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Workers – Don’t Just Organise, Unionise!

For the predatory capitalist, precarious employment is profitable. But what if this subjugation and short-termism has had its time?

As younger generations of workers increasingly see the benefits of a trade union, is the tide turning on those companies who have long exploited workers to swell their bottom line?

Host, Ross Ashcroft, met up with Director of the Institute of Employment Rights, Carolyn Jones, and Volunteer Organiser, Carolyn Steinhoff, to discuss.

Struggling to survive

The UK is the sixth richest nation in the world and yet many of its workers lack basic employment rights and trade union freedoms. Without a collective voice, workers are subject to the vagaries of a free market capitalist system that puts profits before people. The result is that in the UK in 2021 too many people are struggling to survive.

Carolyn Jones highlights the starkness of the figures:

“We’ve got one million workers on zero hour contracts. We’ve got over eight million people working in households that are living in poverty. We’ve got 60 percent of people in households where at least one person works and they’re still using food banks. Average wages have not been raised in real terms for over 12 years”, says Jones.

In any sane and rationally structured society, the development of a healthy trade union movement would be encouraged, as it is, for example, in Germany. This is because such a society is premised on an understanding that social and economic benefits are derived from workers who have a greater level of spending power at their disposal than they would otherwise.

Attacking unions

As a result of successive UK government attacks on unions, certain sectors of the economy are denied these benefits. Among the earliest of these attacks occurred during the 1980s. Driven by an ideological commitment to undermine organised labour, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government introduced eight pieces of anti-trade union legislation. The curtailing of workers rights resulting from this legislation, has meant that unscrupulous employers have been allowed to set the pace of a deeply skewed system of industrial relations ever since.

Jones says that lawyers, academics and trade unionists throughout Europe have been baffled by the trend in the UK to reject a trade union negotiating system to establish working terms and conditions for employees. This is reflected in the fact that workers in the UK work the longest hours for the lowest pay and for the shortest holidays, retire the latest and have the lowest pensions in Europe.

Jones states:

“We all know that where unions exist, pay is higher, health and safety is better, quality is better, pensions are better. And in the UK, the figure stands at a pay increase of around eight percent. You put eight percent more money in workers pockets and they go out and buy goods. That provides jobs for other people. That then stimulates the economy all the more. The way you get that is by allowing trade unions to negotiate in the workplace.”

Jones continues:

“This isn’t something that just we argue for. The OECD have argued for it. The International Labour Organisation have argued for it. Even the IMF researchers are now saying that the best way to raise people out of poverty and to stimulate the economy is by collective bargaining with trade unions. It’s a win-win situation.”

The collective power of workers is key

Recent protests by football fans against the proposed imposition of a European Super League is a good example of how the power of the collective is able to successfully organize against the billionaire, plutocratic class. However, this form of ‘people power’ has not crossed over into a successful democratic organisation of workers against an exploitative class of capitalists.

People appear reluctant to join the dots together to see that the attacks on their workplaces aren’t natural but shaped by political and economic ideology. “I think until you get the voice of workers embedded into the political and economic system, then we’re going to carry on with exploitation, super exploitation and a downward spiral in terms of employment rights”, says Jones.

Amazon workers

It is within this context that Volunteer Organizer, Carolyn Steinhoff, has been active in highlighting the injustices faced by Amazon workers in the US after they pushed back against the company’s predatory working conditions. Steinhoff cites Journalist, Natasha Lennard’s description of Amazon as a modern day East India Company, or in terms of the way Dickens wrote, as an oppressive profit-seeking machine.

In this sense, Amazon’s operations in the US could be legitimately characterized as the ultimate anathema to the concept of trade unions. Since its inception, the DNA of the US has been one of rampant laissez faire capitalism, perhaps best embodied in Alan Greenspan’s assertion that in order to control them, the optimum state for workers is to be neurotic, marginalized, insecure and precarious.

In this way, says Steinhoff, there is a tendency for Amazon workers to internalize failure by blaming themselves instead of the oppressive structure they work within.

The PR mantra adopted by various Amazon spokespeople to counter criticism of the company’s practices is a familiar one. The pattern is part of a psychological operation whose purpose is to elicit a specific kind of internalized employee response which commonly involves workers’ praising the company, initially, only for them to express disillusionment later on.

Speaking out

Numerous employees have spoken out about Amazon’s lack of accessibility and accommodation for disabled people, the inability of their caseworkers to communicate with aggrieved workers, the lack of any concern for health, safety and welfare issues and HR representatives who appear to be more interested in minimizing any liability for the company. In addition, employees have cited the reluctance of the company to advocate for them after they have been sent elaborate ‘Kafkaesque’ run around’s which have led to them being dismissed for minor indiscretions.

All of these appalling practices have been allowed because there has been no union representation in Amazon’s workplaces. Steinhoff says that in Bessemer, Alabama, the tactics used by the company to prevent unions coming into existence, include talks given by anti-union professionals, trained by management. The purpose is to give the impression that to be a member of a union is against the interests of employees and to discourage them from organizing.

As Steinhoff acknowledges, from the perspective of Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, the root to the ideological drive to keep workers down, is about the leveraging of power. In harnessing the collective power of workers who produce all the wealth in society, unions are essential in helping to shift this balance back in their direction. This is why for rampant laissez faire capitalists like Bezos, unions are an anathema.

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