new unionism

Solidarity and the gig economy

by Peter Hall-Jones
for the New Unionism Network

Gig economyIt’s a credit to the tireless efforts of Professor Guy Standing that the word ‘precariat’ has made its way into most English dictionaries. In case you’re not up to speed (and who is these days?) it means: “the class of people who are poor and do not have secure jobs” (Cambridge Dictionary). Sure, there has been a bit of debate around whether this group really constitutes a separate ‘class’, but nobody disputes that the phenomenon itself is very real.

Almost 40% of young workers in the OECD are in non-standard work, such as contract or temporary work, or involuntary part-time employment (more). At global level more than 60% of workers, predominantly women, are in temporary, part-time or short-term jobs in which wages are falling (ILO 2015).  And of the top 20 global employers in 2017, five are outsourcing and ‘workforce solutions’ companies (more).

In the twenty-first century Dolly Parton’s ‘Nine to Five’ just doesn’t work as an anthem anymore.

Naturally, the English language being what it is, we have a range of apolitical synonyms for the word ‘precariat’. Workers who survive by performing a series of temporary jobs, and/or juggle bits and pieces of contract work, are called ‘casuals’ or ‘freelancers’ or even ‘micro-entrepreneurs’. Their stamping ground is ‘the gig economy’. It’s all very rock’n’roll. Being your own boss, meeting endless new people, wide horizons, flexible hours, maximum variety… what’s not to like? In fact, there is a lot of research to suggest that the majority of such independent workers – in the USA and Europe at least – have ‘chosen’ to work this way (eg McKinsey Global 2016).

At this point you might like to reflect for a moment upon the use of the word ‘choice’ in industrial relations. I was one of a generation who ‘chose’ to go on the dole in New Zealand in the 1980s. In reality, the employment market had collapsed around our ears. There were no jobs for us to go to. The only real choice we had was whether or not to interpret our situation in a cheerful light.

Anyway, choice or no choice, all this is about to change.



wdMembers of this network have been arguing that the union movement needs to become more involved in organizing for workplace democracy. Study after study, survey after survey, have shown that workers in post-industrial nations want more direct voice and influence in the workplace. However, by and large their aspirations are represented by a movement whose bargaining agenda has remained the same for decades.

Union organizers will be familiar with the tensions that result from this. What do you do when the members’ main concern seems to be about the boss making stupid decisions? Or the KPIs being out-of-synch with reality? Or a culture of nepotism generating widespread depression? Or a flash new I.T. system screwing up everybody’s workflow? How does all this fit into a program of achievable gains? Few workers will mention the word “democracy” during such conversations, but what they are wanting is to be heard. And they do not want to be sub-divided or co-opted in the process. This is clearly a role for unions, whether they decide to accept it or not. It is also a huge opportunity for recruitment. Think about all those employees who don’t join because they have it in their head that unionism is just about pay and conditions. (more…)

1The usual story begins sometime in the late ’70s. Cue violins. “The rise of neoliberalism — as personified by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — signalled the beginning of the end for trade unionism. Since then, unions have experienced rapid and relentless decline…”  Right?  As a despairing friend put it, a while back: “Unions have spent the last forty years trying to turn a rout into a retreat”.

The trouble with this dominant narrative is that, according to the best data we have available, it is wrong. For most countries, at least. In this paper Peter Hall-Jones looks at how our perspective has been skewed by the experience of a relatively small number of post-industrial nations. The real story is far more interesting. It also suggests a positive way forward. Rather than running trade unions as ailing small businesses, we should be building cooperation along supply chains. (more…)


This is the final in our series on how global unions might be built. In it, the author argues for a rejuvenated form of solidarity built around occupation. Industrial unions began to replace guilds and friendly societies during the first wave of new unionism – starting towards the end of the 19th century. The labour movement may have lost something critical along the way. Look at the way we talk about work — people do jobs; but people are occupations. The author argues: “…we need to start from the principle that what we do and seek to do is more important than who we do it for.” As we have seen elsewhere in this series (see here, for instance) a revived focus on occupation could be constructed as an added dimension to existing union activity and structures — it need not require any major reconfiguration. The benefits to working people are obvious, as we have seen with professional associations and support networks. But a new approach based on occupational citizenship might also help us address some of the most pressing problems we face:

  • How do we organize and bargain across borders in an age of globalization?
  • How do we organize “the precariat” – that rapidly growing class of workers who come and go before unions can reach them?
  • How do we rebuilt solidarity and influence in an age where many unions are struggling just to sustain themselves?


FWUMThis article proposes the creation of a new international sustainability standard certifying that wages and working conditions are set through ongoing processes of good faith collective bargaining. Businesses and unions that comply with the standard will be entitled to apply the ‘Fair Work: Union Made’ label to their products and services. The authors argue that while such a voluntary standard cannot substitute for robust collective and individual labour law, it is likely to be an effective means of promoting collective industrial relations.

If you are interested in being part of a small team to take this idea further, please contact (more…)

Speaking to Greek activists and unionists in 2013, network member Dan Gallin* presented an overview of the progress (and otherwise!) of the labour movement in the 20th century. While there is much we can learn from the past, there is also much we must leave behind. Dan has been a union leader most of his life, and he has seen the union movement at its best and its worst. Yes, capitalism is in crisis: austerity is their solution. However, the labour movement is also in crisis. Our solution must be both revolutionary and democratic. Dan is working with a growing cohort of like-minded activists to repoliticise the labour movement. (more…)

DAWPerhaps the left is not as divided as the right would have us believe.

Back in 2011 we looked at four alternatives to capitalism that had been proposed since 2000 (see All of the models had one thing in common: they all called for the democratization of work. In 2008 this became one of New Unionism’s four key principles (more). Of course, the Bolivarians have been saying this for years (recently here). And Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky have since joined the chorus (here and here). Now there’s a major new voice provides a thumping bass: Richard Wolff’s “Workplace Democracy: A Cure for Capitalism” (Haymarket 2013).

In many ways, Wolff’s book is the one to start with. You might then go on to read about socialist markets, participatory economics or occupational citizenship (a la Schweickart, Albert and Standing respectively), but at least you’d have done the big-picture thinking first.

Let me try to provide an overview in one paragraph, for those who can’t afford $15 +p&p (order here).  Apologies to Prof Wolff for what follows — one must murder in order to dissect. Eighteenth century revolutions in France and the USA delivered people from monarchy and ushered in a new age of democracy. Or so the dominant narrative would have us believe. In reality, democracy was never extended into the field of economics. Rather, the revolutions delivered control of production and distribution into the hands of the emerging capitalist class. Something similar happened with the Russian revolution, although it was the State and the Party that ended up with control of economics. Wolff argues that the people who produce the goods (or services) should be the same folks who decide on what to do with the value they create. He explains his rationale quite logically (there is no trace of table-thumping in this book), and puts up a pretty convincing case for the view that this would change dynamics right at the base of society. Workplace democracy may not be a solution to the cycle of crises in itelf, but at long last it allows for solutions to emerge. Hell, we might even survive as a species. (more…)

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