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THE 12TH EDITION
In Bristol, people are turning to alternative unions to get their voices heard.
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.
Luke and Sarah
Luke and Sarah Geach and their four children received a Section 21 eviction notice after living in their Bristol home for five years. They had two months – until 1 January 2017 – to move.
They desperately started looking for affordable options. Despite pleading with the landlady via the letting agent, they could only get their notice extended by a week.
A parent at their daughter’s school put them touch with ACORN, who supported them by mobilising a large group of people for a peaceful protest one day in December outside the landlady’s house, singing ‘Christmas carols with a twist’.
“To see so many people there, most of whom we didn’t know, all there supporting us was an amazing feeling.”
That evening, for the first time, the landlady came over and spoke to them, agreeing to them staying until they secured a house through Bristol council. They moved in May, with minimal disruption to their children’s schooling, and also received their full deposit back.
Mas worked in the same small business for almost nine years when she sought advice from the IWW about issues at work. When she was sacked suddenly on her daughter’s 18th birthday, the IWW tried to mediate, but her manager refused to apologise or pay outstanding wages, beginning a long tribunal process for wrongful dismissal and bullying.
While he eventually paid Mas her wages, his refusal to say sorry for his behaviour was a sticking point. IWW doesn’t formally have the capacity to work with people through tribunals, but her rep was with her every step of the way.
“It really makes a difference if you’re oppressed in the workplace to have that support. Without their help it could have escalated; I wouldn’t have had the knowledge about what options were open to me.
“I’d initially got in touch with the IWW through a friend because I was being badly bullied at work and wanted to check out the legality of a couple of things that were happening. He was being very aggressive and in my face. He sacked me just hoping I would go away.”
Mas won the tribunal, but found the process extremely stressful and urges people to think carefully before going through it. As the IWW isn’t industry-specific, she continues to be a member having made a move into the charity sector. She offers her support to anyone going through the tribunal process themselves – and also named her beloved dog, Steve, after her IWW rep.
Arletta moved from Poland to Bristol 11 years ago. For eight of those years, she’s lived in the same house with her elderly mother and two children. Almost two months ago, out of the blue, she received an eviction notice from the landlord giving her six weeks to move out.
“You can imagine how I felt – my world completely crashed. I’m a proud person and am usually able to manage on my own, but remembered my friend saying if I needed any help to let him know.”
A friend put Arletta in touch with ACORN. She was “amazed”, she says, at how quickly they got involved, working through the options open to her.
Arletta’s home is also damp, poorly insulated and without a proper lock on the front door – but she didn’t want to cause a fuss about the disrepair for fear of reprisal. ACORN helped her set up a visit from environmental health officers, resulting in the council instructing the landlord to carry out repairs.
The deadline for the repairs to be completed has now passed, and they are yet to be done, so the family are waiting to see what Bristol council does next.
The eviction notice for 31 May was deemed invalid and, Arletta says, the landlord has told her he will be taking her to court but has not yet issued any official papers. As Arletta’s situation progresses, ACORN will be continuing to advocate for her.
“I’m so happy to now be a member. I’m able to help other people in difficult situations, and can translate for ACORN with other Polish people.”
Sean and his partner wanted to move out of their flat because of problems with the landlord and the property. When the landlord withheld their deposit they got in contact with ACORN to try and resolve the situation.
“We were already members but this was the first time we’d needed help ourselves. A couple of ACORN members came over and helped us plan how we could get our deposit back. We met with the landlord in the flat and ACORN helped mediate so we got it back – meaning we could put it down on a new property. Having ACORN there changed the balance of power – the threat a landlord can hold over someone is really big; having ACORN mediating burst the bubble on it.”
Sean is also a member of Unite and IWW. Unite are helping him with a discrimination in the workplace issue. He feels both union models have their benefits and, particularly for industry-specific work, Unite membership is useful. It has the muscle that the IWW currently doesn’t, to provide comprehensive legal representation. But it’s a slower process than with ACORN, and took a couple of weeks for him to find out who his rep was.
If things get worse at work, and official procedures aren’t delivering, Sean isn’t ruling out getting in touch with the IWW to resolve the situation through direct action.