In the last few months, a number of large, household name companies like Hermes, Sports Direct and ASOS have come under intense external pressure to change the way they treat their workforces (whether employed directly or not). Most have conceded to these external demands, albeit grudgingly and slowly. Going a bit further back, similar success has been recorded on the issue of employers taxing customer tips for waiters in restaurants, the gaining of the independent living wage and the ending the use of zero hour contracts.
With strikes at an all- time low since record began in 1893 and unions' influence much depleted, these advances in defending workers' terms and conditions of employment highlight alliances of unions and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are beginning to bear significant fruit.
This shows that unions in Britain have developed a model of working with other concerned parties to pack a bigger punch. Consequently, what unions now do is to create a political 'hot potato' by gaining the support of progressive news outlets like the Guardian and parliamentary committees in order to begin to exercise political leverage over companies and the government. They begin by getting members and supporters in the concerned companies to write to MPs and offer access to journalists whereby workers tell their stories.
Upon verification of these 'bad news' stories, the news outlets conduct their own investigations which they then widely publicise the results of. Meantime, this supports willingness of a small handful of key MPs, often the chairs of important parliamentary committees, to call employers to account by compelling them to give testimony before said committees and to write to government ministers urging corrective action. The actions of the MPs provide the news outlets with a further bite at their national news cherries. Members of the general public are then free to comment on the stories on the news outlets' websites as well as distribute the 'bad news' stories through their social media means.
The senior management of the companies are then badly stung by unwanted and unfavourable media attention. Shareholders start asking questions about why this is happening and start proffering solutions to resolve the situation. A tipping point is reached when the government is forced to make statements that it will investigate certain employer practices and uphold the law where it has not been adhered to. The process shows how external pressure on companies causes internal changes in the companies' human resource practices.
For students of employment relations, the unfolding story of how unions kick start the process of creating political 'heat' on such rapacious employers shows that unions have learnt that there is more than one way to skin the proverbial tiger. This does not mean that political campaigning has made industrial action redundant. Rather, what it does show is that unions have realised that they must adapt to new situations and, for the time being, use other, innovative means. For the sharper eyed students of employment relations, there will be some sense of déjà vu, whereby the long tradition of political campaigning that unions have always engaged in is merely being updated and operationalised in the digital, social media age.
For the unions, these small handful of victories provide the space and opportunity to think about creating more general modus operandi to not just tackle the existing array of other rapacious employers that abound but how to effectively make them change their ways. More widely linking internal employee support to external NGO support so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts will be the key challenge here. Specifically, this raises three key issues.
• Are the aforementioned types of leverage campaigns sustainable on a wider basis in the longer term without the affected workers joining the unions undertaking these campaigns?
This is a pertinent question because such campaigns are costly and resource intensive and in order to undertake similar future campaigns, unions need to begin gaining a financial return from existing ones in order to help finance future ones.
• Can forms of collective workplace representation be sustained in the long run after a successful leverage campaign without the affected workers joining the relevant unions?
The campaigns have had success in tackling a limited number of issues with particular workplaces and companies. But this does not mean that all of the workforce grievances or aspects of injustice have been resolved. Consequently, a permanency to a form of collective organisation is needed to take up the challenge of resolving these other issues. Workplace union organisation is by far the most obvious and effective possible means.
• Do the aforementioned leverage campaigns suggest that ideas about community organising and social movement unionism need to be revised and updated in the light of the specific utility of investigative journalism and parliamentary committees (as the later lie outside the normal conceptualisation of community organising and social movement unionism)?
The use of a small number of a very particular kind of means to create political heat at the national level is unlikely to be applicable to every situation for not all targeted companies will have a national standing or size that facilitates interest from national news outlets or parliamentary committees. Consequently, pre-existing forms of community organising and social movement unionism are likely to still to have purchase in other situations. Identifying which employers have which kind of standing or size will be vital to choosing which types of newer or older tactics to deploy.