Henry Chango Lopez (pictured above, centre, before the pandemic) is the new General Secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). He spoke to Sacha Ismail.
In recent years the IWGB has had a high profile in part because it’s grown quite a lot when trade unions in general have stagnated. Why is that?
It’s really just about the situation of workers at the moment, the way the economy is, outsourcing, precarious employment – these are problems that many unions have not tackled. Unions do not effectively organise workers in these situations. The problem is so wide, exploitation is so wide, that if you organise you can be successful.
Exploitation is everywhere you go – in education, in government departments, in multimillionaire private companies. Workers increasingly don’t have proper contracts, don’t have basic conditions like sick pay, holidays and pensions, rights which many previously took for granted. The IWGB as a union have been taking on these issues and these employers and that is why we have been growing as a union.
We challenge employers in any way we can – industrial action, taking them to court, direct action.
Many workers are also realising that the problem is not just for cleaners, but in many other industries. This problem of precariousness and exploitation is everywhere. We now have charity workers, we have game workers, we have yoga teachers, who have many problems like not getting their correct salary, who have to fight for their wages, who face sexual harassment and all sorts of issues.
When was the IWGB set up and which industries do you organise in?
We were established in 2012. At the moment we have twelve branches. We represent workers at University of London, private hire drivers who work for for companies like Uber, couriers who work for companies like Deliveroo and many others, security guards and receptionists, foster carers, game workers, yoga teachers, cycle instructors. We recently formed a nannies’ branch. We also have a holding branch, which was formed during the pandemic to help other workers who don’t fit in an existing branch, so we can find out if we have more workers in that industry and create new branches if there are workers who want to organise to improve conditions.
Several industries we organise in, like couriers, private hire drivers and foster carers, are very much all over the country and so we have spread to cities outside London as well.
During the pandemic what are the most important struggles the union has been involved in, and what issues have you faced?
At University of London [the central Senate House site, where Henry previously worked] we managed to finally bring outsourced workers like cleaners and security inhouse in November, after a very long struggle. We’ve spread our organising to other University of London universities like Goldsmiths, where we also overturned some outsourcing, and UCL, where it’s been very challenging but we’ve made a certain amount of progress on helping workers win better conditions and equality.
We’ve also organised cleaners and help them win gains at a number of other workplaces, including a number of private clubs.
We’ve fought against private hire drivers having to pay the congestion charge, and challenged courier companies like Deliveroo which have been seriously exploiting workers. We managed to secure employment rights for foster carers in Scotland through legal action.
The pandemic has been very challenging for us. We’re a union that runs on a shoe-string due to the low wages our members mostly receive. The pandemic has meant we generally can’t take direct action, which has been an important tool for the IWGB, and meanwhile we’re faced by many employers using the opportunity of the pandemic to attack workers’ terms and conditions, cutting hours, not putting people on furlough when they could and so on, to say nothing of the weaknesses and gaps in the schemes the government has introduced. Bear in mind too that many of our members have more than one job and so are faced with these kind of problems with multiple employers.
Before the pandemic we were in full swing, and we’ve kept going, but for sure over the last year we haven’t been able to pursue everything we wanted to. At the same time we have recruited lots of new members, because for many low-paid workers the situation has highlighted the need for a union.
Particularly if you’re a low-paid, precarious worker, there is really no effective way to assert the most basic rights, not even say if the company fails to pay you, unless you’re in a union.
We’ve made good use of Zoom meetings and online rallies, petitions and campaigns targeting bad employers, and so on, as well as individual conversations with members. The fact that lots of workers are on furlough has given us more opportunity to talk to, engage and involve them.
We’ve worked hard to help workers with various problems, for instance with Universal Credit and Settled Status applications, by working with a variety of sister organisations to facilitate that.
The upshot is that we have organised a number of workplaces during the pandemic and our membership has continued to grow. It’s now about 6,000, up from 500 seven years ago.
Am I right that the union issued an instruction during the pandemic to stop face-to-face organising and recruitment? That seems strange, particularly since a lot of your members are still at work.
It’s a difficult situation. At a number of workplaces we’ve demanded that employers send workers home. The flip side of that is that we have to be careful too, we do not want to contribute to the spread of the virus, and also as a small union we can’t afford to have people getting sick.
What problems have you encountered as you’ve grown?
In our early days we were very much set up as a union for cleaners, and so it posed new challenges when we recruited members in new sectors as well as different kinds of workers in our existing sectors – for instance directly employed staff at University of London. We’re a small union with low resources, but the energy we’ve generated and the sacrifices workers have made to help the union have allowed us to overcome that. Developing workers’ power and developing people to take leadership has been very important.
What’s your view on how we transform the bigger, more mainstream unions?
I think it’s more about workers than unions themselves. The workers who are part of those unions need to organise and demand things, or it is hard to get the unions to demand.
We generally have a good relationship with most of the bigger unions, in terms of supporting each other’s struggles and also sometimes we receive help financially, as a show of solidarity to support of our struggles. In the past we had more hostility from other unions, but it’s faded as we’ve grown. There is however an issue about unions failing to organise precarious and outsourced workers in various sectors, and only taking an interest if we come in and start organising. If unions don’t organise workers then that creates a problem which other unions have to take up. That is what led the University of London cleaners to leave Unison in the first place.
What’s your relationship with United Voices of the World?
We have a good relationship with UVW; we work together on all kinds of things, both to support and solidarity for each other’s disputes and campaigns and joint initiatives around wider issues.
We try to work with any organisation that supports our cause. The labour movement can do great things if it works together, but less if it’s divided. We work with organisations fighting on other issues too, for instance migrants’ rights and other questions of equality, which are also issues that affect many of our members.
How does the IWGB relate to politics, and what are the key demands you raise on that level?
We worked very closely with many MPs under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who support a lot of our initiatives. Obviously things have changed, and it’s something we need to keep working on. We are still in contact with Labour and other MPs who are supportive of our demands, and as a new general secretary it’s something I want to pursue, but I need to catch up a bit. Jason Moyer-Lee’s are big shoes to fill and it will take a big of time to catch up, particularly with all the challenges posed by the pandemic and by our expanded membership.
Our main demands would be ones that relate to the gig economy, particularly in terms of guaranteeing basic workers’ rights for all workers, whatever their employment status. There have been victories in the courts, most recently against Uber, but these rights need to rolled out to all workers, and that takes political action. We also need political and government action to roll back outsourcing. We’re working out a series of demands about this.
We oppose the anti-strike laws. Obviously those laws are there to make the situation harder and restrict the work that we’re doing. We’ve got to a ridiculous situation now where you not only have to through all these procedures, but even inform the police when you are going to take strike action. It’s sick, and it makes people think twice about asserting their rights.
For us as a small union reaching the thresholds for strike ballots isn’t such a problem; obviously for bigger unions balloting a much bigger membership it can be much more of a problem. For us workers campaigning in solidarity with each other has been very important. The ban on industrial solidarity action needs to go. This will become a growing issue as precariousness spreads throughout society to more and more groups of workers.
Do you organise political discussion and education among your membership?
To be honest, it’s not something we’ve really been able to do so far. As I said, we’re run on a shoe-string, and sometimes it’s a challenge even to provide training on workers’ rights. We’re reforming the structures of the union to provide more training to reps and members, but we’ve got a lot way to go.
The IWGB campaigned against Brexit. Why and how do you see the issues now?
First of all, our membership includes loads of workers who have come here from the European Union. Moreover many of the workers’ rights we’ve taken advantage of derive from the EU. Now, with the Tories in power, unrestrained even by the EU rules, we’re in a more difficult situation. As a result of Brexit workers face an increasingly difficult situation, and of course particularly migrant workers. People face increasing difficulty even in terms of their right to stay in this country.
Migrant workers are the worst impacted by the restrictions on support during the pandemic, and migrants’ rights is absolutely crucial for the labour movement to take up.
Look at what happened in the NHS when the families of workers who died were offered the right to remain, but that was not extended to cleaners and other outsourced workers. You can see the attack on migrants and outsourcing intertwining.
The Labour Party should be fighting to improve the situation of all workers and all people in this country, but of course that has to include migrants. When people counterpose one to the other it’s a problem.
Migrants need to step up and get involved in politics, and this is something I always try to argue to our migrant members, to get involved in the union but also politics more broadly.
How do you think the trade union movement does in terms of fighting for migrants’ rights?
Well I look back to how we left Unison at University of London [in 2013 - see here]. The leadership in the branch was white British, and we tried to change and diversify that, to put migrant workers in leadership positions, but we faced real hostility in trying to do that, and so our elections were cancelled, and that’s why we left Unison. That’s the opposite of what we need, trying to encourage migrant workers and provide the space for them to become the ones leading the fight and the struggle. In the IWGB we’ve tried to do that but of course there’s more we can do.
There is a tendency in unions, and in all organisations, including on the left, for them to become dominated by a graduate layer, more white collar and formally educated. You raised the issue about bringing forward leaders from among precarious workers. How do you deal with this problem?
It’s about providing training and given people the opportunities to get involved and feel included in leadership. It can’t just be about having a small number of leaders, it has to be about involving much larger numbers of workers much more thoroughly. It’s not unreasonable that people with graduate backgrounds take organising positions, but we have to prepare the leaders of the future so we can gradually start to shift the situation. We need to develop workers’ capacities.