Going digital: building workers’ power through the Covid-19 crisis

Thursday 14 May 2020

Face-to-face contact has always been central in efforts to forward workers’ collective interests. However, the prolonged lockdown conditions have meant that workers and their unions are adapting new ways of applying pressure and building unity.

Organising for collective bargaining—especially at sectoral level—is a core priority of UNI Europa’s work. This week saw the inaugural meeting of the EPOC network (Europe’s Power and Organising Centre), which brings together leading organisers from UNI affiliates involved in EPOC across several sectors and a dozen countries. The discussion highlighted some examples of union organising, reflecting on recent organising experiences, sharing successes and providing feedback to one another on the challenges presented by the coronavirus crisis and beyond.

At SITT, an IT workers’ union in Romania, digital tools are increasingly used to put workers in the driving seat at every step. Focussing on building deep-rooted workplace unity, workers are the ones who do everything from signing colleagues up to live votes on positions during negotiations. With regular all-staff calls to keep everyone updated, members and non-members alike can experience the work of the union. Three out of SITT workers’ last four collective bargaining agreements were won on the back of collective action, highlighting that real advances at the negotiation table depend on the ability of workers to undertake collective action.

Using digital tools to increase workers’ ownership has been a central part of the response to Covid-19 by Mandate, a retail workers’ union in the Republic of Ireland. A central tactic was the implementation of an online survey on workers’ experiences during the crisis. Sent out to all members, but also targeted at non-members, responses were used to shape the union’s priorities, building worker ownership of the union’s approach to the crisis. The results were further used to generate significant press coverage but also to identify issues in non-unionised spaces and build strategies to address those issues and bring union protection to new workers.

In Finland, Teollisuus liito union outlined its “remote organising” approach with a case study. Targeting a company in which no shop steward structure was in place and that was not respecting the sectoral collective bargaining agreement, they set about mapping the company through one-to-one calls. Within two weeks they had identified workplace issues and potential leaders within different workplaces as well as completed 90 per cent of the mapping exercise. The following two weeks saw membership climb beyond 65 per cent within the target company (a 30 per cent increase from the starting point). Building an entrenched and participatory union structure within the company was shown to rely on the participation of workers themselves, who were provided support to drive the process.

Unite the union has had a very front foot approach to growing and defending members, including numerous walk outs for health and safety. This strategy has seen membership grow by 30,000 during the crisis. A clear targeting strategy from the start, including “hot shops”, workplaces in which workers face egregious situations, strategic objectives are adapted to specific contexts. At Siemens, the focus on securing pay rates and collective action brought colleagues together while for childcare workers in Northern Ireland, a key objective has been obtaining a collective voice at government level. Unite has also deployed muscular strategies – creating ‘crisis leverage ‘ to push back hostile employers.

The EPOC programme brings together unions from across northern and western Europe to organise in a coordinated and effective way by building workers’ power. Its remit is to defend, expand and (re)build collective bargaining by providing support to affiliates in building sustainable structures. Online meetings of the network take place monthly. If your union is interested in getting involved in EPOC, contact Erkan Ersoy or Ben Egan for more information.

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