speri.comment: the political economy blog

Unions in the 21st century: adapt to survive, co-opt to grow

Could a clever campaign make support for unions an integral part of corporate social responsibility?

Emily Kenway, private sector adviser to the UK’s office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner

It has always surprised me how rarely trade unions are raised in the conversation on forced labour. Their fundamental purpose is to secure better conditions for workers, in part by using collective action to identify and rectify the structural and systemic problems occurring within their sectors. As such, they should be central and essential actors within any serious effort to root out forced labour in the global economy today.

Yet trade union voices have been almost entirely shut out of the conversation. Governments, business and many NGOs have instead chosen to rely upon voluntary corporate disclosure, supplier auditing, and awareness raising campaigns to catch ‘bad apples’ and alter corporate and supplier behaviour for the better. At the same time, business and government have markedly curtailed unions’ ability to operate effectively through an array of measures, including subcontracting, hostile laws and regulations, and new forms of insecure employment. This has left trade unions with severely limited options as they have sought to retain or regain their relevance, especially in the face of what has perhaps been business’ most effective tool for capturing the fight against forced labour for themselves: corporate social responsibility initiatives, or CSR.

CSR has enabled corporations to dictate the terms and solutions by which their own ethics and responsibility are judged. It is a powerful agenda-setting tool, so much so that it has allowed business to exclude unions and freedom of association from the definition of ‘decent work’. This is obvious when we look at corporate statements and policies on ‘modern slavery’, which rarely mention unionisation. It is also apparent in research examining how freedom of association interacts with CSR auditing. Mark Anner, for example, has foundthat workers’ reports of freedom of association violations were far higher than those identified through auditing processes, and that these violations had lower remediation rates than other types of violations, such as health and safety.

The social responsibility of respecting workers

How do unions and organisers induce business and government to recognise their role in maintaining labour standards and labour rights, and thus in preventing forced labour? As they cast around for options, it is worth considering how the power of CSR might be co-opted for their own ends.

I see two ways CSR could be adapted by unions to revive and strengthen their movement. The first is to use the transparency and value-signalling functions of CSR to highlight both the importance of organised worker voices as well as their current exclusion from the table. Recognising unions, encouraging association, and meaningfully listening to worker voices all need to become integral parts of what it means to be a socially responsible company.

In practice, this would mean having a way to identify publicly which businesses have recognition agreements in place and which don’t, for example by the use of a ‘worker voice’ certification stamp. This suggestion has been mooted by others, such as the Fabian Society and Community. They have recommended using such a stamp as a way to extend “a hand of friendship” to “responsible employers”. I would argue, however, that such a stamp should be used as a stick rather than a carrot. It must become socially unacceptable not to engage with an independent union, and the public must be informed which businesses fail to do so. Which of the big supermarkets or e-tailers don’t have recognition agreements in place? Which of the FTSE 100? Which top businesses in sectors known for high rates of forced labour, such as construction, fishing or agriculture? If we don’t know, we can’t engage on a mass level to push for change.

A plethora of social and environmental issues have been weaponised by using certification stamps in this way, such as the highly successful Living Wagewhich awards a branded insignia to employers paying it. Its parent charity Citizens UK – an NGO rather than a union – has used this clear public signal to produce rankings and sectoral analysis, showing which employers are failing on living wages to push them to change.

If the goal is to prevent forced labour and other types of severe exploitation wherever they occur, such a certification would not do its job fully if it focused only on recognition agreements in the UK. Most instances of extreme exploitation in corporate supply chains, including what is frequently labelled as ‘modern slavery’ and human trafficking, occur in the Global South. This is also where freedom of association is frequently severely curtailed. Too many companies are getting away with shiny CSR reports and virtue signalling in Western marketing campaigns whilst quietly failing to support freedom of association in their supply chains. A recent example involves the American clothing retailers Carter’s and The Children’s Place, whose Cambodian suppliers were found to be harassing and coercing workers to prevent them forming a union. These failures must be brought to light, creating real visibility on how much respect businesses have for the workforce lining their pockets, whether on our shores or further afield.

A targeted, sector-specific campaign showing which businesses support unions to put pressure on those which do not would create the potential for more recognition agreements and collective bargaining due to the strengthened social gaze. This would only work, however, if the public cared sufficiently about improving union coverage. Therefore, such a public, certification-based campaign would require a deeply thought through communications plan to also explain why unions matter. There is far more to say about this than would fit here. In essence though, unions should look into the research and framing methodologies of organisations like the Public Interest Research Centre to create messages that respond to current attitudes and shift them effectively. Having clear and recognisable corporate targets for such a campaign gives extra purchase to such a communications wrap-around, providing potential for real ‘wins’ and therefore giving the public a horse to back.

Shifting value chains through worker-driven social responsibility

A second mechanism which unions should co-opt from CSR is value chain manipulation. In CSR, this entails things like companies creating obligatory codes of conduct for suppliers on ethical issues. Codes of conduct, and the audits which come with them, are fairly well recognised in research as being ineffective on workers’ rights issues, as noted earlier. This is why we can have such a plethora of CSR consultancies, reports, and policies and yet also haveentrenched poverty in global supply chains, growing estimations of forced labour, and a reduction in labour’s share of the national income.

There is a version of value chain manipulation which situates workers at its heart and uses these dynamics to force positive change in their favour: worker-driven social responsibility (WSR). In a nutshell, WSR programmes enable workers to generate the codes which should apply to them, from wage rates (which are normally unspecified in standard corporate codes or policies) to health and safety. Most famously used in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, WSR has a proven ability to radically reform working conditions. Peer-to-peer education ensures all workers can become frontline defenders of their rights, while an independent, 24-hour grievance hotline is used to report contraventions rather than relying on corporate-dictated periodic audits.

Value chain manipulation comes into play when these worker-led movements induce the brands at the top of supply chains to commit to only buying goods from suppliers adhering to this worker-created code. This creates a market incentive for suppliers to remain in the programme, whilst providing leading brands with a way to virtue signal to consumers. By doing this, it takes the CSR mechanism and turns it on its head, vesting power back where it should rightly be; with those affected by the issues at stake.

To date, WSR programmes are mainly operating outside union structures. They have been set up by workers and supporting organisers, some with the help of the incipient WSR-Network. There is no good reason, however, why contemporary trade unions couldn’t explore these methods as well. Unions could identify specific supplier sectors where they have or want to have membership, and pilot WSR programmes there.

This would not only potentially improve workers’ conditions and take back territory from traditional CSR, but it would also create an improved rationale for worker engagement with unions. Currently, there is a sense that unions have become service providers. Frances O’Grady’s recent recommendation that unions create a digital app which helps younger workers understand “their rights and how to get ahead in work” falls into this same trap. Instead, what is needed is a rationale for a revived mass movement, not just a service. WSR programmes do this, providing an ongoing reason for individuals to participate and collectively shift the material conditions of the labour process.

It has been said many times that unions are trapped in heritage and tradition and are therefore failing to look outside themselves to adapt and survive. This is not uniformly true: GMB’s work tackling the gig economyUnite’s Community programme and the work of the ‘disruptor’ organisations IWGB and UVW provide just a handful of possible counter-examples. However, the statistics don’t lie: union membership is at an all-time low. If this is not turned around soon, it does not bode well for the future of workers’ rights or the eradication of forced labour. It is time for unions to open themselves up to new ideas and take a leaf out of the capitalist playbook for their own ends: adapt to survive, co-opt to grow.

This article was first published on the Beyond Slavery and Trafficking Hub on openDemocracy and is reproduced here with permission.

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