Amid what for so long has been a dearth of regular in-depth news coverage in the mainstream media about employment and trade union issues, there is one positive development.
Drivers and couriers in the gig economy, who are challenging the working practices of online innovators such as Uber and Deliveroo, are winning a sympathetic hearing on radio and television, and especially in the national press.
Their demands for guaranteed rights such as the minimum wage and an entitlement to holiday pay have struck a chord among journalists, who like so many other employees, are having to adjust to rapidly changing terms and conditions.
New start-up trade unions have emerged to take up the struggle of those whose working life is dictated by the gig economy, flexible shifts, and zero hours contracts.
Unlike traditional, established trade unions, these independent newcomers have succeeded in recent months in securing favourable news coverage.
All too often the UK’s dominant Conservative-supporting press tends either to ignore or downplay the achievements of the union movement or offer readers a negative slant on their achievements.
Columnists and commentators take every opportunity to side-line and misrepresent the work of the TUC’s affiliated unions, deriding their role as being no more than that of paymasters for the Labour Party.
Because they are free of these political links, hitherto hostile newspapers have been ready to give these independent unions a much-needed platform, not least because editors recognise the heightened public interest in the challenges posed by the gig economy and the impact that online behemoths such as Amazon have on everyday life.
Observing this upsurge in union activity and media engagement over employment rights has been like a trip down memory lane.
In the late 1980s I did regular reports for BBC Radio news bulletins and programmes on what at the time were largely futile efforts to win trade union recognition for the increasing number of young people being employed in rapidly expanding hamburger and pizza chains.
“Fast Food and the Throw-Away Jobs” was the headline for the front cover of the much-missed former BBC weekly magazine The Listener in May 1986 for my feature on the way school leavers were being exploited by the catering industry.
My focus was on the conduct of employers such as McDonald’s, Wimpy and Pizzaland and the hurdles that faced unions such as the GMB, Transport Workers’ Union, shop workers’ union USDAW, and Bakers’ Union.
They were competing to gain a foothold in an industry where three-quarters of the workforce were aged under 21 and turnover was at an unprecedented rate.
Inter-union rivalry and intense competition to establish bargaining rights has in some ways been a strength of the British trade union movement, but it does have its downside.
Not surprisingly my suggestion that the TUC should intervene over the heads of its affiliates and launch a one-stop platform to offer some form of free introductory membership to all young workers did not go down well among those unions pursuing their individual campaigns for recognition.
All too often the result has been that large groups of unorganised, low paid casual workers have been left to their own devices to combine resources and negotiate their own terms with contractors and franchise operators.
The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain was established in 2012 to represent mainly low-paid migrant workers such as outsourced cleaners and security guards.
Another newcomer, United Voices of the World, founded in 2014, describes itself as a grassroots organisation for low-paid migrant and precarious workers.
The App Drivers and Couriers Union (previously the United Private Hire Drivers) has gone from strength to strength thanks to its pursuit of landmark legal action that began in 2015.
Two private hire drivers, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, challenged Uber over their working conditions and as lead claimants, it was their case, pursued jointly with the GMB union, that led to a Supreme Court ruling in February awarding the drivers the right to the minimum wage and holiday pay.
These two unions are now fighting for compensation and for a legal undertaking that Uber complies with ruling. So far, Uber has argued that the minimum wage applies only from the time when a driver is booked and until drop off; waiting time, which can represent 40 per cent or more of a driver’s working time, is not protected.
Nonetheless the Supreme Court’s ruling is perhaps a significant step in providing a foundation for a more secure future for today’s flexible workforce.
Its potential consequences disrupted the stock market flotation of Deliveroo because investors feared Deliveroo’s riders and couriers might benefit from the Uber ruling, another story that captured the headlines.
Farrar, the App Drivers and Couriers’ general secretary, acknowledges that media interest has strengthened their campaign on behalf of a workforce falling below the poverty line as global corporations exploit drivers on an unprecedented scale.
Positive news stories featuring the new union have helped with promotion and recruitment and the repercussions of their Supreme Court victory continue to generate extensive coverage, which has included a follow-up investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme.
Having teamed up initially with the GMB in their joint legal action to fight for the minimum wage, Farrar sympathises with the GMB’s national officer Mick Rix and the difficulties which established unions face in generating publicity.
‘Frankly, after the extent of the coverage for the Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, I was shocked when the newspapers paid so little attention to the GMB’s dispute with British Gas over the scandal of its “fire-and-rehire” policy and the sacking of up to 500 Centrica fitters.
‘Here were a group of well-paid workers with a lifetime’s employment getting the sack. All it got in some newspapers was a few paragraphs.
‘As a new union we are only too well aware of how challenging it can be to get a positive hearing in press, radio and television.’
However, there were some positive headlines for the GMB’s announcement in May that it had won formal recognition from Uber to represent Uber drivers across the UK.
Mick Rix declared that the GMB’s ground-breaking collective bargaining agreement with Uber was the first step towards protecting the employment rights and conditions of up to 70,000 Uber drivers.
“This agreement shows gig economy companies do not have to be a wild west on the untamed frontier of employment rights”, said Rix, who outlined a drive by the GMB to sign up Uber drivers as union members.
Another union leader with recent experience of the highs and lows of engaging with the news media is Sarah Woolley, general secretary of the Bakers’ Union, which has been struggling to get coverage for its campaign for better pay for workers in the food industry.
She told the Sheffield Festival of Debate’s session in May on trade unions and the media how publication of her union’s Right to Food Report exposing poverty pay in the food industry had been timed to coincide with the Dispatches programme.
‘Unfortunately, we were squeezed out on the night by the plight of the drivers and couriers with Uber and Deliveroo and this illustrates how the media is more likely to pay attention when unions take on a global multi-national and expose what is happening.’
Ms Woolley speaks with direct experience because of the coverage which the Bakers’ Union secured in October 2019 when workers staged strike action at some of McDonald’s London outlets as part of an international day of action for fast food workers.
‘This was our fourth strike at McDonald’s and the largest so far. The media jumped on our McStrike campaign, but we only seem to get publicity when we take on an international baddie.
‘We did manage to get one article in The Guardian and stories in the Morning Star for our survey showing 40 per cent of food workers were eating less during the pandemic because of lack of money.
‘What was even more shocking about the media’s silence on our Right to Food Report was that there were attacks in right-wing newspapers about food workers spreading Covid-19 because they were having to share houses and cars to get to work but no explanation about their poverty wages.’
At the close of the Sheffield session my advice was that unions should continue to sharpen up their communications.
Broadcasters and journalists often face difficulty in finding case histories exposing exploitation, poverty pay and health and safety failures. Local union officials are well placed to locate workers who are prepared to give telling quotes and audio.
Even if mainstream outlets do not respond, the burgeoning world of independent media can provide a valuable platform for reports and interviews from the union movement and today’s online activists are well placed to exploit the wider world social media – a vital first step in alerting journalists.