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Union stands up for (self-employed) bosses

A workers’ co-operative has joined forces with a trade union to create a new kind of service

For the first time since it closed in June, there are signs of life at the Co-operative Bank building on Hoe Street in Walthamstow, northeast London. On a wet Wednesday evening in August, self-employed workers gather to celebrate the launch of a new kind of trade union. The Indycube Community is the first one designed specially for the self-employed.

“We’ve got an ambition to change the way Britain works,” Mark Hooper tells those squeezed together in the gutted interior of the bank.

The way Britain works is already changing fast. The number of self-employed workers has risen sharply, from 3.8 million in 2008 to 4.6 million in 2015, according to official statistics. While many people cite flexibility and freedom as reasons for becoming self-employed, these workers can face uncertainty over hours, benefits and pay. Meanwhile, in 2016 union membership experienced the biggest drop since records began, with the total number enrolled falling by 275,000 members to 6.2 million.

Community, the trade union, decided through its work in the steel industry that the self-employed needed representation. In 2016 it helped members fight the closure of the Port Talbot steelworks in Wales, saving threatened jobs.

Sensing change, many workers in manufacturing have turned to other work, including freelancing or starting businesses. Community realised that representing them would require a different approach.

“How do you access self-employed people?” asks Lauren Crowley, 28, lead research policy officer from the Community Union. “What we are used to doing — pay negotiation, striking — is no longer applicable. We have to change with the demands of the workforce to survive.”

They found the perfect partner in Mr Hooper, 48. He founded Indycube, a co-operative offering co-working space, in Wales in 2010. Indycube aims to foster entrepreneurship and offer support in places where the decline of industry has left many people seeking new types of work.

Partnering with Indycube helped Community to connect with the self-employed. “One of the things that was difficult is that there’s no shop floor, there’s no one place where you can organise in the way that trade unions traditionally have done,” Ms Crowley says. “Working with Indycube gives us the chance to reach these workers in person.”

About 200 members have signed up since the union opened this year after Community made a substantial investment in Indycube. The cash will allow Indycube to expand from 30 offices, mostly in Wales. Mr Hooper has ambitious plans to open 1,200 spaces across the UK over the next five years.

Walthamstow is home to the first London Indycube. Stella Creasy, the local Labour MP, helped Mr Hooper to obtain the space from Co-op Bank.

Stella Creasy MP was at the launch in Walthamstow

On launch night, workmen rig up strip lights to fill holes in the ceiling. Desks and extra plug sockets will soon arrive to accommodate the first workers in September. They hope to be there for at least three months.

“I keep joking that this is the Marxist revolution,” Ms Creasy, 40, says. “The means of production are truly in the hands of the workers. But actually the power imbalances in our economy mean that great advantages for some are great losses to others.”

Members of the union pay £10 a month and get access to legal advice and invoice “factoring”, which allows the self-employed to get paid upfront for work while a third party chases payment in return for a small cut. There are plans to start a “bread fund” offering sick pay and other benefits that the self-employed traditionally do without. Mr Hooper hopes that invoice factoring will go some way to easing the pain that stems from the estimated £26 billion held up in late payments, much of which affects smaller companies and freelancers.

This service sets the Indycube Community Union apart from other multi-trade unions, such as the East End Trades Guild in east London, which helps business owners forge conversations with those in power to fight common interests, such as rent rises in gentrifying parts of the capital.

Fifteen per cent of residents in Walthamstow are self-employed but 46 per cent earn less than the living wage. They range from cleaners, builders and hairdressers to artists and designers and public sector workers who were made redundant as their roles were outsourced.

The Taylor Review of modern working practices recognised that the flexibility offered to many self-employed workers is one-sided, particularly those who are lower paid, with large companies calling the shots. Ms Creasy was disappointed that the report did not get into the role of trade unions. “A union for the self-employed gets people to think in collective ways,” she says. “It creates the opportunity to start demanding improvements in the way we employ people, the way we pay people and the kinds of investment we have in the local community.”

People power

Eifion Jones, 37, joined the Indycube Community Union in March, months after he moved back to Swansea with his young family.

During 13 years living and working as a video producer in Bristol, he sought space to work, including a desk at a film studio, to feel connected even when he was working on his own projects.

Indycube Community Union went one better, offering the social aspect of co-working with added protection against late settlement of invoices and help with any legal action.

“I liked the community of it, with lots of individuals co-operating and collaborating. It makes self-employed workers a bit better connected with regards to not getting stung or exploited,” he says. “But also, if you have a project where you need sub-contractors and other freelancers, you have a network that you can draw on.”

Mr Jones, who had never been part of a union before he joined Indycube Community, believes that membership could have the potential to offer other benefits, such as greater buying power — for group membership of video-editing software, for example.

“As self-employed people we like to do our own thing, but if we are connected we have more power.”