Lockdown disrupted work in all kinds of ways. The tasks you do at work changed. The way you do them changed. Hours and rotas were upended, contracts were fiddled with. Some people suddenly became intimately familiar with the workings of their employer, other peoples’ bosses almost vanished. Some agency workers tried to get in touch with their employer about furlough shortly after the scheme was announced, only to be told that since nobody was working, nobody could help.
There are huge risks to this disruption of work. Bosses are even more scared of commitment given the uncertainty about future restrictions. Workers have been brought back on more insecure contracts. It’s a chance for profit-hungry bosses to start over based on what they’ve always wanted and what they’ve learned this last year. Hiring practices in hospitality and retail have started to track those used in the gig economy – venues have been offering ‘bonuses’ for staff who refer new workers, mirroring a practice used by Deliveroo.
The thing is, the ‘hiring crisis’ should be a moment of power for workers. There’s high demand and low supply. This should mean that wages and conditions improve as they are in the US: workers are in a good bargaining position. But for this to happen, workers have to actually do the bargaining. Employers are doing everything they can to isolate workers and keep them precarious. And they are playing the media to ensure that nobody thinks wages will rise.
The Workers Reunion is about turning the disruption in our favour. A lot of retail and hospitality workers are returning to work, meeting old colleagues again, or getting to know new ones. It’s a new start. Some people are happy to be working again, others are miserable to be working again. Either way it’s a moment to change work for the better. We did a trial-run of this organising drive last summer. Folk went round workplaces checking in that things were going ok coming out of lockdown. We had massive support from Deliveroo couriers, who come into contact with hundreds of workers every shift as they go between restaurants. They used their position to deliver leaflets on the sly.
Our two days of action this month were bigger and bolder. We had groups of activists in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh, and we had some lone activists in other places – from Aberdeen to Kirkcaldy, Inverness to Falkirk. It’s a collectivisation drive rather than a unionisation drive – encouraging folk to do the groundwork. Get your colleagues together in a WhatsApp group. Talk to each other about your pay and conditions. Let other people know that you have their backs. Talk about what you want from your work.
Chatting to folk at their work can be pretty tricky. You need to avoid implicating the worker in what you’re saying, especially if a manager is nearby. Managers are hawkish during the reopening, and swoop as soon as an unusual conversation appears to be happening. Sometimes you end up explaining trade unions to an angry manager while workers pull faces behind their back. Other times, someone looks over their shoulder, then tells you everything. Contract changes, lay-offs, threats, withheld pay. People know what’s happening, and they often have a good idea how to resist it. But not all people have the confidence to start organising their co-workers. That’s where volunteers from Better than Zero and Unite Hospitality have been crucial.
Together we talked to hundreds of workers over two weekends, and we plan to do it much more. One of the projects to come out of this we call Everyday Organising – encouraging people to have conversations with other workers about organising whenever it seems possible (when you’re paying for your coffee, or asking if the worker in a chain receives the tips). Having organising conversations about wages, tips, hours and other issues at work might sound very contractual and legal – but it’s not about that. Really it’s about encouraging people to nurture the care they feel for each other as workers, and to seek that trust and confidence you feel when you know other workers are looking out for you.
Organising in the next decade is going to change. Most people working now have only ever known a post-industrial Scotland, bosses have different kinds of control now, and unions have a different cultural meaning to people. Workers in Scotland, especially younger folk, need to think about what organising means going forward. The Sma Shot School is designed to help with that – it’s an at-your-own-pace online school where you can do a series of exercises to think about different types of organising – from the past to the future. We’re encouraging people to look to lessons from other kinds of struggle, like the Highland Land League, and some brilliant writing has come out of it. Why not start with our ‘Everyday Organising’ course?
So Scotland’s getting organised. If you want to organise your workplace, get in touch with Better than Zero. And if you want to become an Everyday Organiser, just fill in this form.