Not all citizens have the previously right and now the privilege of an indefinite contract in a company that complies with labor rights and under the timely defense of a union, guild or association. In fact, the life of many workers has worsened in Spain in a few years with the liberalization of dismissal, the decentralization of collective bargaining and the erosion of the political representation system during the economic recession.

In this article we look back to understand how the traditional models of union organization are no longer effective due to high temporality, cultural differences and, above all, the fragmentation of the workforce. We will be mainly accompanied by Las Kellys who were born as a WhatsApp group in 2014, formed an association in 2016 and today form the Las Kellys Union. Along with them, many others are an example of neo-syndicalism that is here to stay.

First of all, who are Las Kellys?

The Kellys are the chambermaids affected by outsourcing processes who have temporary contracts or whose working conditions have deteriorated or have never been in accordance with the conditions established in the agreement. Most of them do not belong to the central staff of the hotels, and in any case the most common is that they have temporary contracts of 3 or 6 months, which are almost never renewed.

Working side by side with them are the chambermaids who have not suffered this deterioration in their working conditions, belong to the majority unions and have not felt so directly the need to claim these corporate improvements related to outsourcing. This first difference is key when establishing the demands and understanding the conflict around their working conditions. For the latter, the collective agreement for the hotel industry continues to be the reference when it comes to establishing their labor rights, so their fight is focused within the hotel industry and not for corporate improvements of the chambermaids as the Kellys do.

Okay, remind me what a union is for

Unions are associations made up of female workers in defense and promotion of their labor interests, before the person who employs them and with whom they are related by contract. In Spain, the CCOO is the first force and the UGT the second, holding between the two unions the hegemony of representation with 75% of the total delegates. With the labor reforms of 1994, 1997, 2010 and 2012, a process of decentralization of collective bargaining was carried out that generated a considerable reduction in their bargaining power, facilitating the reduction of wage costs with greater flexibility in hiring and dismissal.

With fragmentation, the profile of non-standard workers proliferates, those who do not meet the parameters of continuous, stable and full-time working life; that is, workers with a temporary or part-time relationship, who carry out their work in a place other than the organization's headquarters, or subcontracted or self-employed who provide services to other companies.

In the case of housekeepers, the majority belong to this profile, with a temporary nature of 80% and only 13% of the contracts are indefinite (Public State Employment Service 2019).

This temporality is a source of insecurity, both personal, social and monetary, and is associated with an exclusion from the collective bargaining process, with a weakening or elimination of their demands and loss of protection of the agreement on some occasions.

With outsourcing, the company subcontracts central positions of its activity in various companies, lowering costs and controlling the labor conflict tending to differentiate the jobs. With these reforms, each worker can have different conditions and unitary collective bargaining is made more difficult by limiting the effectiveness of sectoral agreements. By breaking with the scenario where people live in relatively similar conditions and have common collective experiences through their job, work identity is fragmented, as we have already seen in the case of chambermaids.

The Phantom Union Delegation 👻

Do you have a "union person" who ignores you? Unfortunately it is very common. The law requires that there be at least one union delegate in companies that have more than 6 workers, but in most cases the figure is diluted for two main reasons: lack of commitment from the people who make up the delegation that leads to inactivity from the trade union sphere; or presence of "yellow" delegations, that is, those formed by candidates presented by the company itself. This fact directly affects the perception that women workers have of the action of the unions and of their effective capacity to improve their daily reality with respect to their jobs.

This is how the company often limits the capacity for union organization among housekeepers, limiting communication between workers from different companies and creating greater defenselessness and isolation among those who are already outsourced. The Kellys experience the absence of a person in their work environment who supports them and defends their interests, along with the fear of losing their jobs. These factors increase the gap between this feeling of lack of representation and the ability to denounce and union participation. Their perception is that the unions make little effort to inform them and to provide them with the available tools, in many cases being immigrants and not knowing the legal system and even the language.

Las Kellys breaking schemes: association, union and much more

Faced with such a scenario, Las Kellys decide to form their own union due to the need to create a tool with greater legal guarantees than the one they had as an association. After winning a lawsuit with which they managed to reverse an outsourcing in a hotel, they decide that the constitution as a union will allow them to achieve a degree of protection that they had not found with the association. As a union, they will be able to face the processes that have been deteriorating their working conditions, assuming that changing things depends on them.

The existence of a Las Kellys Union sends a very clear message: The majority unions (CCOO-UGT) did not offer solutions to the problem at the time they went to speak with them, to effectively defend their rights, so they cannot be considered actors who can represent their interests and it is necessary to take the initiative to take control over their conflict.

This decision is a constructive criticism. The Kellys value and understand that the unions are the basic channel of negotiation with the employer for the signing of the agreement and confirm the instrumental vision that the workers have of the majority union organizations, only that they ask to be recognized as interlocutors, highlighting the unions as the channel through which their demands must be filed and that they must represent their interests as workers. Given the limitations of the freedom of association law in terms of representativeness and through their other role as an Association, they exert pressure -not only on the unions- but also on the rest of the political and economic organizations responsible for the situation.

The strategy that they will carry out is subtle and effective: due to the fear of the workers of losing their jobs, they move their activism outside the usual workplace. By understanding the trade union struggle as a struggle for general improvements, through the support of other colleagues and not as a specific struggle to change the specific conditions within their workplace, they organize themselves to act in other companies. The Kellys thus break with the fragmentation of the majority unions, establishing networks and action strategies outside the workplace. The union is no longer a "tool" but a "brotherhood" where active participation, networks of affection and trust are promoted. Being Kelly you can develop your activity within the union without your company being questioned by you, but by your "sisters" who work in other hotels.

Claiming from within the company will only occur in hotels where several committed colleagues are organized, solving the conflict jointly, providing themselves with protection and at the same time giving visibility to the problem. In this way they avoid the lack of protection of individual complaints and make visible the general situation of precariousness that they face within the profession.

The fact that the Kellys are an association and a union at the same time allows them to be more flexible than a majority union. The association is the entry and care channel for female workers who need help, being more welcoming to non-unionized people, and in turn allows for the demands of those who are not protected in their workplace to be met. In this way, through the association they advise and accompany the chambermaids without necessarily being affiliated. Thus, they contribute to establishing networks beyond affiliation, leaving the obtaining of trade union delegations on a secondary level in their model of action.

Are there more like them?

Of course, this new typology of unions that make the oldschool vs. newschool conflict visible is very present in migrant groups and new jobs linked to platform capitalism, where international companies employ false self-employed workers for their main activity. Capital has used new technologies to reorganize the production process and, often, labor relations as well. Both industry and services are going through a process of profound transformations and even technological ruptures. As a consequence, companies, both traditional and innovative, such as digital platforms, promote new ultra-flexible and precarious models of work organization that, for the moment, are combated well with work cooperatives, such as the riders, or unions such as Mantero or Las Kellys.

In the case of the gig economy, a form of work where the supplier and the applicant contact each other online through digital platforms to contract sporadic assignments, digital trade unionism has reacted by taking on some of these collaborative platforms in court. RidersxDerechos managed to get the 24th Social Court of Barcelona to rule that 748 Deliveroo couriers were employed by others, establishing the existing employment relationship.

In this sense, new forms of non-conventional organization have already emerged, among which the following should be highlighted:

  • Petition platforms, such as, which allow individuals and groups to launch and join campaigns with the aim of improving their working conditions.
  • Social networks, where a powerful digital trade unionism can be formed, taking into account its ability to spread and convene, and the reputational damage that a viral campaign can inflict on a company.
  • Meeting forums, where new technologies not only allow workers in the gig economy to denounce and complain, but also to share their experiences, such as the Turkopticon search engine, through which the workers of Amazon's Mechanical Turk, originally independent and disorganized , they can comment on their work and rate their clients, so other workers know which ones to avoid.
  • Digital cooperativism, which we already know, where, in the face of the prevailing precariousness in certain labor sectors, digital cooperatives arise with their own platforms that put workers and clients in direct contact, thus avoiding intermediation costs.

It is evident that the emergence of these new structures stems from a lack of trust in trade union institutions and the need to have direct tools to exert pressure for the improvement of their working conditions. They do not go blindly and they know that to influence collective bargaining, the majority unions are the channel for their demands to be structured and defended. Its objective is to condition representativeness through pressure strategies.

In short, the movement of the Kellys, together with others, manages to involve workers who had never before participated in political-union activities, as it is the seed of an increase in their security and self-esteem, as well as a greater knowledge of their rights and how to claim them. They experience personal empowerment as a result of collective participation, highlighting the positive impacts that this participation has on their family life, as this empowerment allows them to experience growth in all areas of their lives. Thus, union participation can function as an element of empowerment not only in labor terms, but also in personal terms and, in the case of women, in terms of gender. Faced with labor flexibility, there is a response with participatory flexibility and not anchored to the workplace, involving many more colleagues in a broader group and that not only has links with the feminist movement, by putting life at the center, but also defines itself as such.