A version of this article was discussed as a document at the Workers’ Liberty Industrial School held on 28 September. Workers’ Liberty organises such schools regularly for workplace activists to discuss political and strategic issues within the labour movement.
A relatively new feature on the landscape of the labour movement in Britain is the role of small trade unions, with a few thousand members at most, not affiliated to the TUC, organising mainly migrant and precarious workers, often in the so-called “gig economy”.
This document will refer to these unions as the “tiny unions”, and will consider how we, as socialist activists in the broad labour movement, seeking to revolutionise that movement, should understand and relate to them.
The unions under consideration here are somewhat different in their composition and approach, although three of them share a common origin. These unions are:
•The Independent Workers union of Great Britain (IWGB), which originates from a split from the University of London branch of Unison and with which Workers’ Liberty members have historically had most involvement.
•United Voices of the World (UVW), which is a split from the IWGB, although they remain close collaborators, describing each other as “sister unions”.
•The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), notionally the inheritor of the “original” IWW, and the only “tiny union” to be have an avowedly “revolutionary syndicalist” political perspective, at least on paper.
•The Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers’ Union (CAIWU) traces its origins to a group of Latin American Unite members who broke from Unite to join IWW, then split from IWW to found the IWGB, and have since split from the IWGB to found CAIWU. The extent to which they can be said to have “joined IWW”, en masse, following the original split from Unite, is disputed.
This article does not aim to provide a comprehensive history of any of these unions, nor a comprehensive survey of their current work. However, it should be noted that members of all of these unions have been involved in significant struggles over the past few years, including many ongoing campaigns.
IWGB is currently the most organisationally substantial “tiny union”, and also the one with the most “orthodox” trade union structure, in that it has a number of branches and procedures based more or less on what we would understand as basic democratic labour movement norms. Its largest industrial bases are amongst private hire drivers, including Uber, and amongst foster care workers. It also has a significant base amongst ancillary workers at the University of London, and amongst couriers, as well as an electricians’ branch; a games workers’ branch, and more. There are Workers’ Liberty supporters who are members of IWGB (bit.ly/awl-iwgb) for a recent overview.
UVW has organised significant strikes at the LSE, Ministry of Justice, and elsewhere. In general it operates more as a direct-action campaign coordination than an industrial union. It supports its members via casework, but many of its industrial campaigns are about short, sharp direct actions, leveraging support from outside the workplaces, to win immediate concessions, often in workplaces with a very small workforce, rather than sustained efforts at building up permanent industrial organisation.
IWW’s most significant workplace organisation is amongst couriers, and it has helped organise and assist strikes of Deliveroo and UberEats workers. This has sometimes been in co-operation with IWGB, and sometimes in conflict with it, fuelled by fear, or accusations, of “poaching” by IWGB. It also aspires to organise incarcerated workers, but we are not aware of significant progress to date.
Despite its syndicalist claims, IWW is more a political association than a workplace organisation. People join it as an expression of left-wing, particularly anarchist, politics, more than because it offers the best instrument for organising their workplace. Its membership is spread wide and thin, geographically and industrially, often focusing on campaigns not specific to particular workplaces. Where they do organise in workplaces, it is generally driven, initiated , or supported “from the outside”, by volunteers, rather than by IWW members as workers “inside”. IWW varies considerably from place to place.
CAIWU’s membership is made up mainly of small groups of cleaners in a variety of workplaces, exclusively in London.
Of the tiny unions, IWGB works most closely with the “mainstream” labour movement, and has an orientation to the Labour Party: senior Labour figures often speak at its meetings and events, and it partnered with The World Transformed 2019 and reportedly had some input into Labour’s 2017 general election manifesto section on the gig economy.
The central bureaucracies of Unison, Unite, and GMB tend to be particularly hostile to the tiny unions, seeing them as poaching their members. Where groups of workers have left these larger unions to join the tiny unions, it has usually been on the basis of finding their struggles obstructed or even sabotaged within them. Any self-reflection on the part of the mainstream union bureaucracies has been unsurprisingly lacking. Some signs suggest this may be thawing slightly.
There has also been collaboration between tiny unions and some TUC unions, including BFAWU and PCS, which have held coordinated strikes with UVW, IWGB, and IWW members.
We support any group of workers struggling against their employer to advance their interests.
Ultimately, the exigencies of the class struggle itself outweigh any organisational or administrative concerns. We unconditionally support members of the tiny unions in struggle, regardless of what we think about the constitutional or organisational basis of their unions.
Our general perspective is based on the idea that, to make a working-class revolution, we must first revolutionise the working-class movement, via a top-to-bottom political and organisational transformation of what we understand as the “broad labour movement”.
We see the tiny unions as part of that “broad labour movement”, not as an embryonic better version of it – a labour movement 2.0 – that might be built up from scratch by embodying a more radical praxis than the established unions, that will eventually become so attractive to workers that they abandon the established unions and join the tiny unions.
Part of this perspective involves an understanding that the tiny unions themselves are not perfect. Workers’ Liberty members have been involved in efforts towards democratic reform within IWGB which we should continue to pursue. That IWGB is currently, for the most part, more democratic and member-led than more mainstream unions is largely due to its small size and low funds. Without active attempts to the contrary, it seems likely that, as the union develops, so will the relative strength of the bureaucracy, and democratic control will weaken.
As a general rule, we are against workers breaking away from established unions, and advocate that bureaucratic obstruction within established unions is combated via insurgent rank-and-file struggle that aims at transformation, rather than by breaking away – either to join another established union perceived as “better” (e.g., we oppose London bus workers leaving Unite to join RMT, and we oppose those within RMT who advocate that RMT should attempt to organise bus workers in London), or to join a tiny union. When workers consider what union we should join, our first question should generally not be “which union is most radical?”, but “which union is the most relevant for my company/industry?” This flows from our goals of industrial unionism and workers’ unity.
However, our opposition to breakaways is not absolute. We were right to support the offshore energy workers who formed the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) due to the impermeable bureaucratic obstruction of the established unions in the sector. OILC began as a rank-and-file coordinating committee, involving members of several unions, but eventually became an independent body before being integrated into the RMT. When the workers involved in the “3 Cosas” campaign at the University of London were voting on whether to break from Unison and set up a branch of the IWGB, we advocated a policy of dual-carding, but did not oppose the breakaway outright.
In some sectors where the tiny unions organise, such as foster care or takeaway courier work, they are the main union. In others they are one of many. In the latter cases, we advocate dual-carding where appropriate.
While we do not see the tiny unions as a potential alternative to the mainstream labour movement, their relatively more militant and combative culture could be a source of positive pressure on it. On the other hand, there may be a danger of them serving to “let off steam”, as more militant workers within sections of larger unions coming up against their own union bureaucracy opt to breakaway rather than further pursue attempts to democratise and radicalise their unions (although in some of these cases further attempts may have got nowhere, with union bureaucracies continuing to hamstring workers).
With this danger comes a danger of militant workers being led to the wrong conclusions, about “good” versus “bad” unions, rather than the rank-and-file, and democratic control versus the union bureaucracy. With the IWW this is elevated to the status of a world-view. We argue against this, using our experiences across the labour movement – including the tiny unions – to demonstrate its falsity.
We advocate an as-close-as-possible orientation of the tiny unions to the “mainstream” labour movement. Our aim is for these unions to affiliate to the TUC and the Labour Party. Short of this, we advocate affiliation to local Trades Councils, and close joint working with TUC-affiliated unions, wherever possible. In the longer term we aim for unions reconstituted on an industrial basis, merging and splitting to that end – for example, a single National Union of Health Workers, rather than having health workers divided across several unions and small professional associations, etc.
IWGB, UVW and, it seems, CAIWU, through picking fights and often winning, have been growing at a time when overall trade union membership has stagnated or fallen. That their members are predominantly low-paid precarious workers, combined with the financial cost of waging these disputes, and economies of scale, limit their financial resources. IWGB relies heavily on external funding, and volunteers, for its daily functioning and campaigns. This is not ideal, brings some “NGOism” with it, and fuels centralisation.
We fight for the broader labour movement to support low-paid migrant and precarious workers in their struggles. Immediately, we raise money for strike funds. Industrial unionism can help to overcome these limitations, with union levying additional dues on higher-paid workers to support lower-paid workers in taking sustained action. Closer collaboration and reciprocal arrangements between tiny unions and TUC unions, wherever possible and appropriate, could also help facilitate this, for example between PCS and UVW in the Ministry of Justice.
Our perspective on IWW is slightly different from the other tiny unions. It is not so much a trade union as a group organised around particular political ideologies. It is not the main union in any sectors or companies, in the UK, to our knowledge. On top of this, it is often sectarian, undemocratic, and in many places has ineffective approaches to organising. In some circles it retains the reputation as the radical union which people should join, because of its revolutionary syndicalist “brand”. Probably the best outcome would be for it to dissolve into the wider labour movement.
Nonetheless, we do not advocate a sectarian approach towards it, and there are some good organisers within it.