The continuing role of trade unions in facilitating workplace change

Despite drastic changes to the economy and labour market in recent decades, trade unions continue to be pivotal stakeholders in current social movements.

Trade unionism has had different trajectories across the world depending on the historical, economic and political national systems in which it is embedded. Despite the diversity of trade unions’ movements, one clear trend has been visible for the last four decades across many countries. Union membership has dropped significantly and trade unions ‘now operate in far harsher economic and political environments’ if compared to the golden age of the post-war era. As the influence of trade unions declined, collective bargaining came to be seen as ‘a failing mechanism for improving labour standards.’ If the power of traditional worker’s organising seems to have waned, income inequality and labour injustices have not. The International Labour Organisation estimated that an alarming 1.5 billion of people working in ‘developing’ economies were in vulnerable employment in 2014 and most ‘rich’ countries have seen big increases in the ‘working poor’ population. This blog examines a recent successful story of workers organising in challenging injustices and in so doing, highlights and reaffirms the continuous presence, role and importance of worker-driven actions and trade unions in social contestation against labour injustices today.

Photo by CGT-HPE union (original version here).

On July 17th 2019 twenty women workers working as cleaners in the Parisian Ibis Batignolles Hotel, supported by the French CGT trade union, entered a drawn-out battle with their employer, STN the cleaning service supplier, and with the multinational Accor group, a leading hotel chain, over their working conditions. Rachel, Sylvie, Deneba, Mama, and M. Traore among others denounced their ‘deplorable’ wages and ‘unbearable’ working conditions. After twenty months of union actions and strikes through three lockdowns they eventually convinced their employers to revalue their working conditions. Like many other low-wage workers in this industry, the chambermaids were subjected to harsh and exploitative working conditions including an unattainable work pace, illegal piece-rate systems, wage theft, unpaid overtime, as well as sexual and racial abuse. The workers signed on May 23rd 2021 an ‘historical agreement’ which saw their employers lift all sanctions against the strikers, reduce their rate of work and provide a considerable salary increase.

As the workers initially faced reluctance from their employer to grant their request, they called on the Prestige and Budget hospitality section of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT-HPE) to assist them in the organisation of a social mobilisation, strike and negotiations which went on for almost two years. In the words of the workers, their direct employer STN and the head firms ‘were playing a waiting game’. The employers hoped that the workers’ motivations to contest their conditions would languish but made it clear they were prepared to use aggressive disciplining and deterrence practices if they did not. The CGT-HPE provided the legal and professional support and platform for workers to pursue their claims throughout this long strike period. The union organised a solidarity fund to financially support strikers and pay judicial fees. They also played a fundamental role in developing popular support and visibility for the campaign. Indeed chief among the obstacles the workers faced was their invisible and devalued status as gendered, racialised and flexible cleaners. Thanks to the creativity of striking workers and to the solidarity and support from several civil-rights organisations, including feminist collectives, queer associations, associations defending undocumented migrants, researchers, and les Gilets Jaunes, a grassroots citizens protest which began in 2018, the workers’ demands were made visibilise and widely shared throughout social media. The social movement created the momentum needed for the trade union alongside Ibis hotel workers, to carry out their strategy to challenge the asymmetrical power dynamics, and incentivise the head firm Accor to act.

Whilst the membership of traditional trade unions has regressed across many capitalist countries and the power of workers’ organising to promote redistributive justice has been questioned, this example of a successful workers’ initiative re-emphasises the fundamental role of worker-driven movement and trade unions in the defence of labour rights, notably for low-wage, flexibilised and vulnerable workers across supply chains. The neoliberal economic policies which swept the global economy in the 1980s and 1990s precipitated the liberalisation of markets which altogether drastically transformed the industrial landscape. The fragmentation of production and multi-tier supply and labour chains, the decline of stable employment relationships as well as legal restrictions on union activity have severely undermined the traditional basis of worker’s organising. In the words of Susan Spronk, ‘In the context of neoliberal globalization, the constant threat of relocation of production to lower wage zones has dampened the militancy of many industrial workers’ unions, which were considered the vanguard in the 20th century’. The subsequent erosion of worker’s voices and collective bargaining was most markedly felt in labour intensive sectors such as construction, retail and hospitality which have high levels of precarity (see here, here and here for examples) and labour abuses are common.

Far from being outdated by those political economic changes or ‘eclipsed by other social movements’, the case of the Ibis Batignolles cleaners in Paris, along with many other successful stories of workers’ actions around the globe, shows that trade unions are key actors which can reach, reconnect and mobilise marginalised supply chain workers and other stakeholders within society to contest the business strategies of corporations based on informalisation and labour exploitation. At a time where forced labour and the fight against different modalities of labour abuses are on the policy agenda globally, many labour scholars and activists strongly advocate for a resurgence of worker’s led initiatives as the most important tool to drive sustainability within supply chains (see, for instance, examples here, here and here). The ‘revitalisation’ of unionism is especially emphasised as a much needed counter power to corporations, given the recent trends of labour governance being ‘substituted’, in the context of supply chains, by private and voluntary self-regulation initiatives like Corporate Social Responsibility, despite numerous studies documenting the failure of such business-led initiatives and private sustainable agendas in addressing labour exploitation and indecent work across supply chains over the past twenty years.

Trade unions and workers themselves are the best prevention against labour abuses and the most effective monitoring tools. Worker-driven actions and movements are being successfully renewed across the world and are fundamental to empowering workers to defend their rights (other examples here and here). In the words of Rachel Keke, one of the strikers: “I’ve learned dignity through this fight …This is an example for everyone watching us …Fighting back pays off. We have to end this form of slavery, stop sub-contracting in hotels, restaurants, building sites, everywhere.”

Tomorrow: in the next blog in the series Remi Edwards and Frank Maracchione look at global coalition of human rights activists fighting forced and child labour in the cotton sector in Uzbekistan.

This is the second part of a new blog series by members of SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network that is exploring how different types and forms of social contestation are shaping the global economy. Read all of the blogs in the series so far here.