In Bristol, people are turning to alternative unions to get their voices heard.
Illustrations: Jack Oliver Coles
Produced by a Cable Media Lab graduate
Bristol is a city of ‘generation renters’. It has a comparatively young population, with a median age of 33 compared with 39 nationally, and zero-hours contracts and the gig economy are firmly fixed in the economic landscape.
Mainstream trade unions, which still play a huge role in certain industries, have struggled to access this group of people, whose experiences are often marked by insecurity both in terms of work and housing. In 2015, just 13% of the UK population aged 25 to 34 were union members, with 4% of those aged 16 to 24.
Alternative unions hope to step into this void. With an emphasis on direct action alongside more official routes, they seek to organise not just around a trade or workplace but around a range of social issues.
Launched in Bristol in 2014, ACORN (Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now) is a ‘tenant rights and anti-poverty’ union that campaigns nationwide and is affiliated to an international federation of organisations under the ACORN banner. It has gained influence here thanks to its work tackling housing issues, from individual tenant evictions to council policies and decision-making. Its successes have also led to hookups with mainstream trade unions, with ACORN recently being asked by both Unite and the Public and Commercial Services Union to speak to their members.
Meanwhile the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which was founded in the USA in 1905 and aims for “better conditions today and economic democracy tomorrow”, offers a home to workers from any sector. In an effort to reduce bureaucracy and ‘red tape’, the Bristol branch makes use of tools such as the online discussion forum Loomio for decision-making, on both practical day-to-day issues and campaigns and political debates. While still small, with 125 members in the city, the IWW has notched up victories, such as a successful picket outside a city centre cafe in response to the owner withholding staff wages, and has increased its local membership from workers in the gig economy such as Deliveroo riders and migrant workers.
We spoke to Bristol members of the IWW and ACORN to find out a few stories of where alternative union models and direct action has got the goods.