As a new generation of workers finds itself staring down a lifetime of precarious, poorly paid work in the age of a deadly pandemic and limitless corporate power, the idea of unions has emerged as a potential antidote. But what can unions do for today's workers and do we need them?
Eve Livingston’s “Make Bosses Pay” is an engaging and accessible primer on the necessity of working class power and how a union movement is capable of liberating all workers from capital’s relentless grip. Building a truly liberatory union movement, Livingston argues, requires moving beyond traditional spheres and conceptualizations of organizing. The next step, she says, is a truly inclusive and adaptive movement capable of meeting the needs of every worker — and for rank-and-file workers to lead the way in building unions. In Livingston’s view, unions can meet the immense and vast challenges facing workers today.
Unions can be essential catalysts for material changes in the workplace, but this power begins with what union involvement can achieve: politicization, education and deep and lasting bonds between workers. A U.K. trade unionist since age 22, Livingston writes movingly of organizing, specifically unions’ transformative ability to be spaces of radical thought and solidarity: “As sites of socialising and support, they can cultivate friendships for life and engender the confidence and belief that capitalism would rather beat out of us.”
As someone lucky enough to have been part of a union campaign, I found the process, struggle, and camaraderie of coming together with my coworkers to be formative for my political education and class consciousness and an often overlooked aspect of organizing. The life-affirming solidarity of organizing with coworkers around shared struggle forms the basis from which workers can begin to take control of their lives and build unions that truly meet their needs. Solidarity is key to creating a future where “a union is the workers and the workers are the union,” as Livingston states simply and powerfully.
As an anti-capitalist, Livingston is keenly aware of the role unions can play in assuaging tensions between capital and labor, wherein unions and organized labor play the role of a third-party broker, oriented solely on the contract form and not on organizing communist, socialist and anarchist life. But unions may be a long-term key, with far more potential for sustaining and organizing left momentum than electoral politics.
Reflecting on Corbynism and the electoral losses experienced across the West by the left in the 2010s, Livingston writes, “Everyday people pledging their solidarity to each other and acting as one is the only thing that has ever changed working-class people’s lives for the better.” The comfort and hope in Livingston’s belief in working people is bound to galvanize readers, and one hopes that many of those readers are workers looking for a way to take control of their lives and build a different world.
“Make Bosses Pay” is written with a “new working class” in mind — one defined by service and care work, as well as by precarious gig work. Livingston shows how the system relies on the devalued labor of women, immigrants and workers of color and that the union movement must organize with this new and precarious system in mind. Care workers with zero-hour contracts or Uber drivers with “flexible work” are precarious workers — cheap and replaceable, without the support and protection of traditional labor.
Livingston shows how the gig economy and precarious work poses unique challenges to organizing, as workers are forced into competition with each other. Often, there is no way for traditional one-to-one organizing to occur in a workplace where workers work alone and through apps. However, unions can and must organize in these spaces, Livingston argues, and leaving the power of the gig economy unchecked hurts us all. Doing so requires nimbleness and adaptability from organized labor and a willingness to think outside traditional models of organizing.
Livingston’s vision of a liberatory union movement requires a reckoning with racism and misogyny within the labor movement. As she shows, unions have not extended the same solidarity to women, immigrants and workers of color as they have to the white working class. In fact, union history demonstrates active complicity in upholding white supremacy and patriarchy.
In one example, Livingston analyzes the London-based Grunwick factory strike of 1976, where a group of primarily non-unionized South Asian factory workers walked off the job in a two-year-long battle over horrible conditions and dismal pay. While the labor movement initially rallied around the non-unionized workers of color, it eventually withdrew its support, leaving the factory workers to fend for themselves and eventually being forced to give up their demands.
The union movement must learn from its mistakes, which requires unwavering solidarity with all workers, including from outside the traditional labor movement. Livingston shows how the current push for employment rights and protections for U.K, sex workers is one such modern day fight the union movement should wage, where it can support and stand in solidarity with workers seeking the most basic acknowledgement that their work is work. Livingston makes the case that the union movement can play an important role in resisting capital’s desire to render sex work and other forms of precarious work as “invisible.” Unions themselves must first acknowledge this work as work. Unions must meet these workers where they are and throw their weight behind them completely.
The future of the labor movement requires a willingness from unions to fight for all workers and to fight against the erasure and exploitation of workers who are not white, male and able-bodied, to embrace the crucial fights being waged by workers outside traditional unionized sectors. Eve Livingston has written an inspiring cry to organize with “Make Bosses Pay.” Workers of all kinds can find value in her history of the movement and hopes for its future; I recommend asking your boss to pay for it.
Jacob Schear is an organizer in the Real Change Advocacy Department and a former rank-and-file member of the Elliott Bay Book Company’s Book Workers Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.