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Tech workers in the UK are finding their voice… but will they unionize?

The UK has started to see a new type of trade unionism, characterized by flat hierarchies, quick mobilisation, and a sword-of-justice focus. Will that be enough to persuade digital natives to organize en masse?

By 2019, digital natives, that is people who grew up in the smartphone era, exceeded 50% of the UK workforce.

The bad news for union organisers is that these younger workers, many of whom work remotely or in hard-to-reach workplaces, seem to have little appetite for or appreciation of unions.

A report by the TUC, Britain’s largest coalition of unions, found lots of encouraging signs when young people and other workers, many in precarious and poorly paid employment, were asked about what was important and valuable in the world of work.  Safe environment,  good management,  proper equipment, dignity and respect and fairness all scored highly.

And yet, whilst trade unions might legitimately lay claim to be the champions of these values, their appreciation by young workers did not flow though into actual membership.

But there are signs that this resistance to unions by young British workers might be changing. Although that change looks different whether you are a blue or white collar worker.

“Blue collar” here is a loose (and open to challenge) term for those who get work allocated to them,  distribute and deliver food or goods, or drive, may be designated as self-employed but are really workers and are almost always at the wrong end of what has been termed “one-way flexibility” when it comes to terms and conditions of employment.

Here the UK has started to see a new type of trade unionism, characterised by flat hierarchies, quick mobilisation, and a sword-of-justice focus. There are new governance and funding models too (with grant-based income supplementing the conventional subscription collections). The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is the best developed and well-known of these.

These new unions have much in common with community organising and often talk about class.  Their demonstrations, pickets and campaigns are an explosion of energy and passion.  Members describe the feeling of empowerment and release they get by taking action. 

So it is unsurprising that some journalists find this an irresistible allure, filing admiring copy on the resurgence of union activity to the occasional chagrin of larger, well-established unions who have themselves also seized the challenge of organising in such difficult territory. The cross-industry GMB union in particular has secured many important court rulings that directly improve the lot of gig economy workers. GMB and a younger, smaller union ADCU,  shared the limelight of the most recent (and arguably most notable) judgement by the UK Supreme Court against Uber.

White collar occupations, such as software design, network applications, the creative sector and many desk-based functions are characterised by somewhat different dynamics and structures.

Community has deliberately styled itself as a champion of the self-employed. Partly this has come from significant numbers of the union’s historically core memberships in the steel and textiles industries migrating out of employment and into self-employment as the economy restructured and the old workforce shrank. 

However, Community’s stance has also come from a recognition that the self-employment sector generally has grown and continues to do so, yet union density remains low.  In other words, this is potentially very fertile territory within which to organise.

But some economic sectors are characterised by high self-employment and well-established union structures.   London Freelancers, for example, is the largest branch of the National Union of Journalists.  The creative sector of Prospect, BECTU,  has organised freelancers in film and tv industries since the 1930s.   The Creator Union, TCU,  deliberately associated itself with that form of collective voice when it set up to protect and advance the interests of those working in visual social media in the summer of 2020. 

However, it is not just formal or established union structures that nurture and accommodate collective voice.  The UK Audio Network (UKAN) has brought together podcast workers and engaged with production houses to establish understandings on diversity and inclusivity.  Contact has been established on a mutually respectful basis between the network and BECTU.

So we have both generalist self-employed  and industry-specific self-employed representative structures, but the demarcation lines are not always clear.  For example, podcast workers could legitimately join any or all of TCU, BECTU or the NUJ. Some  degree of rationalisation or at least co-ordination will be necessary as these organisations hopefully grow.

And the conventional split into blue and white collar workforces also starts to unravel.  The Game Workers Union  (above) for example self-evidently seeks to organize those designing and developing highly lucrative computer games.  These workers will be desk based but their terms and conditions and their lack of control over them will be closer to their blue collar counterparts – so much so the GWU is clear that membership is not open to those in supervisory or managerial positions.

The same could be true too for the newest kid on the block here, namely the Union of Tech and Allied Workers,  UTAW. The organisational pathology  is interesting and possibly instructive too – the global and loosely confederated Tech Workers Coalition’s London Branch approached the post-and-telecoms CWU and out of the discussions came UTAW as a national branch of the larger union (think Catalonia and Spain but without the tension).

This is potentially a very significant development:  The CWU “back office” could transform the effectiveness, membership and influence of UTAW, and that in turn would influence unionisation across the sector. It is, however, too early to tell.

So what conclusions can we draw and what should we look for next?

There is a widespread intersectionality of race, gender and poverty which appears across industrial sectors. But understanding whether this is a case of correlation or causation is a project begging for further research.

There are also some common threads in how workers organise themselves – low barriers to entry,  clear campaigning objectives, appropriate choice of language (particularly important when your members do not have English as a first language), and a recognition of the empowerment that can come from taking action.  These ingredients are delivering successful outcomes in “blue collar” environments.

For those in the creative sector, there is often a synergy between the skills and technology used by workers to produce and market their services, and those used to build an effective collective voice, as TCU and UKAN demonstrate. 

The environment in which all this is happening is changing too.  The body of case law recategorizing self-employed people as workers is now substantial.  Government is under pressure to act on recommendations to address that “one-sided flexibility”.  And the corporate zeitgeist now embraces fairness and inclusivity as important components of “good jobs”.

Technology enables campaigns by workers ranging from those in a particular pub chain, to franchised fast food outlets.  Smart use of social media gains traction but all this activity is still somewhat peripheral.  To move these concepts into the mainstream will take a concerted change in organising and servicing.

This is where the work of groups forging links between community activism and employment rights, or in providing secure platforms for sharing ideas and information are so important. But so too are legislative structures such as the Swedish co-determination model or the proposed New Zealand Fair Pay Agreements.

There is much to play for, but one thing is for sure – once workers find their voice, they will not be silenced.