knights Of Labor, fighting for the 8 hour day grew to 700,000 in number. The public holiday that we now call May Day sprang from this event, but very few people seem to know this. Around the world we still have small children in factories. We still have people being killed for trying to unionise, and it’s not an exaggeration to say there is safety in numbers. In 2001 Coca Cola were accused of hiring paramilitary groups to murder workers after nine union members were murdered at bottling plants in Colombia over 13 years. Columbia has by far the largest number of union killings, with what is thought to be around 3800 trade unionists killed between 1986 and 2010.
Unions are not just about supporting workers’ rights within organisations. The power of unions can and should be used to show solidarity and praxis to oppressed people around the world. In 1974 a small group of Scottish Rolls Royce workers and trade unionists at the East Kilbride factory refused to repair jet engines for Pinochet’s regime, who were killing civilians following the coup and murder of socialist Prime Minister Salvador Allende. Chilean filmmaker Felipe Bustos Sierra, whose father was an exile living in Belgium, lovingly retells the story in his documentary ‘Nae Paseran’ after he grew up on stories of the workers act of solidarity that had no idea how much it meant to the political prisoners and refugees they protected. More recently around 500 workers at Boston based furniture company Wayfair organised themselves to walk out after they discovered Wayfair had a contract with detention centres on the Southern border in the US, where there have been reports of horrifying conditions and deaths of immigrant children detained at the border.
Unions are only as strong, as militant or as protective as the people in them. The echoes of Thatcher’s brutality of the unions in the UK is still felt today even by those too young to remember it.
Your unions or any type of organised action you form in the workplace should look like you. They should fight for the things that affect you in your work place. To do that we need to be organised as workers, however we do that. Don’t wait until you are in trouble to do so. Because then you are already vulnerable. We are instilled with a fear that unionising will get us into trouble, but by doing so, we make it harder for them to pick us off. There are many reasons why some feel disillusioned with unions. I spent my early working life not being part of one because the union associated with my organisation at the time supported Tony Blair’s government so I refused to pay dues to them because I believed there were no other options.
Organised workers protect each other and those further afield. Worker solidarity is not just those on the factory or office floor or in the fields. It’s the communities forming soup kitchens to feed the striking miners and their families. It’s the Flint Women’s emergency brigade who protected General Motors strikers from police and used brooms and mops to smash windows to release tear gas and keep people safe.
It’s protecting and fighting alongside indigenous people who are exploited by forced labour practices and have their land taken from them by corporations. It’s supporting those who are not in employment at all. It’s calling out MP’s giving themselves an 11% pay rise while telling us we are all in this together. It’s not accepting the drudgery of our lives when we are seen only as a commodity, or ever increasing pension ages where they make us work until we drop.
Brands are not people who need our love and loyalty, and celebrity CEO’s are not our friends. Talking to that worker you only ever nod to on site, or other people within your communities, listening to their dreams and their struggles is more radical than we ever realise. Defy any instructions from your employer not to talk to colleagues and resist attempts to divide you. Support striking workers instead of crossing picket lines or grumbling that they caused you an inconvenience as you rant on facebook about how they should all be sacked.
With more of us spending less and less time from our loved ones because of long hours and commutes, we need to be reminded that it doesn’t have to be this way. Those who fought for the 8 hour day were told it would never happen. That authorities would not allow it, and yet we have never needed their permission. Imagine a better life.