Life

Hate Work? Join a Union and Make Your Boss Pay

VICE talks to journalist and author Eve Livingston about her new book 'Make Bosses Pay', out on 20th September.
Lauren O'Neill
London, GB
September 16, 2021, 8:15am
Want To Make Your Boss Pay? Join a Union
Eve LivingImages: courtesy of Pluto Press

The facts are this: Work is terrible whichever way you look at it, and bosses very rarely want to make your life better, regardless of how “flexible” you’re galaxy-brained into thinking your zero hours contract is, or how much free beer the company once made available to you at 3PM on a Friday.

Capitalist work, therefore, can frequently feel like a lonely pursuit wherein life is lived for the weekend and there are rarely any glimmers of hope, progress or appreciation; rather, just the same shit, different day.

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But what if there were a way out? In her upcoming new book Make Bosses Pay, for Pluto Press’s ‘Outspoken’ series, author and Orwell Prize-nominated journalist Eve Livingston suggests that the answer to that alienation is found in collectives, and specifically in trade unions.

Unions have been in the news a great deal over the last couple of years, as they’ve mobilised workers like hospitality staff, delivery drivers and taxi drivers, and supported thousands during the pandemic. But despite all of this high profile activity, they can still feel confusing for the young workers who often need them most. Eve hopes that Make Bosses Pay can demystify them, so I sat down with her to chat about the book, the perils of “hustle culture” and why HR departments definitely don’t care about you.

VICE: Hi Eve. What made you want to write this book at this moment in time? 
Eve Livingston:
I wanted to focus on unions because the thing that I care about the most as a journalist, and just a person in the world, is inequality and social justice. That’s my central concern. And I've increasingly come to be sure that unions, or collectives in their broadest sense, are the best and only vehicle that we have as ordinary people to take control over our lives and to build that kind of clearer, better society that that we want to live in. So for me, it's broader than just having a better deal at work, which is also important for people. But it's not just about that. It's about these things being like sites where we could actually make things much better in society at large.

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Why was it important to you to talk specifically about young workers?
A key thing to say is that I think there are loads of overlapping issues. So I'm definitely not trying to say millennials or Generation Z have the worst deal and everyone else has got it great, because I don't believe that. There’s loads of older people in precarious work and precarious housing. But the reason I think young people are interesting is that they are on the sharp end of a lot of these developments in the labour market – they're in workplaces that traditionally haven't always had union presence, let alone representation.

If you look at the membership numbers, in the last few years, they’ve risen very slightly again, which is cheering, but as a kind of general trend, they've been going down and down and down, particularly amongst younger workers. So there's this kind of perfect storm of being really at the sharp end of all the bad stuff, but the least likely to be protected. And I think for unions, if they're going to survive and thrive, and be strong again, then it's going to be this generation of young workers that need to to get in there and be the leaders of the future.

What do you think are the most significant union movements at the moment? Movements like McStrike or the delivery workers strikes spring to mind.
I think you're right that the ones that spring to mind are the newer, more agile, responsive unions. So there’s IWGB, who have done the Deliveroo stuff, and a bit of the Uber stuff, although there's other unions involved in that as well. But I think the Bakers Union are a really good example of a union who are part of the traditional union movement – you know, they're affiliated to the TUC and the Labour Party, and they've been around for generations unlike IWGB – but who have been able to move into these kind of new workplaces and recruit and organise young workers. 

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What you're talking about with the McStrike was kind of amazing, because it happened on the same day as strikes from TGI Fridays and Wetherspoons. So to be able to coordinate that is quite incredible. And when you speak to people from the Bakers Union about those strikes, they'll talk about things like WhatsApp groups. It seems really second nature to like young people today, but it's actually pretty new and exciting for traditional unions like that to be organising all on WhatsApp groups and social media. 

You make a really interesting observation about how “hustle culture,” and concepts like “girlbossery” have been really damaging to the union movement, by putting a contemporary face to the individualistic tendencies encouraged by Conservative rule and capitalism. Can you speak to how you think that happened and how it’s been harmful?
At the moment, we do increasingly see that young people are really dissatisfied with capitalist work. Like, we see it all the time. There are headlines about burnout culture, and news stories about #MeToo, and the BBC equal pay stuff. These are big cultural moments, and everyone's suddenly talking about pay and conditions at work and there's a hundred think pieces about what you can do if you're sexually harassed at work, or what you can do if you think you deserve a pay rise. But they all talk about doing individual negotiations with your boss or going to HR and booking a meeting, and none of them really mention unions at all.

As well, there’s been a spate of books and influencer type products. You see goal-setting worksheets on Instagram, personal branding courses, and this kind of thing. They are capitalising on that dissatisfaction that young people have with the type of work that they're doing. But when they're looking for an answer, rather than unions being presented to them, it's these individual, neoliberal influencers or products that they're turning to. I think that's really dangerous. I'm not blaming individual influencers, because they're part of a neoliberal capitalist system. It's not like one person is a bad guy. But certainly the only kind of counter to the power that your boss has, and governments have, and capitalism has over us, is collective. The only way to meet the strength of that influence and power is with something equally strong. And we can only do that collectively with strength in numbers. So people are going to keep on being dissatisfied with their lot at work if they're turning to individual solutions as the answers. 

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You talk about “liberatory unionism” – i.e. a trade unionism that is intersectional and which prioritises the needs of those who most need the union – and you note that diversity initiatives and representation politics only go a certain way to actual liberation. I think this is something that is true of culture in general at the moment. Can you talk about how it affects the union movement?
The case that I make in the book is that this current moment of equality and diversity and “representation” is kind of a stepping stone on the transition from a really very hostile trade unionism for marginalised workers, and towards a true liberatory unionism. I think we're like somewhere in the middle of that journey at the moment. 

I suppose what I'm talking about is the idea that unions were built quite explicitly for male labourers to be able to earn like a family wage to look after their whole family. So unions were built as part of the structure of society that said women stay at home and do stuff in the private sphere, and men go to work to do something in the public sphere. And they're very much a part of that fabric of old-fashioned society.

You can see how inextricably tied the roots of trade unionism are to a lot of these things that now are quite problematic. So I think basically unions are trying to get away from that; they know that they can't be places anymore that are actively hostile to women and people of colour, as some of them have been traditionally. They know that they have to be taking those issues seriously, but quite often, it happens in terms of representation and equality and diversity. So it will be like, “Well, we'll have a women's representative” or “We'll have a conference fringe event about the issues facing Black workers”. And what I mean by a liberatory unionism is like a restructuring of the democracy of unions, from the bottom up, in a way that gives ordinary members – ordinary workers – a voice and influence within the union.

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Something that currently infects the contemporary workplace is the idea of the company as a “family” – something bosses love to peddle but which anyone who has ever had a job can tell you is ridiculous. Why should workers be wary of this rhetoric, and of its head office realisation, the HR department?
Bosses are seeing that there is this sort of bubbling dissatisfaction that people have with capitalist work, and that people are starting to kind of voice that dissatisfaction a little bit. And they're thinking, ‘What can we do to essentially keep unions out of this conversation? What can we do to limit that power?’ Because bosses and governments know that unions work, otherwise, they wouldn't spend so much time and energy bearing down on them. HR departments are really good examples of the lie that we've been sold as workers – that there's no need for us to turn to something external, and there's no need for us to turn to something as radical or scary as a trade union, because we've got this nice, cosy soft department in our workplace that’s there to look out for us. 

But they're not there to do that, they're there to get the maximum productivity out of us as workers. And their ultimate loyalty is with the organisation, not with the workers. So they might help you out if you're having a bad time, because they want you to be able to be productive in pursuit of the organisation's aims. It's not because they care about you. Individual HR staff might care about you and be nice people, but HR as a department in an organisation exists to further the organisation's aims, not to look out for you. 

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We see efforts by workplaces to introduce things like employee voice networks, or workers’ reps to the board or whatever. When I think of those, what I think of is a boss, saying, ‘Well, why do you need a union when you've got a workers’ rep?’, except that those things exist completely within the structure of the company and completely at the mercy of the boss. It’s our bosses trying to get us to buy into that idea that the answers are individual, or that they're already sitting there within the structures that exist – when that's not the answer, the answer is collective. And it has to be something that we build ourselves, outside of the framework of our workplaces. 

Later on in the book you talk about how the union model can be applied in the community as well as in the workplace – things like renters’ unions, for example. Some of these tactics, as you detail, are over a century old, but why do they feel especially relevant for young people right now?
A lot of the rhetoric of the trade union movement is about the dominance of work in our life. We spend so much of our lives at work – it's one of the most important dynamics that we partake in – but it's also one of the most unequal, and therefore that's why workplace organising is the key to wider societal progress. But I think where things are different now is that the challenges facing this generation of young workers are so existential in nature. So if you ask young people what they're most worried about, I imagine a lot of them would say “climate change”; a lot of them would probably say, “I'm worried about where I'm going to live, because I'm never going to be able to afford a house. My landlord could kick me out at any minute and where I live is mouldy and horrible”, or whatever. Some of them might not even mention working. 

There's lots of reasons why I think it's very important for these union models to be leveraged in pursuit of other types of aims if they're going to be relevant to young people’s lives. We know that they are the models that work: collective action and organising. They work in the workplace, so why can't they also work in the community and around housing? I think young people today are looking for something a bit more holistic than just something that focuses purely on their grievances in the workplace, because the challenges that they're facing are so huge and all consuming.

Thanks Eve!

Preorder Make Bosses Pay from Pluto Press here.