This article draws on the plenary ‘Organising Informal & Precarious Workers’ at the GLI International Summer School.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen a decline of labour movements in the global north which few would have predicted. Not only has trade union membership in many countries declined but so too has collective bargaining and importantly strike action. Moreover, globalisation coupled with neo-liberalism has led to an ever increasing internationalisation of finance, product markets and corporate ownership. Production now takes place through global production networks. Whilst the integration of the former Eastern Bloc and China into the capitalist world economy coupled with advances in communication and transport technology have massively expanded the global labour supply. These process have combined to reduce the bargaining position of traditional unions in the global north and south alike.
Simultaneously, right-wing (and ostensibly “left-wing”) governments have shredded employment protections and crushed labour movement resistance. These developments have forced millions of workers around the globe into informal and precarious employment. Yet this depressing situation is not inevitable and during the session on “Organising Informal & Precarious Workers”, Jin Sook from Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), Yoana Georgieva from the Bulgaria Home-Based Workers’ Association and Kendall Fells from the US Fast Food Campaign debated how the global labour movement can organise informal and precarious workers in a globalised age.
Although each organisation represented on the panel organises in a very different context, each speaker explained how their organisation was using innovative structures and tactics to reach workers who have traditionally proved difficult for unions to organise. For example, BWI is organising migrant World Cup workers in Qatar through a multi-pronged approach. On-the-ground organising is complimented by missions to the Qatar government and attempts at getting construction companies to agree to a global framework agreement on labour rights for migrant workers. However, Jin explained that success can’t me measured in terms of workers joining unions, rather success should be understood in terms of improving the living conditions of migrant workers and ensuring that they have basic rights.
The Bulgaria Home-Based Workers’ Association has taken a different but equally novel approach. As home-based workers are invisible in the economy, Yoana explained that the first step towards making them visible is to map them. The association then provides shop space which members can use to sell their products. In this way they are able to bring 40,000 home-based workers together in order to support each other and build the solidarity which is necessary to make the association effective.
Finally, the Fast Food Campaign in the US has focused on iconic names such as McDonalds which resonate with the public in order to build awareness of the widespread exploitation of workers by household name companies. This awareness has been spread by social media coverage of strikes as well as other creative actions. The building of labour and community coalitions enabled the workers to multiply their power in order to counter retaliation by employers. For example, after one worker was fired following a strike action in November 2012, a solidarity protest was organised inside the said workers’ restaurant, which essentially shut it down. Other actions have disrupted the stores in other creative ways. For example, activists have slowly paid for burgers with pennies causing serve delays and massive ques. Social media has also enabled interested workers to connect with organisers and has thus provided a route into workplaces where the campaign was previously not present.
Kendall Fell’s concluding remark summed up the thrust of the discussion: “We have to start questioning everything, why are we doing things like this, because the old way isn’t working and the world is changing rapidly so we need to put our heads together and come up with new ideas.”
Alex Wood is a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College, 7th – 11th July 2014. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.