It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are a Trade Union activist you have to be prepared for many defeats. For me personally, the "On This Day" feature on Facebook serves as an almost daily reminder of the many calls for industrial action I have shared over the years, and how few of them resulted in a victory of any kind.
So it was with a great sense of joy that I heard over the radio the news of GMB's victory in the Uber case. Uber, the San Francisco based taxi company, had argued that its drivers were not their employees, but were instead self-employed contractors, and were therefore not entitled to minimum pay, sick-leave, or paid holidays. GMB, a general trade union, challenged this position on behalf of two Uber drivers, and, as of last Friday, a London employment tribunal decided in their favour. According to the tribunal, 'The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common 'platform' is to our mind faintly ridiculous.'
Uber has already challenged this ruling, so there may well be further changes down the road, but if this decision stands, it will have huge repercussions for the entire industry that goes by the name of the "Gig Economy". The rhetoric underpinning this sector is the same rhetoric used by Uber - that it is worth sacrificing employment benefits such as minimum wage in order to get the flexibility of not having to be an "employee". No less a person than Hilary Clinton has declared that:
Meanwhile many Americans are making extra money renting out a spare room, designing websites, or even driving their own cars. This on-demand, or so called gig economy, is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation.
There are many assumptions behind this rhetoric that need to be challenged. The labour of website design or driving, becomes, through this analysis, something that you can use in your own time, to earn yourself 'extra' money according to your own convenience. There is no room here for the situation I imagine most people are in - where it is, in fact, their main source of income, and the decision to take up the next "gig" is not so much a matter of easy flexibility as a stressful search for something to pay next month's rent with.
There is also a simultaneous assumption that flexibility and employees' rights are somehow mutually exclusive - that one can choose to be more flexible, or one can choose the grind of regular employment, where one has to work to someone else's timetable. Why can't I choose to work one or two or three days a week, and be paid minimum wage for the hours that I choose to work?
There will be protests that this ruling, if it stands, will mean Uber (and everyone else involved in the "gig economy") will have to rethink their business strategy, and that there will be fewer people employed as a result. Every single victory for employees' rights - from limits to working hours, to health and safety regulations, to minimum wage - has been met with the same response over the years. This new regulation, it is asserted, will mean more companies going out of business, and higher unemployment. Empirical evidence, unsurprisingly, is mixed at best, though we should remember that countries (including Britain) where measures like these have existed for some years now, have not seen their economy destroyed as a result.
So, the Uber ruling is a very good thing indeed - but you won't be surprised to hear a Trade Union activist say this. What is more interesting, and more troubling for me, is the realisation that even if the coming challenges to this ruling are unsuccessful, the "gig economy" as an entity isn't about to disappear. More and more people will have to rely on irregular, unreliable, intermittent contracts that do not provide any of the benefits trade unions have won through decades of hard work. And the scary truth is that trade unions, as things currently stand, are not best equipped to represent these people.
For the most parts, trade unions still work on the model of the "shop floor" - where people work in an environment with fixed boundaries, with a largely static workforce, where it is possible for the shop steward to know who the workforce is, and therefore who their potential membership is. Union activism still has to take the form of conversations in offices, or around water-coolers, or regular meetings in workplaces. In other words, the kind of worker a trade union can best represent is the worker who has regular employment in one location, and who is in a position to negotiate with their sole or main employer.
Unfortunately, this stability of employment is a privilege which most do not enjoy. Trade unions are ill-equipped to represent the worker on multiple zero-hour contracts, moving from one site to another, working for multiple employers at the same time, and getting stability from none. Trade unions struggle to represent the partially employed, the unemployed, the people whose employment situation (and income) changes from week to week.
It isn't immediately obvious how this can best be tackled. Perhaps trade unions need to adapt to work around neighbourhoods, as well as workplaces - creating community reps as well as shop stewards. I don't quite know how this will look, but I do know that it has to change and adapt, otherwise the most vulnerable workers will continue to be denied representation, and us trade union activists will have to continue to experience defeat.
For the moment, however, let us celebrate a rare and important victory.