One of the most visible impacts of capitalist globalisation has been the massive expansion of low-paid (and often semi-casual) jobs in the service sector.
This “precarious” employment — in bars, restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, fast-food chains, supermarkets, high-street retailers, call centres and elsewhere — means long hours, barely-legal wages and unsafe working conditions. Young people fill these jobs.
According to a recent TUC survey, workers between the ages of 16-24 make up nearly a third of the total workforce in hotels and restaurants in the UK (migrant workers and women of all ages are other significant groups in this sector). Young people take these jobs because they are readily available; high staff turnover means employers are almost constantly recruiting. The frequently part-time nature of the work (either at weekends or in the evenings) means that young people at college or university can fit them in around their studies. And the semi-casual nature of the work means that no formal training or qualifications are required; workers can more-or-less start work the day they’re told they’ve got the job.
Clearly, these young workers — in a economically significant and expanding sector, and faced with some of the worst exploitation around — are in dire need of collective organisation. And yet it is often in these sectors and amongst these groups of workers that British trade unions are weakest. The average age of a trade unionist in the UK is still 47.
How should the revolutionary left respond to this situation? Some activists argue that a straightforward “anti-globalisation” perspective is required; if Wal-Marts, Starbucks, Subways, McDonalds, Carphone Warehouses and other retailers weren’t cropping up left, right and centre in our cities then the problem wouldn’t exist. This response is utopian. Even if we could (by demonstration and persuasion alone) “turn the clock back” and eradicate global corporations, would the High Street of the past, of small “family” shops, be free of exploitation? Unlikely. Small and local business are often equally if not more exploitative than bigger employers.
Rather than opposing the expansion of global capitalist corporations in the name of defending local capitalism(s), we should see their expansion as a site for struggle, for fighting exploitation and, ultimately, building a workers’ movement strong enough to eradicate capitalism altogether.
In the here and now, revolutionaries need to agitate within the labour movement to force it to adopt a serious organising strategy for low-pay workplaces.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from international struggls.
In France, the CGT trade union has had some success in organising fast-food workers in companies like McDonalds and Pizza Hut. It has led strikes in McDonalds franchises in Paris and Strasbourg, winning victories because it adopted a grassroots organising approach rather than viewing a traditionally anti-union employer like McDonalds with incapacitating trepidation.
“Syndicalist” groups like the IWW can also be learnt from. Although some IWWers talk of building “revolutionary unions” outside of the existing labour movement, and we would not agree with that, they have at least had the courage to attempt to organise workers in workplaces in areas that mainstream trade unions would not touch. They will do things like sending in organisers to get jobs in the areas they’re trying to organise, rather than just turn up outside with suit, mobile phone, and car as the “traditional” union organiser would.
The experience of the IWW in New York in organising Starbucks workers is one the AWL — through campaigns in which we are involved, such as No Sweat — is trying to build on in the UK. Their successes stem from building unions as fighting bodies. This approach is a million miles away from the mainstream unions’ way of organising — attracting members by being providers of cheap insurance and credit cards.
The most inspiring international example comes from New Zealand, where the Unite union (no relation to the UK union of the same name) ran a “Supersize My Pay” campaign in 2005, focusing on fast-food and coffee-shop workers. The campaign was high-profile and dynamic and succeeded not only in organising the first Starbucks strike in history but also in winning significant wage increases for young workers in Auckland.
What defines this campaign — and campaigns like it — is a spirit of militancy and of building unions as weapons workers can use to fight their bosses. It rejects any notions of “partnership” with the bosses. It overcame the timidity and inertia with which so many UK unions are gripped.
Between 10 and 18 February, AWL members active in No Sweat will be helping build a speaker tour around UK cities featuring Mike Treen, a Unite activist, and Axel Persson, a French CGT activist working for Quick (similar to Wimpy), to discuss how labour movement activists in Britain can replicate at least the spirit if not the precise format of previous campaigns.
Some labour movement bodies in the UK are already taking steps towards this sort of work; in Yorkshire, the TUC Youth Forum and the Regional Young Members’ Activist Committee of the GMB are discussing organising young workers in bar, nightclubs and call-centres. This is positive, but small groups of activists concentrated in one or two localities cannot sustain large-scale campaigns. For such campaigning to be successful in the long-term, it needs the organisational infrastructure and collective strength of big unions like the GMB and Unite behind it.
AWL members and other revolutionary activists in the trade union movement must act now to catalyse a currently dormant labour movement into action. We hope the No Sweat week of action, including the speaker tour, can help do that.
• More details: www.nosweat.org.uk