Ewa Jasiewicz, Hotel Workers Branch – Unite the Union, UK
Organising from Below
7th July, 2015 / Chris Jones / guest blogger
Animating the Invisible
On Tuesday afternoon, participants at the GLI International Summer School examined the role played by education and organising in rebuilding unions from below.The topic was introduced by Ewa Jasiewicz from the Organising and Leverage section of Unite the Union. She recounted her time organising with workers in Iraq and Palestine before moving on to discuss in more detail the ongoing campaigns, ideas and methods employed by the Unite London Hotel Workers Branch.
The barriers to organisation amongst hotel workers – which includes cleaners, maids, kitchen staff, desk staff, porters and others – are the same as those faced in many industries that use low-paid, precarious labour. Hotel staff suffer from exploitation, bullying, under-staffing and over-working, language barriers (the workforce is largely made up of migrants), hostile management and high staff turn-over, all of which affects their ability and inclination to organise.
However, hotel workers are also in a unique position compared to workers in many other industries. You can’t make up for lost production in a hotel: if the workers stop working, the hotel stops working, and guests will leave or won’t be able to book in. If this happens, it’s very unlikely they’ll come back. This leaves management vulnerable to the demands of workers.
Ewa offered the case of New York’s hotel workers, in the Unite Here union, as the best example of hotel workers organising and fighting to win. They achieved the best collective agreement for hotel workers anywhere in the world, with a starting wage of $24 an hour. This provides a clear example of what is possible.
The Unite London Hotel Workers Branch makes use of a whole range of tactics and methods to achieve their aims. For example, the media can be a powerful tool. Workers in a high-end hotel opposite the House of Commons in London were pressing for better terms and conditions but the agency that employed them and the hotel management were largely ignoring them. They took the story to the press. While it’s an old story that hotel workers are exploited, it’s a new story that they are fighting back, and as soon as the story appeared in a national newspaper the hotel management were suddenly willing to talk.
However, the real foundation for successful organising and campaigns is work on the ground. For the Unite London Hotel Workers Branch, this includes coordinated action, such as attending demonstrations organised by other unions or campaign groups confronting exploitation in the hospitality sector. This builds links between different unions and groups of people; mutual aid and solidarity amongst people, unions and campaigns are key.
Undertaking research with and making use of research by NGOs and academics can also be a useful tactic for making clear the situation faced by workers, as can the use of the web and social media. Publicising campaigns and victories through these channels diminishes reliance on major newspapers and professional journalists, who may not always be sympathetic to or interested in a cause. Blogs and social media make it possible to “animate the invisible”.
Anger – Hope – Action
In the discussion groups that followed, participants explored these themes in relation to their own experiences. One common theme that emerged was expressed in German by a participant from Switzerland: Wut, Hoffnung, Aktion (anger, hope, action). Tapping into peoples’ anger about their working situation, and exploring and encouraging possible solutions (hope), often leads to action. As one participant from Nepal put it, when trying to organise informal construction workers, the first step is to “try to agitate them”.Novel methods of encouraging organisation were another topic of discussion. In South Africa, for example, domestic workers trying to organise with others in their sector spent years running workshops and study circles before they hit on their most successful approach – a choir.
The choir became well-known for its performances in supermarkets, where as some of the group sang, others would talk to the public, give out information and answer questions. At the same time training was offered in using smartphones and social media to organise. Initially there were four groups of five domestic workers each across the country; now, each of those groups has 30 members. They educate and speak up for themselves, and the organisation that started the process simply plays a role in coordination and offering assistance.
In Nepal, some attempts at organising amongst workers in the service sector have also focused on the serious business of organising at the same time as having fun. Social events such as picnics are organised around and alongside discussions on organising and building up leadership skills at the grassroots level in a sector largely made up of young, well-qualified people working in “exported jobs”, for example in call centres for companies and their customers abroad.
A participant from Sweden shared stories of some of the more recent methods that have been used by Swedish unions to get workers together as a pretext for organising. Football matches and fishing clubs have both been popular in getting workers together in a country where the traditional attachment to unions has declined. As the participant put it, it used to be obvious that you should be in a union: “It was like having to change your clothes.” Now, people can work for years – particularly in low-pay, long-hours jobs – without the question of joining a union ever arising.
The Importance of Politics
While these novel approaches may have been successful, they also have their limitations. As the participant from Switzerland noted, organisation – using the ‘anger, hope, action’ model – is essential, but cannot be separated from political education. A social method of organising should be combined with political vision and understanding, to ensure that unions are not simply seen as “service unions” or a type of insurance.
For the Nepalese participant organising in the construction sector, politics forms one of the starting points of their agitation amongst workers: “if you visit 50 brick-workers, some of them will be politically-minded,” and often these are the people with whom it is beneficial to talk first.
Furthermore, while social activities and having fun can play a crucial role in getting people together and supporting the process of organisation, actual union work is always going to need hard, serious work, and unions and their members will need the time and resources to do this work. In Sweden, for example, union representatives are entitled to paid time off to attend training and do union work. In Nepal, this differs from workplace to workplace, but unions have had success in putting pressure on employers to accept collective agreements on the issue. In South Africa, domestic workers can be dependent on the whims of their employers, who may offer them time off – but it depends on the training. Other workers are entitled to paid time off for union purposes.
Some unions have focused on encouraging the participation of women and younger people in order to try and disrupt the traditional model of unions dominated by older men. A recent strategy of Public Services International has been to focus on different sectors – such as water, municipal workers and energy – “with the objective to attract women and young workers especially.” The aim is to empower these groups to improve their working situation and to reach more senior positions within their unions.
In some respects approaches to organising and agitation that emphasise having fun at the same time are nothing new – in the late 1890s in England, the Clarion Cycling Club grew from seven to over seven thousand members in just three years, and had the aim: “To propagate Socialism and Good Fellowship.” In the United States in the early 20th century, “cultural elements, particularly music and song,” formed a crucial part of the Industrial Workers of the World’s organising methods and campaign tactics. What the discussions at the GLI Summer School demonstrated was that these approaches, combined with a clear political perspective, can form a successful part of organising strategies in different cultural, economic and social contexts. Alongside the traditional work of unions, they may have a crucial role to play in rebuilding unions from below.