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Commentary: Pandemic life for labour unions is hard but they’re fighting back

The hardships of the pandemic seem to have triggered a surge in some forms of labour organising, says an economist.

Commentary: Pandemic life for labour unions is hard but they’re fighting back

Brazilian delivery workers for Uber Eats and other delivery apps protest as part of a strike to demand better pay and working conditions. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

BERKELEY, California: The recent failure to unionise workers at Amazon’s warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama is merely the latest chapter in the long decline of traditional working-class organisations. Has the pandemic made things even worse?

Since 1985, trade union membership has fallen by one-half, on average, across OECD countries. Business interests have run persistent, well-funded campaigns against unions and captured much of the media and think tank circuit.

All told, these efforts have clearly succeeded in curtailing workers’ traditional rights and scope of representation.

While employer-friendly “right to work” legislation has undermined unions’ ability to fund themselves, the widespread use of contract labour (like in India) has created a sprawling class of workers without job security or benefits, many of whom are deployed alongside permanent employees.

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Global competition, automation, and market concentration are all weakening labour’s bargaining power. But labour’s collective strength has also been undercut by internal fragmentation.

There is a sharp division between manufacturing production and transportation on one hand, and service, retail and caregiving on the other.

Although service workers in the United States and Canada have been organised by the Service Employees International Union, and in Europe by UNI Europa (the European Services Workers Union), we know from the pandemic that workers in healthcare, delivery, and other sectors remain badly underpaid and unprotected.

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In developing countries, the fragmentation of labour runs even deeper, owing to the gulf between the formal and informal sectors.

In countries like India, Kenya, and Peru, the overwhelming majority of workers are engaged in informal activities, without any benefits or social protection.

As these workers are often self-employed, labour organisations are rarely sensitive to their need for credit and marketing facilities, health and childcare, or legal and insurance services. (There are exceptions, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association, the largest informal workers’ organisation in India.)

An Indian worker checks on a machine at a factory in Amritsar on Feb 16, 2018. (Photo: AFP/NARINDER NANU)

With the rise of the gig economy, more workers in rich countries also find themselves without social protection and very little help for their particular needs. Unions in Germany are trying to expand the availability of worker-friendly customer-review sites, because gig workers depend heavily on online ratings to secure work.

In the US, some small companies are entering the market to provide gig workers with affordable insurance or sick leave. Germany’s IG Metall, Europe’s largest industrial union, is opening itself to self-employed workers; and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain also is increasingly trying to reach out to gig workers.

Intra-labour fragmentation also stems from how unions organise. In the US and India, unionisation is so decentralised that corporate employers can easily block or weaken nascent organising efforts.

Since their defeat, the union organisers in Bessemer have recognised that they need to move their organising efforts to the industry level – as happens in Europe, where individual firms have less incentive or leverage to curb unions – and also mobilise Amazon customers against the company’s labour practices.

In the recent unionisation effort, the primary demand was less about wages and more about the company’s use of robots and monitoring algorithms to set a relentless work pace.

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In several countries, the hardships of the pandemic seem to have triggered a surge in some forms of labour organising.

Given the relatively high average age of members in old-style unions, organisers are trying to update their methods, such as by using social media and labour networks to get the millennial generation on board with online petitions and messages geared toward concerns not associated with a physical work site.

Even higher-skilled and better-paid young workers are growing concerned about labour insecurity.

FILE PHOTO: A Deliveroo delivery rider cycles in London, Britain, March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Toby Melville

In New Zealand, where the labour market was heavily de-unionised in the 1990s, bargaining efforts are underway to set new wage floors and standard working conditions across certain sectors and occupations.

Fortunately, more shareholders nowadays seem open to the idea that negotiating job stability, welfare and training programmes with labour may be good for long-run productivity and profits – a departure from the longstanding view of labour as just another cost to be minimised for the sake of quarterly profits and year-end executive bonuses.

Through some level of co-management, in which all parties have an interest in articulating and working toward mutually beneficial long-term goals, trade unions can assume more responsibility for the overall trajectory of firms and industries.

READ: Commentary: Why employers should cover WFH expenses


One problem, however, is that governments can be sometimes more myopic than bosses. For example, India’s right-wing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has used the pandemic as a pretext to ram through laws diluting workers’ rights and security.

Cheered on by short-sighted corporate interests and their supporters in the financial media, his government is pushing the economy toward more class distrust, industrial unrest, and stagnant labour productivity.

These trends are already visible in recent incidents such as the violent ransacking of Wistron’s iPhone assembly plant near Bangalore, which employs about 2,000 permanent non-unionised workers alongside 7,000 contract workers.

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The grievances that inflamed many workers reportedly included non-payment or delayed payment of wages, an extension of the workday to 12 hours with little notice and no consultation, and inadequate safety provisions for women on the night shift.

One longstanding source of labour fragmentation in India has been the capture of labour organisations by national political parties whose leaders often are more concerned with mobilising electoral support for their own political agenda than they are with day-to-day workplace issues.

Fortunately, independent movements like the New Trade Union Initiative have emerged in recent years to challenge this political domination.

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But labour organisations nonetheless have their backs to the wall in many countries. To re-establish a foothold, they will need to ally with broader social movements for human rights. This is the only way labour unions in the US, for example, will be able to overcome today’s many restrictions on collective action.

Progress will be slow until there is enough public support for unions, and enough public accountability for corporate employers, to prevent behemoths like Amazon from blocking or hindering labour organising with impunity.

Pranab Bardhan is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.


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