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The New, Radical Independent Unions - Is Small Necessarily Beautiful?

13/11/2017 12:53 GMT | Updated 13/11/2017 12:53 GMT

Last week, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was in the news because the union backed its two members in helping make sure that Uber lost its appeal at the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The appeal sought to strike down the earlier decision of the Employment Tribunal in late 2016 that Uber's practice of self-employment for its drivers was bogus.

More than any other union, large or small, the IWGB union has led the way on fighting bogus self-employment and precarious employment amongst cleaners, couriers and drivers, especially in London. It has used legal means like Employment Tribunal applications as well as collective actions and social media campaigns. It and sister unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, known as Wobblies), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Cleaners' and Allied Independent Workers' Union (CAIWU) have been able to make considerable headway in successfully fighting for the rights of precarious workers, who are often also migrant workers.

The question this article seeks to raise is: why have they been able to do this when their much bigger and more longstanding counterparts like Unite and the GMB have not - member for member or pound for pound - been able to do so to the same extent? To try to answer this question, a number of subsidiary ones would seem to follow. These are:

• Are the longstanding general unions either too diverse (GMB, Unite, UNISON) or too specific (BFAWU, CWU, RMT) in their memberships to prioritise organising these precarious workers?

• Are these precarious workers are too expensive and resource intensive for these longstanding unions (with their greater overheads) to organise?

• Are the new, smaller unions better at doing so because they are necessarily more grass root- and activist-based and more democratic, participative and self-reliant (upon their members) than the larger, longstanding ones?

• Are these new, smaller unions more authentic because they are small and closer to their members?

• Do these smaller unions have greater tactical awareness (in terms of targeting the clients not contractors, using flashmob protests etc) than the likes of Unite with its well-resourced leverage campaigns?

This short article can do little more than raise these questions and hopefully point those interested in understanding union praxis in the right direction in seeking answers to them. Along the way, it is worth noting a few things.

Other than the IWW (1,200 members) which is not a new union, the other unions are both new and small: the IWGB was established in 2012 and has c.1,000 members; the UVW in 2014 and has c.300 members; and the CAIWU was established in 2016 and has c.700 members (according to the latest figures available from the Certification Officer). They are sisters unions not just in terms of the similar groups of workers they seek to organise but also in that the IWGB emerged out of the IWW and the CAIWU and UVW out of the IWGB, and all their main presences are all almost wholly in London.

The answers to the questions involve more complexity than at first sight because there is evidence of the longstanding general unions organising such precarious workers. For example, the GMB is organising in Addison Lee, Amazon, ASOS, Hermes and Uber and amongst foster carers; Unite in Sports Direct, and in hotels and restaurants; the RMT amongst cleaning contractors in transport; and BFAWU in McDonald's. Both GMB and Unite have used individual Employment Tribunal applications in order to try to establish collective precedents to benefit other members and workers in these types of so-called 'gig economy' companies.

Meantime, the IWGB has six branches (University of London; security guards and receptionists; cleaners and facilities; foster care; private hire drivers' branch; and couriers and logistics). In regard of the latter two branches, the IWGB organises workers, inter alia, in the following companies Addison Lee, City Sprint, Deliveroo, eCourier, Excel, Gophr, Mach1, TDL and Uber).

Clearly, there is some overlap and duplication between the longstanding and newer unions, if not outright competition, especially when the GMB members which took the successful original case against Uber decamped to the IWGB, and the re-invigorated IWW prior to 2012 resulted from activists and members leaving Unite and UNISON to join it. Although the IWW and IWGB have suffered splits, these small unions appear to be quite fraternal to each other. IWW members are often also members of other unions too. Such schisms amongst the new small unions reflect debates about democratic practices and control of resources which are intensified in 'David and Goliath' type struggles with employers.

The sensible retort from the longstanding unions to the 'new kids on the block' would presumably focus upon issues like whether i) the new unions have the resources to maintain themselves organisationally and as campaigners in the longer term (especially when the likes of Addison Lee, Deliveroo, Hermes and Uber have signalled they will contest the legal cases to the very end and awards against them will not automatically be applied to all their other workers); and ii) whether a multiplicity of unions prevents economies of scale be achieved, rather than charging the new, small unions as 'wreckers' and 'splitters'. The rejoinder from the new unions would presumably be based around saying: 'Look at how much we have achieved with so little!', 'We have achieved this much because our modus operandi is predicated on the union being its members' and 'Our size allows us to be more participative'. From this, they may conclude that they might act in a beneficial way as 'ginger groups' to their bigger, longstanding counterparts. In this sense, the competition between them could have positive outcomes.

The debate over which set of unions - the longstanding large ones or the new, small ones - should not, however, become too bogged down in a divide of binary opposites because while there are clear differences between them, there are also some similarities in terms of strategies and tactics and, as hinted at, unions can learn from other unions. Indeed, there are examples of new approaches being adopted by longstanding unions and union organisations that are redolent of the new, small unions. Among these are the STUC's Better than Zero, Unite's Fair Tips and BFAWU's Fast Food Rights campaigns. This is also why it would be wrong, as some have done, to pose the new small unions alone as the potential saviours of the union movement.

Hopefully, the study of both 'forms' of labour unionism by activists and academics can help to begin to provide rigorous and robust answers to the questions posed at the outset of this short article.