Can Europe Make It?

The state of trade unions in the UK

There was never a better time to join a union, organise and fight for a fairer, greener world.

Benjamin James Davies
18 Jan 2021 - 1:17pm
GMB Union on Twitter.

2021 will be the most important year for British trade unions in nearly a century. Following decades of neoliberal assaults on the power of unions, from the dismantling of sectoral collective bargaining, through to the introduction of employment tribunal fees and the 2016 Trade Union Act that introduced a 50% turnout requirement for strike ballots, many would have been sceptical of the ability of British unions to withstand a crisis on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic.

Since 1979, trade union membership in Britain has more than halved, with secure, unionised work largely replaced by the euphemistic ‘flexible labour market’– resulting in millions working in the ‘gig economy’ in insecure, low-waged jobs, the vast majority in the private sector. Brexit can be partly viewed as a wider Conservative project aimed at eroding the power of Britain’s trade unions, with Westminster expending a gigatonne of political capital to claw back the ability to ‘level the playing field’, in this case by tearing up as many labour rights as possible. A plan was recently leaked which threatens to abolish the 48-hour week itself and could rob workers of the right to a weekend.

In the face of these attacks, one would expect the Labour party to take up the mantle of defending workers’ rights, but Labour’s ‘New Leadership’™ are far more interested in silencing dissent from the left, which has brought them into direct conflict with several unions in recent weeks. The decision to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and the inevitable assault on workers’ rights that this will entail has saddled Labour with baggage that it will take decades to deal with.

Into this vacuum that many on the left would expect the party to fill, there has been a resurgence of union activity and strike action in the last year, with at least twenty major organised strikes underway at the time of writing. From Unite workers at Barnoldswick, who manned the picket line for nine weeks in the freezing cold to protect 350 jobs from being relocated overseas by Rolls-Royce, (and are currently negotiating a “landmark deal”) through to GMB workers at British Gas who are striking as we speak, trade unions are taking an active and visible lead in the struggle for job security and dignity.

The ‘fire and rehire’ scheme

One despicable tactic that unscrupulous employers like British Gas, British Airways and Tower Hamlets Council have been employing during the pandemic has been the “firing and rehiring” of staff on worse pay, longer hours and fewer benefits. For British Gas engineers like Paul Vowles, this has caused him anxiety, stress and sleepless nights. In the largest gas strike in 40 years, thousands of engineers with the support of GMB have refused to accept these detrimental employment terms and life-threatening conditions and are taking up the fight for security and dignity in their workplace.

With an overwhelmingly hostile mainstream media unwilling to take up the cause of these workers, social media has been vital for striking workers, garnering wide visibility using hashtags like #StopTheBritishGasFire to flood Twitter with videos of solidarity. Matthew Bateman, the managing director of British Gas was thrilled that the strikes didn’t garner wider media coverage, so one can only hope that the leaked video of his laughing dismissal of the strike demonstrates the naked contempt with which he and other bosses hold their workers.

As long as ‘fire and rehire’ tactics are legal, if unpopular, it is likely many employers will continue to use them and risk strike action. It goes without saying that unions must resist these measures, and Labour must fight to outlaw the practice. In the meantime, anyone looking to demonstrate practical solidarity with British Gas workers should give generously to the strike fund.

Eroding protections and unemployment

As well as practices like ‘fire and rehire’, millions of workers have had to endure life-threatening conditions. These include NHS staff, public transport and care home workers through to shop assistants, with many hundreds dying after being infected in the workplace. Even when told to self-isolate, many workers have been unable to do so due the woeful provision of statutory sick pay, which costs the average worker £800 over a two week period if they can’t work from home.

The failure to provide decent statutory pay for those self isolating is a direct cause for the massive surge in cases in recent months — millions face the inhumane choice of being covid-safe or being financially secure. Unions have been extremely vocal in calling for an increase in statutory sick pay. Throughout the crisis, they have brought the continued lack of PPE to light. The NEU — the largest teachers’ union in the UK — organised a massive and ultimately victorious campaign earlier this month to force a characteristically late and shambolic Tory u-turn on school closures. In spite of horrific statistics showing that school children had some of the highest infection rates of any age group, and the deaths of many teachers, the government insisted that schools were in fact, safe.

Shamefully, Keir Starmer refused to back the NEU until given the go-ahead by Boris Johnson, giving Starmer the dubious accolade of being one of the few Labour leaders to have been outflanked on the left by the Tories on workers’ rights. The NEU meanwhile has seen a massive surge in membership in recent weeks, with over 20,000 members having joined since the 1st January, and will likely use this enormous boost to continue their struggle against a pay freeze that is currently due to last until 2022.

With nearly ten million jobs having been supported during the crisis by the furlough scheme, official unemployment figures belie the true extent of the jobs crisis in the UK — officially less than 7% are unemployed. However, the major unemployment shock will come when the scheme is wound down and millions of jobs are lost. Even prior to the crisis, the ‘gig economy’ in the UK has created a subset of precariously employed workers — roughly 1 in 10 work via ‘gig economy’ platforms with irregular shifts. These workers are overwhelmingly young, with no savings or secure housing: nearly 60% of regular platform workers are aged 16 to 34.

These workers, often in sectors hit hardest by the virus like hospitality have suffered disproportionately and seen their already meagre protections eroded. Into this space, unions like IWGB and UVW, founded in the last decade have risen to the challenge and secured recognition of many of their members, including outsourced cleaners and couriers as ‘employees’. This important distinction that earned many the right to sick pay, annual leave and a secure minimum wage for the first time. UVW are currently supporting SAGE care workers as well as Great Ormond Street Hospital cleaners in their struggle for a living wage and better terms. The victories won by IWGB and UVW show that the power of union organising isn’t limited to ‘traditional’ industrialised or public sector jobs, and that as people’s patterns of work change, new forms of union organising can support members in their struggle for decent pay and conditions.

A New Deal for workers

One of the most vital arenas for union organising for years to come will be the fight to secure a Green New Deal for people and planet, with a just transition for workers towards a decarbonised economy. With the government dragging its feet and announcing a pathetic ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ woefully ill-equipped to tackle the climate crisis, grassroots climate organisations and trade unions must collaborate to take the lead and agitate for an ambitious alternative to the failed status quo.

Rather than a short-termist strategy that focuses on survival for industries that are facing terminal decline, such as fossil fuels, unions must push for a just transition that would invest in green industries such as renewables and guarantee retraining where necessary, with well-paid, secure green jobs for their members.

A job creation programme on a scale not seen since the Second World War is the only solution to the intersecting crises we face. Investment in publicly-owned renewable energy, public transport and a National Care Service would create at least one million secure green jobs. These policies were part of Labour’s 2019 manifesto, as part of their Green Industrial Revolution, a pledge secured by Labour for a Green New Deal with the support of unions at Labour’s conference that year.

Unions must hold Labour to account and demand they fight for a much more ambitious green job creation scheme than their recent ‘Green Economic Recovery Plan’ called for. In tandem, climate organisations must pick up the basic principles of union organisation and agitation for secure jobs and better working conditions as a fundamental demand of their movement: climate action without class struggle is just gardening.

Unions must be internationalist in their approach towards securing a just transition: in a globalised economy, nothing would be more damaging to the power of multinational corporations than coordinated strikes across entire supply chains, with the recent Make Amazon Pay campaign an example of a programme of a “common program and an uncommon collective action plan”.

Unions at the forefront of the struggle

Union democracy has become an increasingly prominent (read heated) arena for debate about the future of the labour movement. While turnout in Unison’s recent general secretary election was woefully low (around 10% – indicative of generally low engagement across the movement), a concern for those on the left was the failure to unite behind a single candidate, which resulted in a split vote and a victory for Christina McAnea. The left should take note of this development well in advance of Unite’s general secretary election later this year, which is currently shaping up to feature at least three left-wing candidates in opposition to Gerard Coyne. Low turnout in internal union elections is indicative of a broader failure to engage a large and growing grassroots membership and transform it into a productive, empowering and vibrant space for political education and demonstrations of practical solidarity. These criticisms could also be applied to the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and we all know how that turned out, so it is vitally important that trade unions do not let this crisis (or crises) go to waste, and that they waste no time in empowering their members in this crucial year for the labour movement.

Unions will be at the forefront of the struggle for better pay and working conditions for NHS staff in particular, and with the Tories subjecting the rest of the public sector to wage freezes, we must ensure that the unions avoid falling into their ‘divide and rule’ trap, pitting different sectors against one another. At least one million public sector workers will see their wages freeze, while some lower-income workers have been promised a pay rise, which is yet to have materialised.

Even before the pandemic, public sector wages had been squeezed in proportion to inflation over the last decade, which when coupled with ballooning costs of living amounts to a massive decline in ‘real wages’. People who have already been suffering a drastic decline in income and living standards have suffered disproportionately during the Covid crash, and four in ten low income workers are at a high risk of losing their job. With millions living on a knife edge, paycheck to paycheck, struggling to feed their children, the workers and communities of Britain need powerful, proactive and ambitious trade unions more than any time in living memory. That ambition can’t be limited to protecting industries and jobs on a case by case basis, unions must organise to secure a fairer society based on social and economic justice.

We are seeing glimpses of the great industrial militancy that used to bring governments to their knees. It is time to politicise the issues of our time and encourage the widest possible participation to press for full employment, a four day week and a Green New Deal. We must fight for a new social contract; following the enormous sacrifices made by so many during the last year. The bare minimum we should fight for is pay rises and better conditions for those who have kept the country going and kept our friends and loved ones alive at great cost.

This piece was originally published on the DiEM25 website.

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