Student Unions and the Law Won’t Save Your Workers’ Rights. Why You Should Join a Direct Action Trade Union Today:
New to uni? This is why you should join a union that helps you fight for a better life. Forget about your student union – join self‑organised workers who are ready to put themselves on the line for you.
Not only has the cost of studying increased exponentially in the past twenty years. Whatever opportunities existed for us to work alongside studying have collapsed into a black hole of anxiety and dependence too. Its time we discarded our student unions and joined self‑organised trade unions to put ourselves on the line for a decent future.
Since 1998 University fees have grown almost ten times as high. Living costs rise each year. Everywhere students are indebted to the state and to banks. When loans fall short, as for students with high London rents, we make up for it with wages. Our jobs market, however, has become a “gig economy”, clearly represented by food delivery companies like Deliveroo and UberEats.
How do you know if you’re in the “gig economy”?
The “gig economy” is characterised by the use of short, part-time contracts or freelance work. Companies like Deliveroo and Uber pay you per delivery or journey in your vehicle – “gigs”. This piecemeal pay allows employers to exploit their workers, paying us less than the true value of our work. Similarly to zero‑hour contracts, gig workers receive no guaranteed hours. But whereas zero-hour workers have some rights such as sick pay and the national minimum wage, gig workers do not.
Before 2017, gig workers were not even legally classified as workers. This meant you had no protection from unfair dismissal and no redundancy pay. Unsurprisingly, Deliveroo have steadily tried to lower their payment rates. But drivers need at least £5 per delivery, and £8 per double delivery to make ends meet.
The added stress of your work security being at constant risk not only lowers work performance, it greatly affects studies too. Why should our education and mental health suffer because of companies who don’t care about the workers they employ?
Sound familiar? Let me tell you what you can do about it.
Your student union won’t help you in a crunch
By joining a trade union you’re joining workers from around the world who actively fight together to improve your situation. As a student, the first union I encountered was my university’s student union. Perhaps you thought student unions act like an actual union, but this is a mistake. Student unions explicitly state that they are not trade unions and can’t help with workplace affairs, only internal issues at university. But what if your work is affecting your studies? The fact of the matter is that student unions are staggeringly outdated and incapable when it comes to dealing with working students.
There are many real trade unions and it can be hard to decide where to join. Most trade unions run business‑style operations, focusing on negotiation with the employer. This process is often very bureaucratic. Workers remain exploited throughout the whole process and often only very small gains are achieved.
Unlike other unions, however, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) runs a solidarity‑style unionism. This means IWW will always put you, the worker, first – using direct action against bosses when they violate your rights.
The effects of solidarity unionism by IWW members has seen many successes in precarious workplaces recently. For instance, English teachers on zero‑hour contracts at Delfin Language School at Bloomsbury Square in London were forced to be present on-site fifteen minutes before their contracted hours. Essentially, they were working fifteen minutes unpaid every single shift. In protest, the entire workforce organised a sit-in and refused to follow the boss’s orders. Now they all get paid for every minute they’re at work. What guaranteed their workers’ rights wasn’t the law, but direct action.
Only direct action will change this rotten system for good
Don’t just complain. Fight to change an economy that corrupts us and the planet we live on. Organisation is our single greatest weapon against capitalism. If you join the IWW today you will stand side by side with other students and workers. Together we’ll shape the world we want to see.
Joe Lawrence studies Music at SOAS and is a member of the IWW in London.
Find out more on how you can get involved at in the IWW in London on their website.
Photo credit: David Iliff, under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, and IWW Student Workers, with modifications.