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.