What does HR need to know about alt-unionism?


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 / CC BY-NC-ND

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Victoria Wilson
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Victoria Wilson

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… Read more »

Catherine Cahill
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Catherine Cahill

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!

MK
Guest
MK

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… Read more »

James Gear
Guest
James Gear

Well done the RSDU!

Lewis Price
Guest
Lewis Price

“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… Read more »

More on HRM

What does HR need to know about alt-unionism?


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 / CC BY-NC-ND

13
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Victoria Wilson
Guest
Victoria Wilson

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… Read more »

Catherine Cahill
Guest
Catherine Cahill

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!

MK
Guest
MK

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… Read more »

James Gear
Guest
James Gear

Well done the RSDU!

Lewis Price
Guest
Lewis Price

“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… Read more »

More on HRM