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Trade unions and the social foundation of good work


  • Picture of James Hickson
    James Hickson

As the UK government’s Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices recently emphasised, the quality of our working lives is determined by more than just the levels of pay we receive. Of course, work can play an important role in our lives as a source of income, but it is also the activity to which most adults devote the majority of their time. Whilst this is the case, it is important to consider which factors can help to make our time at work rewarding and fulfilling.

One factor that has often been underexplored within debates about the meaning of good work is the extent to which the time we spend at work has the potential to represent a context for valuable forms of social interaction with others. Cynthia Estlund, Professor of Law at New York University, has emphasised that “[t]he workplace is the single most important site of cooperative interaction and sociability among adult citizens outside the family”. Similarly, the political philosophers Anca Gheaus and Lisa Herzog have highlighted the importance of enjoying this sense of community in the workplace, arguing that it is one of the central “goods” associated with work. By offering a space in which we can engage in cooperative activity, share in our joint accomplishments, as well as enjoy more casual social interactions with colleagues and clients, work can help foster a sense of connectedness and satisfy the human need for belonging.

Indeed, ensuring that work represents a valuable source of social connection and community can have a variety of benefits. More sociable work environments have been associated with more collaboration between workers, more enjoyment, motivation and commitment from workers, as well as higher levels of overall performance and productivity.

Our conceptions of “good work” should therefore recognise the role that social interaction can play as a basis for rewarding and fulfilling working lives. When work offers a space to develop a sense of community and satisfy our need for social interaction, it can be seen to provide the social foundation of good work. This is not to suggest that all working relationships should or will be harmonious. But it does suggest that good, quality workplaces are sociable, with time and space allowed for meaningful interactions throughout the working day.

Creating a community between co-workers

Crucially, one outcome of promoting the social foundation of good work in this way might be to create a valuable sense of solidarity between co-workers. In this sense, forms of collective organisation in the workplace, such as trade unionism, can be considered as visible manifestations of the sense of community that develops within more sociable workplaces. Indeed, it is only by building connections with our colleagues based on cooperation and trust that we can develop the solidarity necessary to organise in recognition of our shared interests.

However, organising collectively does more than just demonstrate the presence of already-existing feelings of community between co-workers; it can also provide a distinct space in which to actually develop this sense of community and connectedness further. Trade unions can, in this sense, provide a space, parallel to the workplace itself, where individuals have an opportunity to enjoy valuable social interactions with others, and fulfil the need for belonging. This secondary social space within working life may be even more valuable when one’s actual workplace offers few opportunities to engage with others and enjoy a sense of connectedness.

The Taylor Review emphasised the value of trade union activity to the extent that it allows workers to discuss the common issues they face and to influence the decisions that affect the shape of their working lives. However, ensuring individuals have an opportunity to express their voice and build a solidaristic community with their colleagues can have benefits in addition to acting as a check on employer mistreatment. Indeed, under the right circumstances, participation in collective organisation can actually help to ensure that our experience of working life is more socially fulfilling.

Within the contemporary labour market, however, this social value of work is being undermined in a number of ways: 

1. Isolation.

For many, the traditional workplace, where people work together in a defined physical space, is disappearing. Facilitated by advances in technology, more and more individuals are now working remotely, using computers and smart phones to complete their work from home, or while on the move. For example, in the UK, the number of those working from home rose by 1.3 million between 1998 and 2014, and now represents 13.9% of those in work. However, this ability to work anywhere can deny workers the sense of camaraderie and community that often arises from working closely and cooperatively with others. Indeed, an Ipsos poll conducted in 2012 found that 62 per cent of those who regularly use telecommunications technology to work away from a formal workplace agreed that not interacting with colleagues face to face on a daily basis left them feeling socially isolated.

This isolation and loneliness can also be associated with work in the so-called “gig economy”, where individuals use online platforms to access small, discrete jobs on-demand. Here impersonal technology can exacerbate even further the forms of isolation that workers may have already been associated with industries, such as taxi driving and courier delivery, where individuals spend much of the working day alone. Now individuals access work through their smart phone, with the majority of communication with the company they work for mediated through an app rather than face to face interactions.

The lack of collegial interaction in much “gig economy” work can make it difficult for individuals to cultivate the sense of workplace community that is associated with the social foundation of good work. For example, one driver working for the transport firm Uber reported to the Financial Times that his new working conditions were less social than those he had previously experienced whilst working for a more traditional taxi company. “When the work was quiet, you’d go back into the office: all the drivers would be there, you’d mingle, you’d have a little chit-chat”. However, while working for Uber, “you’re sitting there all day, you’re not talking to anyone, you’re isolated”.

By working alone, and at a distance from their colleagues, individuals are less able to enjoy the social foundation of good work and make the social connections that can make working life more rewarding. 

2. Intensification of work.

Increasing pressure to maximise performance and meet strict efficiency targets can further isolate individuals, leaving them with few opportunities to engage in meaningful social interaction with others during their working day. Under such conditions, the capacity for work to represent a valuable social space in people’s lives can be severely eroded.

For example, across the UK, care workers are increasingly expected to complete each of their client visits within just fifteen-minutes. As a result, these workers have less time to interact socially with those they care for. Indeed, research conducted by the trade union UNISON found that 85 per cent of homecare workers no longer had time to have a proper conversation with their clients. When individuals have fewer opportunities to enjoy social relationships with others in their working lives because of efficiency pressures on their time, they are less likely to enjoy the social foundation of good work.

3.  “False colleagues”

Workers can be divided from one another in a less physical sense too. This is particularly the case when the relationship between colleagues becomes competitive and antagonistic rather than cooperative and social. For example, couriers working in the “gig-economy” are often paid per delivery instead of a set hourly wage. This dynamic could lead individuals to jealously compete against their co-workers for the most lucrative routes in order to maximise their income. Co-workers can thus come to see each other as business rivals, rather than colleagues with whom they can cooperate and develop shared interests. Indeed, in some cases this logic is actively cultivated by employers who deploy forms of algorithmic management technology to encourage staff to compete against each other in return for more working hours.

In these kinds of hyper-competitive environments, co-workers become “false colleagues”, with workplace relationships built on rivalry and self-interest rather than trust and cooperation. Indeed, such excessive competition between colleagues in the workplace can make it hard, if not impossible, for individuals to experience work as a valuable form of community

4. Challenges to collective organisation.

Isolation and division in our working lives can directly threaten the social foundation of good work to the extent that such conditions make it more difficult to interact with others or build a sense of community with our colleagues. However, such working conditions can also indirectly undermine the social foundation of good work by making it harder to engage in the forms of collective organisation that can, in and of themselves, represent an alternative space for meaningful social interaction within working life.

More isolated and divided co-workers are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences of working together that help cultivate a sense of solidarity. If we do not regularly interact closely with our co-workers on a daily basis, and if we have fewer opportunities to develop relationships of trust between one another, it is less likely that we will feel that we have common interests that can be addressed by organising collectively.In addition, trade unions are faced with the more practical challenge of engaging with an increasingly dispersed and diffuse workforce. Given that trade unions have traditionally organised around a model of work that was based in large, geographically-defined workplaces, their existing tactics and strategies for organisation may be less relevant and effective when more and more individuals work alone as remote workers. Indeed, the challenges posed by a more isolated and divided workforce may help in some way to explain why trade union membership in the UK is continuing to decline.  

As a result, workers may be less able to effectively challenge their antisocial working conditions. But, crucially, they will also miss out on an alternative space in which to develop valuable forms of solidarity and collegiality within working life.

How Trade Unions can diversify

Whilst working conditions, for many, remain isolating and divisive, it is crucial that trade unions work to overcome the challenges to collective organisation that can make it harder to promote the social foundation of good work within the contemporary labour market.

In the first instance, trade unions will need to overcome the challenge of making contact with a more physically isolated and divided workforce. One way to achieve this could be a more effective use of internet technology and social media. Whilst the traditional model of trade unionism sought to compete against employers within workplaces, twenty-first century unions must also compete against employers on workers’ phones and computers. Promisingly, the TUC have recently been investing in new forms of app-based technology to help reach out to more isolated workers. Similarly, new forms of “worker tech” such as that developed by Organise, may help to provide an online space in which unions can interact with workers and create networks that can form the basis of campaigns against the antisocial working conditions experienced in the contemporary labour market. By utilising new technologies in this way, unions will be able to engage more directly with individuals who may no longer share a single workplace. This could enable workers to feel less isolated, and provide an outlet through which to share their knowledge, experience, and aspirations in a way that is conducive to increasing the sense of community in working life.

However, such technology should only ever act as a stepping stone towards a more social experience of working life. Unions must also engage with workers on a face-to-face basis in order to hear their concerns, reflect their interests, and represent a tangible manifestation of solidarity and community in their lives. One model for achieving this with workers that do not share a single geographically-defined workplace could be the ‘hot spot’ strategy adopted by Independent Workers Union of Great Britain [IWGB]. This involves campaigning in areas that see high traffic of gig-economy workers in order to recruit them to the union. For example, when organising Deliveroo couriers in Camden, IWGB would campaign outside a local coffee shop that they knew was well-placed between many of the restaurants that Deliveroo workers would frequent. In such ways unions can more effectively build a valuable sense of solidaristic community in the lives of more diffusely dispersed workers.

As traditional workplaces disappear, unions should also seek to provide isolated and remote workers with access to alternative physical spaces in which they can come together and interact with similarly situated colleagues. For example, UNISON have introduced shop-front style resource centres on local high streets in order to make the union more visible in local communities and less reliant on organising within workplaces. Elsewhere, the trade union, Community, has partnered with IndyCube, an organisation that offers self-employed workers shared work spaces in which they can connect and overcome the loneliness associated with remote working. Through this partnership, Community is able to offer self-employed workers advice and legal assistance that is more relevant to their specific needs. Experimenting with new kinds of organisational models, such as these, could allow unions to help today’s isolated and divided workers enjoy the social interactions and solidaristic sense of community with their colleagues that helps make working life more fulfilling and rewarding.

So long as work continues to occupy a large part of our lives, it is important that it reflects the importance of social interaction, community, and the basic human need for belonging. As workers are more isolated and divided in the contemporary labour market, it is crucial that we consider how the social value of working life is impacted, and how it can be protected. If trade unions can sufficiently adapt to the challenges of this new landscape, they may be able to offer a valuable, alternative source of social interaction and community in working life. By considering new organisational strategies, as well as how technology can be utilised more effectively, trade unions could help to ensure that the social foundation of good work is still available despite an increasingly antisocial landscape of work.

James Hickson is a PhD student in the Department of Politics at the University of York. He writes on work, precarity, and political philosophy

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