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I’VE worked precariously for the entirety of my working life — first in the hospitality industry, and then in the care sector.
In both, I experienced exploitation, low pay, bullying, harassment, zero-hours contracts and an overwhelming hostile attitude towards trade union activity.
But the saddest thing about this is that I am not an anomaly. Many young workers are trapped in insecure jobs, uncertain hours and low pay amid a race to the bottom in Britain’s appalling deregulated labour market.
The boss classes expect workers to just lie down and accept these Victorian-era-like conditions. They even try to market it as something positive and futuristic, talking of the “gig economy.”
Increasingly often elements of the left and our movement fall into their trap, suggesting that precarious work is a new phenomenon.
It’s an easy narrative to accept, but we must remain vigilant — and remember that precarious work is as old as capitalist exploitation itself.
The 19th century saw the heroic struggles of the the dockers and matchwomen to unionise and combine to fight precarity.
Or let’s go back only 40 years to the manual labourers who would turn up in the morning to see their shift already full — a practice which has crept back in recent years, with workers paying for childcare, only to be told while on the bus to supermarket distribution warehouses that they are no longer required that day.
History tells us that these people all experienced precariousness as part of their working-class lives.
There are plenty of trials and tribulations when it comes to organising in precarious and hard-to-reach sectors, and we must acknowledge that there isn’t an easy way to recruit and organise these workers.
But the trade union movement must accept this challenge, or we risk giving up an entire generation to virtual slavery.
Worryingly, membership demographics tell us that this is exactly what is currently happening — there is an increasingly older union membership, whereas among workers under the age of 24, only around 5 per cent are in unions.
Capitalism thrives on control and power, and it seeks demoralise and distract workers. Precarious work is a vital tool of this system, in that it weakens any sense of collectivity.
The challenge for unions, therefore, is not just to organise precarious workers but to allow them to have ownership over their campaigns.
Recently, I’ve been involved in organising care workers employed by Living Ambitions, a care provider in Glasgow.
These workers are overworked, undervalued and underpaid. But they are also some of the most inspirational and determined activists I have ever met.
Centre to this campaign has been a deliberate and marked shift away from the service style of trade unionism that panders to the individual, and a return to organising collectively.
This organising campaign has sought to build effective communication with members, identifying collective issues that can be built around and then followed through with collective actions that are worker-led.
But this is not the only ray of hope in what we’ve established is a bleak picture. One of the greatest success stories of Scotland’s labour movement has been Better than Zero, a national campaign to end zero-hours contracts, poor pay and a lack of respect in the workplace.
This is a worker-led campaign, led predominantly by young people, supported by the STUC and affiliate unions. Better than Zero takes action at times when unions won’t.
It also works behind the scenes to educate on rights in the workplace and empower workers to collectively organise in order to make long-lasting and effective change. It has been pivotal in establishing initiatives such as the Bectu Cineworld branch, Unite’s hospitality section and BFAWU’s fast-food campaigns.
Better than Zero has moulded activists, but constantly finds itself coming up against union structures which make building sustainable branches difficult at best and impossible at worst.
But even if we were only aiming to stand still in terms of membership numbers, our movement has a lot of work to do.
And given the weakness of collective organising in Britain’s workplaces currently, we have to be far more ambitious than that.
Young people are all too often, rather paternalistically, described as “the future of our movement.”
In fact, we are the present — and it is us who can deliver a better future for generations yet to come. Let’s give our young activists the tools they need to organise themselves and tackle the exploitation of the modern workplace — while never forgetting what we can learn from the past.
Morgan Horn is a trade union organiser based in Glasgow, and the industrial organiser of the Young Communist League’s Glasgow branch
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