What does HR need to know about alt-unionism?

Girard Dorney


written on June 30, 2017

Changes in industrial relations law and the rise of the gig economy have resulted in what some have labeled “alt-unionism” (also called alt-labor and improvisational unionism). What is it, and should HR be worried?

Putting it delicately, 2017 has not been kind to Uber. The most recent news concerning the ride-sharing giant’s Australian arm is that the shoe everybody was waiting to drop has finally done so.

Whether or not the company’s drivers are being properly treated, whether they are victims of sham contracting, should at last be decided. The Fair Work Ombudsman is conducting an investigation with “the purpose of determining whether the engagement of Uber drivers is compliant with Commonwealth workplace laws,” a spokesman from the Ombudsman says.

Uber has said it is cooperating fully with the investigation but as Julian Teicher, a labour market expert at Central Queensland University told The New Daily, there is a good chance that the company would lose any test case and be forced to pay its drivers like casuals, not contractors. Such a decision would destroy Uber’s business model (they would be obliged to start contributing to superannuation and pay the minimum wage) and might cause it to quit Australia.

The group taking credit for prompting the investigation is Ride Share Drivers United, who claim to have presented evidence to the Ombudsman. Chief among their complaints has been that drivers control no aspect of their work except for hours-worked, and that Uber is able to close them off from income opportunities, without a right of reply, by simply blocking them from the app.

While Ride Share Drivers United might sound like a union, it maintains anonymous membership because they’re (appropriately) scared Uber would cut them off should it discover who they are. For instance, the RSDU’s spokesman, who has talked to the Sydney Morning Herald, is known only by the pseudonym “Max B.” This fact and that Uber won’t deal with RSDU (in the US, the company threatened they would leave Seattle if they weren’t able to stop union elections) marks them as very different from a typical Australian union.

That difference has earned the classification “alt-unionism”. The term, which has been around for a while, is used to describe any industrial action that is outside of the normal bounds of collective bargaining.

The danger of alt-unionism

In a report for the Conversation, professors Sarah Kaine and Emmanuel Josserand detail what the concept is, why it’s a concern now, and whether organisations should try and re-embrace registered unions in an effort to quash its rise.

They argue that a principal reason why we’re seeing alt-unionism is that for years business groups have succeeded in their efforts to increase regulation in order to limit union activity and circumscribe their effectiveness. With their right to strike curbed, and with the reintroduction of the ABCC (the Australian Building and Construction Commission), unions are no longer satisfying many workers. So they’re turning to alternatives.

The RSDU is only one example, others from the US (where the situation is worse) include things like the online petition against Starbucks that resulted in a pay rise for its workers and the fast food strikes. Alt-unionism is essentially combative; there is no collective bargaining so other, potentially more damaging, means are used to agitate for change.

As Kaine and Josserand write, “many of its manifestations are ad hoc and small scale and consequently easy to ignore.” But companies do so at their peril because alt-unionism is “much more difficult to contain through existing systems” and “ it’s often focused on inflicting reputational damage on a business in order to leverage an outcome.”

Compare that with the ideal IR relationship, which is workers and employers employing collaborative processes to negotiate, because they realise that nobody wins if the company, or industry, fails.

Even after a tumultuous year, Australia still has a relatively stable IR situation. But, the authors note, business groups should be wary of further eroding the power of unions or else face spontaneous action “not bounded by the Fair Work Act or whatever supersedes it.”

(Meet and discuss the IR landscape with your HR peers at your local AHRI network forum, and earn CPD points.)

HR and alt-unionism

Interestingly, in many instances where alt-unionism is likely to rise, it is due not only to the lack of a union but also due to the absence of an HR function. For many gig economy workers there is no HR – the existence of such a thing could in fact be used against a company in its efforts to classify them as contractors.

What’s more, good HR can potentially dilute or eliminate the need for unions in a way that also makes alt-unionism unnecessary.

Ultimately the question of alt-unionism, in the gig economy at least, might be made moot by the results of the Ombudsman’s investigation. Granting Uber drivers (and workers like them) the rights of employees would place them more securely within existing IR regulations.

Photo credit: FotoGrazio via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC-ND

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13 thoughts on “What does HR need to know about alt-unionism?

  1. The Uber investigation should come as no surprise given the Fair Work Ombudsman is very actually be in the sham contracting space, there has already been a major inquiry into sham contracting in the construction industry and, in the UK, there has been a landmark court decision late in 2016 to the effect that Uber drivers are employees and not contractors – see https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/28/uber-uk-tribunal-self-employed-status.
    A disappointing aspect of the article on Alt-unionism is the uninformed commentary on the alleged limitation on union rights through regulation and reintroduction of the ABCC. The truth is that union rights have not been limited at all but their exposures when they do wrong (i.e. Break the law) have increased as they have for employers as well.

  2. Without specifically targeting the Uber issue FWC is investigating, one general observation about alt-unionism around the world is that our ready access to social media has provided the critical resource workers and other groups need to share their views and develop a united voice. It is hard to imagine that anything like these movements of workers or other groups could have happened so quickly twenty years ago. The critical challenge will be for those responsible for justice, whether in the industrial arena or elsewhere, to deal fairly and accurately with heated issues as they arise.

  3. The authors’ comments about Union powers being eroded is completely wrong. The previous ALP governments unwound over 20 years of IR reforms. That is not my opinion – that is the opinion of even stanch unionists such as Martin Ferguson. Unions have never had it so good. The powers and avenues they have under the Fair Work Act with respect to EB and other issues is astounding. However, Unions’ have vague corporate governance which has seen some operate outside of, and refuse to comply with the law. Hence the reintroduction of the ABCC and other pieces of IR reform. The attempt by the authors to link declining union memberships with incorrect statements about erosion of union powers is way off track. It is the manner in which certain Unions behave that is the cause of their demise.

    1. “Unions have never had it so good” – are you kidding? The decline in union membership is linked to the beat-up of unions in the media; the undue ties between the unions and the bureaucracy of the Labor party (a lot of people I know are put off by their union as membership simply means being subject to ALP propaganda) and also due to the prominence of the Fair Work Ombudsman investigating matters and prosecuting issues independently of unions.

      This means that the Fair Work Ombudsman are becoming the “go to” when IR issues arise for workers, and not their respective unions. When someone feels like they have been treated unfairly – their knee jerk reaction isn’t to call their union anymore. It is to visit Fair Work (sometimes, mistakenly, the Commission – unless they are lodging an unfair dismissal claim themselves).

      It is why the Australian Labor Party likes to decrease funding for the FWO, and the Liberal Party increase its funding. Regardless of your position – the two are inherently linked.

      Also – “unions have never had it so good” is a false statement. Enterprise Agreements can be terminated at the drop of a hat, resulting in a workforce falling down to the Award, which is an incredibly aggressive manoeuvre by employers and not conducive to collaborative relationships with unions.

  4. It is no secret that humans need interdependence and ‘fairness’ is cost consideration regarding any relationship.

    Working to actively negate another’s bargaining power has never worked in the long term. Stripping a group of their security has always resulted in some form of revolt.

    When corporations and unions traded aspects of working conditions in EBA’s without sincere consultation, they left workers feeling sold out. It doesn’t matter how hard you worked on the Agreement, if you didn’t sincerely consult, then you didn’t bargain in good faith. (I’ve yet to meet a worker who understands their EBA – unless it has been used to let them know what rights they have lost during adversarial negotiations.)

    If companies and unions did not include a reaction to loss of negotiating power (perceived or otherwise) as a calculation in their risk models it is the living embodiment of arrogance. Discarding human behaviour when your company relies on human effort is the epitome of stupid.

    Necessity is the mother of all invention and humans with a necessity will focus their minds and passion in pursuit of goals.

    Given the behaviour of corporations, unions, and governments in working toward eviscerating security for the masses, I predict that there will be many people applying themselves toward regaining a sense of safety. Most likely this will be at the detriment to many organisations.

    It is going to be an uncomfortable and expensive future for many institutions who don’t make some pretty radical changes to their way of relating to workers. Alt-unions are just one example.

    1. Victoria, you have correctly identified an unsavoury practice involving certain Unions and companies – the trading away of working conditions for pernicious reasons. For example, the AWU traded away entitlements of workers with one company in return for that company signing up its employees (without their knowledge or permission) as members of the AWU and paying the membership fees. This occurred whilst Shorten was high up at that union, and now people want to vote for this hypocritical fool!

  5. If there is a rise in “Alt Unions”, it is most likely because existing Unions are not addressing the needs of people who create such bodies. Most Unions still operate on a model that started losing relevance in the 80’s.

    So many things in our working lives are being impacted by the sheer ease of communication between people; people can congregate in cyber space and work out for themselves who they want to speak for them. I have seen this in many smaller organisations over the last few years, but thank you,now I have a phrase for it!

  6. Let’s be clear – it’s not that 2017 has been unkind to Uber; Uber has been unkind to Uber. They really should consider renaming to Hubris.
    I’m sure many companies are rethinking their ‘uberisation’ strategies, which frankly in some cases stank of exploitation. My biggest concern is that this was particularly becoming an issue in the social services sector, with ND IS and reforms in aged care sector and the idea of ‘user choice’ (as if somehow they were denied this before). This is another industry that employs low skilled, predominantly female and over 50 worker who care for our most vulnerable members of society. And what some organisations are doing, allegedly in the name of UX (many boasting as being ‘values based’), is unconscionable. And the unions are turning out to be toothless tigers. I think they have been so scared by some unions’ shenanigans, that they are now reluctant to act even when they’re in the right (witnessed it recently). So, the workers are turning to social media and Alt-unionism as they see no other choice.

  7. “alt-unions” – sometimes called “scab unions” by the snooty and more established ones – are partially becoming more frequent due to some unions no longer being representative of their workers. Look at the SDA – they are losing members to the Retail And Fast Food Workers’ Union (RAFFWU) and even seats at bargaining tables as they can’t be trusted. If unions are principled and are doing the right things by the workers, and ensuring that their decisions are in-line with the rank and file members’ expectations, then these pop-up groups won’t be formed out of necessity.

    Lots of workplaces don’t feel like their union even care about them and form their own workers’ syndicates, and self-organise and self-bargain. This is dangerous for workforces in the sense that it is easier for callous managers to divide and conquer them – but again, it’s clearly being done out of necessity in some instances.

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