London’s economy isn’t working. The capital produces over a third of the country’s wealth, but 690,000 Londoners struggle on less than a real living wage. 117,000 are on zero hours contracts. 70,000 now work in the gig economy: two thirds of them are working without sick pay.

Inner London also has the lowest trade union membership of anywhere in the country: 15.1%. This is intimately connected to the statistics above: when workers don’t have power, they end up with very little of anything else either.

Nationally, union membership has been declining for decades. Some of the strictest trade union laws in Europe are partially to thank for this. But alongside that, it can’t be ignored that unions themselves have failed to adapt to more atomised ways of working and to renew themselves at the pace they need to. If we want to fix work, we have to fix trade unions too. The demographic challenges facing the movement mean this challenge couldn’t be more urgent. 

The most important fights against precarious work are all being led by unionised workers.

The fix has to come from within unions themselves, learning from their own best work as well as drawing on new thinking and practices from outside. But many of the answers for how to end precarious work are already in the union movement. The most important fights against precarious work are all being led by unionised workers. BECTU, BFAWU, IWGB, Unite and UVW have clocked up a string of victories, and organised workers thought of as unorganisable: migrant workers, cleaners, young, part-time waiters, McDonalds servers, security guards.

So NEF has been working with people from across that movement and providing them with time and resource to give each other those answers: how you hold a workplace meeting where there’s no workplace, how you overcome not one but five language barriers, how you sidestep draconian labour laws to take action without getting the sack.

The culmination of this project was last Saturday. Supported by NEF, activists and organisers from unions organised an event for precarious workers from across the movement.

It opened with speeches from Susana Benavidez Guaman of UVW and Tina Zivkovic from Unite’s TGI Fridays campaign. Both spoke movingly about the importance of unions and solidarity. Tina has been forced to leave her job at TGIs, but is sticking with the campaign, helping out others going through what she did. TGI says they treat their workers like a family,” she said. But I don’t know many families who would bully you and take money from you. I had never been in a union before, but the real family I found at TGIs was the union, was other workers.”

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Then it was time for the workshops. Run by activists and organisers from IWGB, BECTU, UCU, RMT and Unite, they taught attendees how to put on actions, build community allies, map their workplaces, and develop strategy.

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As the workshops went on, barriers between different types of worker broke down. RMT track workers answered questions from Deliveroo bicycle couriers…

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… and UCU academics, suffering due to zero hours contracts and casualization, saw what they had in common with cleaners from the Underground and McDonalds workers:

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The afternoon session focused on what unions could do together. Each union explained what they needed help with, and people got to their feet to pledge to help them. Dozens of promises were made: those who’ve won outsourcing fights will teach those still fighting them, those with common opponents will share information. Where workers can’t take direct action themselves for fear of the sack, others will take it for them. And a group of workers and organisers agreed to come together to plan next steps and co-ordinate joint actions and events.

It was solidarity in action, and as trade unionists a sight that we rarely see: unions working as a movement, without a bureaucratic barrier in sight. It couldn’t all be a break from tradition, though: we ended with a tub-thumping speech from the RMT, followed it by belting out Solidarity Forever’, and then marched as one to the pub. Keep an eye on the NEF blog for details of what we’ll do next.

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Watch: Winning at work – how to win at work by getting active and joining a trade union