UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Monday, 30 December 2013

The future of unionised work is in our own hands

Union activists all over the world should read this account of the life of Shonda Roberts who works for KFC in San Jose, California. She lives in the richest economy in the world, the richest economy actually in the history of the world. This is an economy that sends armies and navies all over the world, that still maintains thousands of stock piled nuclear weapons, that generates trillions of dollars in investment and profit, that can boycott Cuba and subsidise Israel. This economy can maintain a differential between lowest paid workers wages and CEO of an average of 1 dollar to 475 dollars. The US economy can cause bust or boom across Europe. It can plunge the world in depression when its sub prime market collapses.

Shonda has three children and her life is completely dominated by shortages. Shortages of food, money, space in her apartment and opportunities to improve her wages. She works for one of the richest companies in the world - KFC. It has `franchises` as it calls them all over the world, in Africa, China, Europe and Asia. A franchise is just a simple way of giving a manager a small budget and saying `make money out of that`. A franchise is not a small business owned and run by an entrepreneur who makes their own decisions about supply sources, prices and service. It is a device for putting risk on others without them having control of the decisions. This is the kind of employer Shonda works for. They often find the only way to make money is by exploiting their staff.

Shonda is now involved in the leadership of a dispute that is spreading across the US and all `fast food` chains. It is about survival and while a union is their only hope, the reality is they are starting a long way behind many unionised workers. They lack numbers, they lack power and they lack support. But they have decided to fight any way and have got more numbers, more power and more support than they had when they started. Union organisers have found and identified Shonda as a leader, she is connected through a network with other leaders and they are confident enough to call national and local strike action. Shonda feels empowered - her words - and wants to take the campaign forward. If she does she believes she might one day to be able to afford fruit and a mobile phone for her 15 year old son.

Shonda and the workers are the future. This is the growing part of most post industrial economies, the service sector. It is the sector with the lowest union density. Hotels, cleaning, security, retail - this is where we will be in the future. Look at any hospital in the NHS - these companies are there already. We need to organise in the private sector, strength in the private sector is what counts in union growth not as a vaguely good thing to do but as part of a strategy that recognises that Shonda and people like her have to be identified, encouraged, supported, mentored, trained and accepted as leaders. This takes time and resources. It means treating this as the most vital work for union organisers. We cannot organise from the outside, we have to find the leaders from the workforce. When we have leaders we have to work to build up numbers and the network.

If we can`t do it now amongst public sector workforces when we have union recognition agreements, check off agreements, bargaining agreements, resources, employed organisers and a good base of union membership then all that awaits is trying to organise unions where the workers are treated like Shonda - no check off, no recognition, fewer resources, no bargaining and employer victimisation. Let's not wait until then to agree to organise.