Amid a challenging time for trade unions in Wales, Nisreen Mansour and Joe Allen look to recent examples of successful workers’ movements.
At the time of writing, tens of millions of workers in India are participating in a general strike; Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffee shops are unionising in the USA; and refuse workers from the UK to Lebanon are striking for better pay.
Trade unionism is a fundamental right. It is part of our democracy and a way of taking back power.
A shift to more direct action is clearly on the agenda for some of the new leaders of the UK’s largest unions, as workers become increasingly dissatisfied with pay offers that don’t even come close to the inflation rate, poor management, eroding pensions and widespread exploitation.
But what about trade unionism in Wales?
Academics at WISERD in Cardiff have explored this, including in our ex-coalfield communities. They found that people living in ex-mining areas retain an increased propensity for union membership, with places serving as conduits for trade unionism.
They also asked: what might be the ‘coalfields’ of the future, capable of acting as incubators for future generations of trade union members?
Trade unionism has become something that lots of us are simply not exposed to.
This line of questioning has pre-occupied trade unions for the entire time we’ve been active in the movement. And yet there isn’t enough open discussion about the future of trade unionism in Wales specifically.
Part of this, perhaps, is because trade unionism has become something that lots of us are simply not exposed to.
Only around one in six private sector workers in Wales is a member of a trade union. So, for many workers – especially those who entered the labour market in recent decades – they simply have no clear idea about why they should be a member of a unions.
Those of us within the movement must accept that to a large extent this lack of recognition of the benefits of trade unions represents a failing on our part. It’s true that the political and legislative context has been incredibly hostile for the last forty years, but it’s equally true that our efforts to adapt have fallen short.
Union membership is considerably higher across the public sector. Over half of workers are members of unions in the public sector, and virtually all pay, terms and conditions are determined through collective bargaining.
There is also a union footprint in parts of the third sector, especially in organisations which were once part of the public sector, but again it’s less prevalent than in our public sector. There have also been unique challenges within the third sector – where employers have frequently used their laudable charitable goals to mask anti-worker tactics that can be as ruthless as anything found elsewhere.
A private matter
But there is no question that our biggest challenges are in the Welsh private sector. So we need to be attuned to what is happening – and working – elsewhere.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the union drives in the USA are that they are happening in the private sector, in relatively new types of workplaces, and they are being driven by young(ish) workers.
Jaz Brisack, Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer are trade union organisers who don’t exactly fit the union baron stereotype, and their work at Starbucks and Amazon is not low hanging fruit. Just like here, workers in hospitality and distribution are at greater risk of low pay, exploitation and precarity which is a barrier to organising in itself because you need to build capacity before you can start to reap the rewards of unionisation and collective bargaining.
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And they didn’t just build capacity through meetings. Instead they hosted barbecues, spoke to their colleagues at the bus stop and recruited reps who spoke in the language that their colleagues were most comfortable using. It’s the sort of organising model that would probably sound familiar to those who work in heavily unionised organisations, and yet completely alien to those who don’t.
Another remarkable feature is that they are exposing how deep-rooted employers’ anti-union sentiment can be. As two people who spend a lot (a lot!) of time trying to convince government that they need to be less credulous and more alert to anti-union employers, our case was made for us by Starbucks’ anti-union website. In a statement we doubt anyone could actually say with a straight face, they proclaim: “[w]e do not believe unions are necessary at Starbucks because we know that the real issues are solved through our direct partnership with one another.” It has also targeted union activist staff members, including through cutting back their hours to try to force them out.
There has often been a marked reluctance to give meaningful and committed public support to unions when doing so risked discomforting any employers in Wales
On a political level, it has been notable how strongly supportive, by historical standards at least, the Biden administration has been of the new wave of American union activism. While efforts to strengthen employer rights have been blocked by an uncooperative Congress, Biden has provided the kind of strong rhetorical backing that would be hard to imagine coming from his predecessors in the last fifty years.
In contrast, while the Welsh Government has a number of important pro-worker initiatives underway – from the implementation of the Fair Work Commission’s recommendations to the new Social Partnership and Procurement Bill – there has often been a marked reluctance to give meaningful and committed public support to unions when doing so risked discomforting any employers in Wales.
Perhaps even more importantly, Biden’s appointment of pro-labour officials to key posts in the country’s administrative structure has ensured that workers are operating on more of an even playing field than they have been in decades. It should be noted here that the context in the States is very different than here where we don’t have the same politicised appointments. But it does demonstrate the importance of political will in driving an agenda forward and overcoming bureaucratic resistance.
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar summed it up so succinctly when she said: ‘Every worker in America should have democratic control of their workplace through a strong [labour] union.’
This message is universal – every worker in Wales should have democratic control of their workplace through a strong labour union too. The challenge, then, is to seize the opportunity that the global trade union resurgence represents – even if doing so necessitates overhauling received wisdom and dealing with the discomforts of change.
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