Do You Hate Your Boss?
Design and activism, 2020
Unions may sound old-fashioned, but with low wages, rising prices, and flexible contracts, there is a renewed interest in worker solidarity. Organizing with your co-workers is often the only way to improve low wages and bad working conditions. What are unions and solidarity networks, and why are they relevant again? This article talks about three new unions that have emerged in The Netherlands in recent years and for whom I occasionally make designs.
You probably have faced bad conditions at work at one point in your life; unpaid overtime, a pay cut, working weekends, a toxic work environment, or a boss that refuses to give you a raise even though the company makes a profit. Just being by yourself, it is hard or even impossible to do something about this, since it’s your boss’s word against yours. Not everyone has the courage to speak up against the person in charge. Many would rather find a different job to avoid confrontation. But what if there are no other jobs?
If other colleagues experience maltreatment at the workplace too, talking to your co-workers is a good way to start to change things. If you address issues collectively, it is more likely to have an effect than if one person does it. If the boss still doesn’t listen, you can make a list of demands. In case the boss still doesn’t budge, there are direct actions possible like picketing, social media campaigns, or other forms of ‘public shaming’. Damaging PR is effective, and you will see how quickly your boss changes their mind. Bosses often don’t realize they need you more than you need them.
Unions, or solidarity networks, are simply employees who organize themselves to make sure they are treated fairly and are not exploited by bosses. That’s how unions came into being in the late 1800s, and that’s why workers at Starbucks, Google, and Amazon recently have started to unionize.
Historically, printers and typographers were organized in strong unions, such as the International Typographical Union (1852–1986). The ITU is the oldest labour organization in the US and secured an eight-hour work day in 1906, after spending $4 million on strike support. In 1964 the ITU counted 121,858 members. Print work produced in unionized print shops would carry a ‘union bug’, a small graphic element that showed the work had been done in unionized printshops (CAPS LOCK, 2021).
The 1950s and 1960s was the heydey of unions. More than a third of workers were part of unions, which gave them enormous bargaining power. Workers enjoyed good wages and health care, although women and people of colour were excluded and did not share this social wealth. In the 1970s deregulation and electronic communication made it possible to move manufacturing to low-wage countries, and unions suffered from mass lay-offs. Neoliberal governments in Europe and the U.S. used police violence to break the power of unions.
Since the 1990s, wages and worker rights have only declined. We were told flexible contracts and the gig economy were needed to stay ‘competitive’, and were are all encouraged to become entrepreneurs. That didn’t make us rich, but it did make it impossible to find a permanent well-paid job. Now we are moving from gig to gig for small fees, while profits for companies have skyrocketed. 63 percent of all the wealth created in 2021 and 2022 ended up in the hands of the richest one percent1.
Deteriorating working conditions during the last decade has led to a renewed interest in unions, also amongst designers. Articles like these and publications like these. In the UK the collective Evening Class has succesfully started a union for freelance and employed creative workers called Designers + Cultural Workers Union.
In Amsterdam a group of employees and freelancers with conflicts at their work decided to join forces. They started solidarity network Vloerwerk; an organized group of people that can raise money, picket, or do other actions to assist workers in conflicts with their employer. The more people are on your side, the stronger you stand. This is helpful when you are being fired for the wrong reasons, if you did not receive a pay check, or if you are a freelancer with a client who did not pay. Vloerwerk in is a solidarity network that helps employees or freelancers in work conflicts by using direct action, and is very effective in reclaiming unpaid wages or demanding pay for freelancers, or getting people their jobs back if they were wrongfully dismissed. Just by organizing a group of six or seven people, they have managed to put enough pressure on employers (CAPS LOCK, 2021).
Vloerwerk doesn’t really have a logo or an identity, because it doesn’t need one. Banners, stickers, and other visual materials are made together in preparation for actions. However they asked me to design some stickers and T-shirts to attract new members. The only limitations I used were the red and black color of anarchism that they already used, and I introduced the Nobel typeface. This typeface was designed by socialist type designer Sjoerd de Roos for Lettergieterij Amsterdam between 1929–1935, and used for the Dutch anarchist newspaper De Syndicalist.
In the pandemic, bicycle delivery emerged as a market to deliver of food and groceries when people couldn’t go out. In each neighborhood, so-called ‘dark stores’ sprung up where bike delivery riders picked up online orders to deliver them to your door. Companies like Gorillas, Getir, Zapp, Flink, Deliveroo and Uber Foods all tried to compete for a market monopoly at the expense of riders. While many people were unemployed during the pandemic, companies could get away with mistreating and underpaying delivery riders. Some companies like Gorillas promised a delivery time of maximum ten minutes, forcing riders to drive at reckless speeds in all weather types.
In August 2021 riders in Berlin started to organize to improve the bad working conditions. Many companies hire riders as freelancers, taking no responsibility for accidents and giving no benefits or pension. Often riders aren’t given breaks that have a right to, and many didn’t receive the pay for the time that they worked. Bikes are often malfunctioning and riders are expected to use their own smartphones without compensation. Paperwork is notoriously complex, and many riders have no idea what rights they have.
Radical Riders was set up as a union for and by riders themselves in Amsterdam and quickly spread to Utrecht and Groningen. In one of their cases, a rider broke his leg during a delivery after the seat of his bicycle broke. Unable to work, he lost his house and ended up homeless. Other riders got fired for joining a union - which is illegal. By picketing outside of offices, the Radical Riders managed to get financial compensation for riders that suffered accidents or were fired without a valid reason. I made some stickers designs for them to help them grow in size. These were massively pasted near dark stores and busy streets in Amsterdam.
Everyone who has ever worked as a dishwasher, cook, or waiter knows that the restaurant business is one of the most exploitative there is. This is one of the only sectors where 12 hours shifts are still legal, where even experienced workers are underpaid, and personnel aren’t allowed to take proper breaks while running to provide for other people’s food. The fancier restaurants in Amsterdam pride themselves on having staff work 12 hours shifts for five days without breaks. This is illegal, but unfortunately still a common practice because working at such restaurants is ‘good for your cv’. Restaurant owners on the other hand, make a lot of money and often own chains of restaurants, living in million dollar lofts. Employees are often paid minimum wage and cannot even afford to eat in the restaurant they work at.
Two women who had worked in the restaurant business (called Horeca in Dutch) for many years, decided to start a union. They got involved in a conflict with their boss. They noticed after their contracts ended that the transition pay was missing (mandatory for restaurant workers), and that they had received too little wage compared to their functions. They decided to organize and picket outside of one of the restaurants the boss owns. It caused a ruckes, confronting the clientele with how badly the owner was treating the staff. The boss eventually agreed to pay the amount that was owed. Now their union has over 50 members and I was asked to design a logo and some promotional material.
The Power of Solidarity Networks
Solidarity networks such as Horeca United and Vloerwerk are different from the large traditional unions, which limit themselves to negotiating minor salary raises for thousands of workers. Although this is important, they present themselves more as a partner of business owners than as adversaries. These ‘old school’ unions do very little to support individual cases unless you pay for a ‘premium membership’, and some are even started by the companies themselves as internal departments. Even if these unions start a case, legal battles can take years. Horeca United and Vloerwerk are small, agile and voluntary, made up by workers for workers. They focus on anarchist principles of mutual aid and direct action. Instead of spending a lot of money on legal fees, they come up with creative and effective actions to hit bosses where it hurts. If you ask for their help, you have to participate and help others as well. While organizing, everyone learns how the union works. And they have been doing so, very succesfully.
Want to form your own union or solidarity network? Go to the website of the IWW or read this pamphlet(PDF) by the Workers Solidarity Alliance.
Thanks to the people of Vloerwerk, Radical Riders and Horeca United.