What does a union mean to you? This is the question that we are posing to friends, workmates and fellow Wobblies in our new series. Traditionally, trade unions have an association with heavy industries, transport, the public sector and professions – mostly stable work with a degree of social recognition. The IWW has always run against this thinking, maintaining that not just these but all workers in every workplace should be united under “One Big Union”. This has been shown throughout its history by organising sectors of the working class who have been marginalised, ignored or excluded from other unions – migrant and itinerant labour, women, children, people of colour, queer and trans workers amongst others.
It is in this spirit that this new irregular series focuses on the experience of work that is located outside of traditional spaces, is organised informally or atypically, is poorly known or misunderstood. In staging these inquiries we hope to understand what the One Big Union idea means within contemporary capitalism, what social, political and economic functions unions must fulfil and how organisers can further support and amplify existing acts of solidarity within these sectors.
In this first article we talk to Mike about their experiences of working in the social care.
1. How would you describe your work?
I’m a support worker for people with learning disabilities. I help the learning disabled in their day to day lives, at their homes and in the community. What exactly I do varies according to the specific needs of the individual client, and can go from being very intensive support (including personal care etc) to essentially socialising with the client.
2. What do you like about your job?
I like that I provide a service that is so essential to my clients lives, really making a direct, tangible and positive impact. I also like the degree of autonomy I have to get on with my job, rather than having a boss constantly scrutinizing my every move and throwing his/her weight around, as I mostly work one to one.
3. What do you dislike about your job?
I dislike the widespread care industry practice of dumping high levels of overtime on employees. Working time regulations are regularly ignored by management, and workers are pressurised to jump in to cover regular staff shortages. I dislike the low pay, which is not remotely a living wage, and in reality often falls below minimum wage levels, openly ignoring employment law. I dislike the way management regularly ignore staff who raise concerns about workplace conditions, and fail to respond to complaints and queries. I also dislike the way our rotas, where we find out where and when we will be working, are released only a few days before the week in question, meaning planning more than a week in advance for our own lives is very difficult. I dislike a lot. The company I work for, and many other companies throughout the care industry, suffers from often poor working conditions and a large degree of contempt for support workers and carers.
4. Is there anything you do on the job that makes it easier/safer/more enjoyable?
I try to pace myself and not rush too much, to minimise stress. I don’t slack, and work diligently, but I don’t break my back trying to do everything at once. I also often refuse additional shifts and have recently insisted on sticking to a 40 hour week, so I have time to rest and do other things with my life.
5. What does solidarity in your work mean for you?
It means recognising the difficulties we all face as workers and showing compassion to our colleagues, rather than getting caught up in petty rivalry and competitiveness. It means being constructive and supportive rather than attempting to cosy up with management on the backs of other staff. Unfortunately, the nature of largely working alone means forming the relationships necessary to promote solidarity is quite difficult.
6. What does a union mean to you?
It’s self defence. It’s recognising that as workers, we are in a fragile and precarious position, and that the power is weighted in favour of the bosses. Ideally, it’s active solidarity and support, including actively standing up for each other in the face of bullying from management. This would include using the tools of direct action we have at our disposal, e.g. striking, though in care-work there are obvious questions as to how this can be done whilst minimising disruption to those we care for. Legal support and advice are also useful areas a union can help in, including taking things to court if need be. In a wider context, a union perhaps represents something of a vision as to how society could function differently, with more emphasis on support and cooperation, and less on individualist competition.