Trade Union and Cooperative Strategies for Organising Precarious Workers

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* Report: Organising Precarious Workers: Trade Union and Co-operative Strategies. A report for the TUC from Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative College. By Pat Conaty, Alex Bird and Cilla Ross. TUC, 2017


"The aim of this report is to describe more clearly the plight of the growing precariat and to identify and capture examples of best practice where unions and co‐ operatives are working together."


Pat Conaty et al.:

"The three main types of insecure work, casual, zero‐hours and self‐employment, are all on the increase.   Ongoing labour market deregulation, the impact of information technology and the new gig economy means income, hours, days or even work locations can no longer be guaranteed as employment rights are eroded. More and more workers are becoming socially isolated. This and flexible working raises barriers for organising the rapidly growing precarious workforce.

Our aim in this report is to explore how trade unions and co‐operatives can work together to challenge precarity and secure decent work.

The world of work in the 21st century has a markedly different pattern from that of the 20th century. The two‐tiered structure that has emerged since 2007 out of austerity and automation has been well described as an hour‐glass.

In the top half there is a shrinking traditional workforce with standard 40 hour contracts, residual pensions and full employment rights and below, lies what Martin Smith of the GMB described as:

- ‘a second growing group where technology creates an on demand working culture dominated by their smart phone of precarious work, low paid, zero hours, tiny hours, agency, self‐employed jobs.’  

The aim of this report is to describe more clearly the plight of the growing precariat and to identify and capture examples of best practice where unions and co‐ operatives are working together to challenge the erosion of political, social, economic and cultural rights.  

Guy Standing and his work on A Precariat Charter describes why a loss of ‘social income’ won by trade union struggles over decades characterises most clearly the plight of the precariat in the 21st century: their conversion from full citizens into denizens with curtailed rights.

‘The precariat lacks access to non‐wage perks such as paid vacations, medical leave, company pensions and so on. It also lacks rights‐based state benefits, linked to legal entitlements, leaving it dependent on discretionary insecure benefits, if any. And it lacks access to community benefits, in the form of a strong commons (public services and amenities).’

GMB commissioned research that interviewed precarious workers and found:

 Unions remain deeply supported and identified as being on their side.

 Traditional forms of collective bargaining are largely seen as inaccessible within a realistic timeframe of an organising campaign.

 Union approaches are best focused around meeting their needs.

 Union messaging that works best include: ‘Britain needs a pay rise’, ’Work you can build a life on’, and ‘Fair treatment at work.’

For this report we have surveyed and interviewed numerous officers and members of UK and other trade unions abroad as well as those working in co‐operatives. A consultation day was held in Manchester and four case studies have been put together in the next four sections to highlight innovative practices.  Though it is early days, these organising strategies are either emerging in the UK or, with focused support from the trade union or co‐operative movements, could emerge and be embedded.  

The report illustrates each organising strategy and draws together broader and crosscutting findings and recommendations." 


"The response of European trade unions to the growth of atypical employment has been mixed, and for most unions the focus has been on opposition to deregulation, and to improve conditions by enforcing labour regulations. Some unions in Europe have actively opened membership up to the self‐employed, but many have not. For the latter group there is an awareness that separate organising strategies are needed but that these are more costly and challenging to implement effectively."


See also:


  • TUC (2016) Living on the Edge: The rise of job insecurity in Britain, Economic

Report Series 2016   [ per cent20on per cent20the per cent20Edge per cent202016.pdf] 

  • Keune, M. (2013) Trade union responses to precarious work in seven European



  • Guy Standing (2014) A Precariat Charter ‐ From Denizens to Citizens, Bloomsbury
  • Guy Standing (2011) The Precariat ‐ The New Dangerous Class, Bloomsbury. 
  • Ursula Huws (2014) Labor in the Global Digital Economy ‐ The Cybertariat Comes

of Age, Monthly Review Press. [‐key‐criticisms‐of‐basic‐ income‐and‐how‐to‐overcome‐them/]

  • Trebor Scholz (2017) Uberworked and Underpaid, Polity Press.

More information

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"As the Not Alone report showed, there is good trade union practice in the UK and across Europe for organising freelance workers in the entertainment and media sector.18 The Federation of Entertainment Unions (FEU), including the NUJ, BECTU, Equity, the Musicians Union and the Writers Guild are leading examples. There is scope to extend this media sector expertise to assist other unions and there are successes in organising in transport and logistics.

The Not Alone report also showed that strategic trade union partnerships with co‐operative organisations are crucial to successful organising of informal economy workers, as was the case before 1945, when both movements worked in solidarity. ILO Recommendation 193 passed in 2002 shows how trade union co‐promotion of co‐operatives has aided organising strategies in developing countries over recent decades."