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Much of the coverage of Ed Miliband’s recent welfare speech focused on his promise to cap social security spending. This was perhaps understandable considering welfare is the pet subject of the tabloids. The speech also attracted attention because it was widely believed to mark a turning point for Labour. The party had ‘seen the light’ and was now dancing to George Osborne’s tune on spending, or so it was claimed.
Also contained in the speech, however, was a great deal of content which should have warmed the cockles of any socialist heart. Miliband pledged to look at the underlying structural factors which have contributed to increased social security spending, including the abuse by employers of zero hour contracts and what the trade unions have called “low pay UK”. He also said Labour would do “everything in its power” to promote a living wage.
Not bad for a party that is regularly dismissed by some on the left as being beyond redemption. Miliband has publicly recognised that it is structural, rather than individual failings, that are busting our benefits system – a world away from the cheap and nasty murmurings about the meaning of Mick Philpott emanating from George Osborne’s office just a few months back.
But something has so far been missing from Labour’s narrative on workplace justice, the one thing proven to improve the conditions and pay of workers across the board: trade unionism.
Given the predilection in the right-wing press for depicting Ed as the unions’ man (in the Labour leadership election the only group he won was the unions), it’s perhaps understandable that Labour should be seeking to portray Ed as beholden to nobody but the electorate. But if Miliband is serious about dealing with the causes of Britain’s bloated social security bill then at some point he is going to have to recognise that in order to be decently treated (and by that I also mean decently paid), workers often have to take their destiny into their own hands – and that requires a trade union.
At the very least, Labour needs to look at reversing the trend of declining union membership, which is at its lowest level since the 1940s. Although there was a slight jump in membership recently, just two million private sector employees are now members of a union, which gives them a much weaker hand when it comes to asking for a pay rise.
The benefits to the workforce of unionisation are numerous. Studies have shown that unionised workers receive a higher premium for the work they do than non-unionised workers in both the private and public sectors. They also receive better sickness and pension benefits, more holiday and more flexible working hours than non-union members.
For many, the workplace remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third were indifferent.
The fear of being labelled “Red Ed” because of his link with the unions may also be based on a misreading of public opinion. According to Ipsos MORI, three quarters of adults believe trade unions are “essential” for protecting workers’ interests, while only 15 per cent disagree. Only 35 per cent believe unions have too much power, against 53 per cent who don’t.
Instead of running scared of those in the press who have always viewed workers’ rights with something approaching contempt, Labour should be asking how it can make unions relevant to a new generation of workers who are often unaware of the benefits collective bargaining can bring.
After all, improving the pay and conditions of Britain’s workforce – and in the process cutting the benefits bill – will not come about by compromise alone. While it may provide comfort to imagine that all will be well if only employers are sufficiently paternal, improved pay and conditions will only become a reality for the many through unglamorous collective struggle.
First published on the New Statesman web site on 18th June and republished with permission of the author.
Prior to the event Unite general secretary Len McCluskey had threatened to expose anti-union practices by London Gateway owners DP World unless it recognises the union.
The Dubai-based company owns the new prestige deep-sea container port in the Thames Estuary and has so far refused to recognise Unite. Unite dockworkers fear a race to the bottom in terms of employment conditions which could threaten the future viability of the container ports at Felixstowe and Southampton, as well as at Thamesport.
In his letter to DP World’s CEO, Mohammed Sharaf, Len McCluskey said: “As a former dockworker I will not countenance the establishment of a major non-union port in Britain.
“The management of the London Gateway project are refusing to enter into meaningful negotiations with my union and have made it clear that they will not sign a collective agreement covering workers employed at the site.
“If this blatant anti-union behaviour continues, then I will be left with no option, other than to authorise the start of a Unite campaign to expose the anti-union practices of your company, to all interested parties including shareholders and customers.
“It is clear that the anti-union behaviour of London Gateway management and DPW is in breach of core international labour standards.”
Len McCluskey warned that many of the port’s potential clients will be signatories to codes of practice that commit their businesses to abide by agreed labour standards.
This includes Marks and Spencer – a key signatory to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI) base code that commits member organisations to upholding fair labour standards – which is currently considering whether or not to commit to London Gateway and become the first big brand client.
Unite regional officer Jane Jeffery said: “We will ratchet up the campaign in the coming weeks until the management grants union recognition and treats our members with the respect accorded to millions of other workers in the UK.
“We are demanding the company enters meaningful talks regarding a collective agreement and access.”
Speaking after the event Andy Green said: “DP World are refusing basic Trade Union Rights to Dockers at their new Gateway Port, for all their bluster about giving workers the choice, they refuse to let Unite access to these workers”.
“We will not sit back and let DP World drive down pay and conditions in our industry, creating a race to bottom. We will campaign and get these Dockers their basic human right to be represented by Unite.”
London Gateway is due to open in the autumn and is already recruiting for the 2,500-strong workforce, the majority of which will be dockers.
In the coverage of Ed Miliband’s speech at Newham Dockside yesterday, the sections of the speech on the world of work received only minimal media coverage. These included the abuses meted out to agency workers; topping up low paid workers pay with benefits; the Living Wage and Labour’s failure to tackle low pay in the past.
he gave some important commitments – as Len McCluskey of Unite said yesterday : “Ed Miliband’s speech offers hope that there is an alternative to George Osborne’s punishing experiment with the national economy”.
“Disgracefully, millions of people do not earn a wage that can keep them and their families, yet they work the longest hours in Europe. They are thoroughly fed up with the lack of decent, secure work in this country and detest the waste of talent that sees one million young people wasting their talents on the dole. The jobs guarantee, action on demeaning, insecure work and a drive to embed the living wage are a good start”.
Specifically on Low Pay UK Ed said: “Today, people often don’t get paid enough in work to make ends meet and the taxpayer is left picking up the bill for low pay. We must change our economy, so that welfare is not a substitute for good employment and decent jobs”. And he admitted: “We (Labour) didn’t do enough to tackle Britain’s low wage economy, a low wage economy that just leaves the taxpayer facing greater and greater costs subsidising employers”.
On the world of work and agency work Ed referred to people working, 40, 50, 60 hours a week and working two or three jobs to make ends meet: “For too many people in Britain the workplace is nasty, brutish and unfair. The exploitation of zero hours contracts to keep people insecure (my underline). Using agency workers to unfairly avoid giving people the pay and conditions offered to permanent staff. Recruitment agencies hiring just from overseas. And some employers not paying the minimum wage. These issues too are about our responsibilities to each other, about the failure of government to set the right rules and the failure of a minority of employers. Be in no doubt: all of this is on the agenda of the next Labour government. So, for example, we will change the law to stop employment agencies using loopholes to undermine the pay of what are effectively full-time employees.”
I take the last sentence to mean an ending of the so-called ‘Swedish Derogation’ or Clause 10 in the UKs transposition of the Agency and Temporary Workers Directive which allows company’s to hive off parts of their businesses and staff to managed service providers paying even lower wages that other agency workers.
Swedish unions will tell you the way the clause has been transposed has nothing to do with the way the derogation works in their country which is designed to provide protection in between assignments.
On the Living Wage, Ed Miliband made it clear that: “We will do everything in our power to promote the living wage. If local councils can say if you want a contract with the council then you need to pay the living wage, then central government should look at doing that too. And for every pound that employers pay above the minimum wage towards a living wage, government would save 50 pence in lower tax credits and benefits and higher revenues. We should look at offering some of these savings back to those employers to persuade them to do the right thing and pay the living wage.”
One of the key issues arising from Ed’s speech is the fact that the state is now propping up Low Pay UK. Employers paying as little as they can get away with – and the state making up the rest in benefits.
The decline in Collective Bargaining as clearly contributed to this.
In times past Collective Bargaining was the main way of regulating pay and conditions across the workforce – from the 1940s through to the 1980s. Workers were covered by national or sectoral agreements which created a level playing field – and redistributed pay across the economy. Many other workers were covered by company or group agreements and low paid workers received some protection via wages boards.
But the number of workers covered by a collective agreement has fallen by more than half over the past 25 years. Around 70% of all workers had their pay and conditions covered by collective agreements in 1984, – this has fallen to 33%, and 18% in the private sector.
National-level bargaining still exists among some industries and in some private firms, but multi-employer collective agreements in the private sector have all but disappeared. Now an even larger and growing proportion of workers have their pay and conditions determined by management at the workplace, with little if any input from unions – or even the workers themselves. We have seen new jobs being created but many are agency based – or workers start as agency staff working their way to becoming permanent employees.
In tackling low pay and breaking the spiral of taxpayers and the state propping up low pay via benefits, Labour must now begin to take seriously the need to introduce sectoral pay and expand collective bargaining.
As the esteemed employment lawyer Professor Keith Ewing has pointed out several occasions, in 1938, Ernest Brown, the then Minister of Labour (in the then Tory-led government) announced in the House Of Commons it was the policy of the government to promote collective bargaining, and with it, the trade union voice.
As Keith has said elsewhere “…a simple attempt by a thoughtful man to increase wages, equalise incomes, stimulate the circulation of money, increase demand, and promote job growth, for the good of the country and the benefit of everyone.”
If Britain’s political elite is despised for one thing as much as its corruption, from MPs’ expenses to the revolving door with business to its once more-exposed flogging of parliamentary influence for cash, it is its cynicism.
The Cameron-Clegg response to the latest lobbying scandal shows why. Confronted with evidence of MPs and peers influence-peddling at the behest of phoney lobbyists, they decided to act – against trade unions.
One would have hoped that the anti-union vomit was now so stale that even the Tory dog would disdain to return to it. Apparently not.
This is the Cameron logic it seems: to make it harder for his backbench MPs to flog their services to the highest bidder, the state needs to scrutinise trade union membership lists.
And to head off the corrupting influence of big business over the political process, a new attack is needed on trade union support for the Labour party, already the most heavily regulated relationship in the political universe.
All this makes about as much sense as inserting a plan to improve school standards into the defence estimates, unless you are a Conservative conjuror trying to distract the audience’s attention from what is really going on – which is the continuing unwillingness of Westminster classes to reform their own self-interested behaviour.
As far as inspecting union membership lists goes, it will be interesting to see how the prime minister and his Liberal Democrat mini-me try to pass this off as being anything to do with political corruption.
Such problems as there may be on occasion with ballots are entirely down to the archaic and undemocratic procedures forced on unions in the 1980s which could be solved at a stroke by a return to secret balloting in the workplace. One way or another, this has nothing to do with huckster parliamentarians, and everything to do with the unabated Tory attack on the right to strike.
Seeking to impose still further restrictions on union financial backing for Labour, while leaving the activities of the Tory-funding Lord Ashcroft and the like untouched, is shamelessly partisan.
It is also deeply contemptuous of, for example, the tens of thousands of Unite members who just last month voted overwhelmingly to maintain their union’s political fund in the hope that it will allow them to exercise some of that influence over political events.
And are the public really up in arms over the invoicing procedures for Labour leaflets at election time? Or are they more bothered about David Cameron’s cosy “country suppers” with Rebekah Brooks, aboutDavid Hartnett’s tax deals with big business being rewarded with a job at Deloitte, and about former cabinet ministers describing themselves to lobbyists as having a “for hire” sign switched on?
I think the answer is clear. The government does not plan to address the serious abuses blighting our democratic system. Instead it wants to play the old anti-union tunes, as for David Cameron all political issues are now subordinated to his party management requirements, above all keeping his swivel-eyed loons sedated with regular neo-Thatcherite policy doses.
There is a proper debate to be had about cleaning up politics, of course. But trade unions are not part of the problem – our entire involvement in politics is regulated by legislation and rulebooks, our own and Labour’s, and we are answerable to the law and our own members for everything we do.
Instead, as the largest voluntary organisations in the country, we are part of the solution. Our active members are among the foot-soldiers of democracy. For the government to target them while giving a pass to the sleazy top brass – at least until video evidence forces their hand – reveals that, for this coalition, partisan expediency will always trump principle. And that is why they are held in such contempt.
US retail giant Walmart is one of non-unionised companies being hit by “surprise” strikes and walkouts in the USA.
Walmart employees went on strike in Miami, Massachusetts and the California Bay this week. Backed by ’OUR Walmart’ at least a hundred workers joined the strikes. Some workers walking off the job said they would stay out until June 7th, when Walmart holds its annual shareholder meeting near Bentonville, Arkansas.
“This represents the first time in Walmart history that workers have made the decision to go on prolonged strikes,” said United Food & Commercial Workers Union official Dan Schlademan, a key strategist in the ‘OUR Walmart’ campaign. Schlademan called the workers’ willingness to escalate to prolonged strikes “another example of the depth of leadership and commitment that this organization is building.”
Walmart employs an estimated 1.4 million people in the USA.
One Walmart worker, in Dallas, Colby Harris, who took part in the ‘Walkout’ recently said he had been subjected to surveillance and said his managers changed around his work schedule for no reason and have told him the strikes he’s participating in are illegal. (See The Rise Of alt.labor in the USA)
Last year, there were 37,836 complaints by workers alleging retaliation, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Many Walmart workers who have participated in walkouts this year say that they’ve had their hours cut, their workloads doubled and even been fired.
“When workers become active (protesting against Walmart), there’s a lot of toleration of harassment,” Erin Johansson, the research director for American Rights At Work, a union-backed worker advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. Johansson recently wrote a report documenting 150 cases in which Walmart workers allege that they were punished for participating in labor and wage protests.
“On paper, we all have the right to come together to try and improve standards,” she said. “But it is tough.”
With the Coalition Government and their programme of austerity and tax cuts for millionaires, it is time that someone ensured that the political agenda was on the side of working people and that policy development branched outside of the Westminster bubble.
That’s why Class, the new, high-profile think-tank co-founded by the GMB, Unite the Union and the Institute of Employment Rights, and backed by a growing number of trade unions, is holding two meeting in the North of England in June.
The regional launch will take place in Leeds on June 13th at 6.30 at Unite offices, 55 Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BW
Speakers include: Colin Burgon – former Labour MP for Elmet; Professor Danny Dorling – University of Sheffield; Veronica King – Class and Unite activist; Karen Reay – North East and Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Secretary of Unite the Union; Tim Roache - Yorkshire and North Derbyshire Regional Secretary of the GMB, elected Chair of Yorkshire and the Humber Regional TUC and elected President of Class
The North West regional event will take place in Liverpool in collaboration with the North West TUC and will be part of their Austerity Uncovered tour.
The event will takje place on June 26th at 6.30pm at Hearnshaw Lecture Theatre, Eleanor Rathbone Building, University of Liverpool, Bedford Street South, Liverpool L69 7ZA
Speakers include: Chair: Carolyn Jones - Director of the Institute of Employment Rights; Lynn Collins – North West Regional Secretary of the TUC; Billy Hayes - General Secretary of the CWU; Paul McCarthy – North West and Irish GMB Regional Secretary; Peter Middleman – North West Regional Secretary of PCS
Class aims to promote policies to influence decision-makers on a wide-range of areas, such as inequality, welfare, housing, the NHS and employment, as well as pushing an economic agenda to counter the Coalition Government’s programme of welfare cuts and its injustices. Come along to our regional launch to find out more about what we do and join in the discussion.
Trade Union membership rose by 59,000 to 6.5 million last year according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report published this week.
The increase is the first since 2003 and was driven by an increase in membership among workers in private companies.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, welcomed the increase in union membership and warned that campaigns against austerity would now gather pace.
“We are pleased that membership has increased over the last year, especially given high unemployment and swingeing government cuts,” she said. “This shows that staff, both in the public and private sector, know that a union membership card is still the best guarantee of skills training, job security and fairness at work. Unions have played a key role in exposing the impact of the government’s self-defeating austerity programme and we will be stepping up our campaign for investment in jobs and growth for the future.”
The rise in union membership last year followed four consecutive years in which the headline number fell by more than 100,000.
The government’s research found that trade union membership kept pace with an increase in the numbers of workers between 2011 and 2012, remaining at about 26 per cent of the workforce.
Another 63,000 private sector employees were members of unions last year than in 2011, bringing private sector membership up to 2.6 million.
This was the second year in a row in which the number of private sector union members increased, after a fall of 450,000 over the previous three years.
Women were more likely to be members of unions than men, with 29 per cent of female employees in a union last year, compared with 23 per cent of males. UK born workers and employees in professional occupations were also more likely to be union members than others.
To download the full report click on the link in the first paragraph or on the photo of the TUC Headquarters.
Unite members face losing their homes if management’s proposals go ahead. And a cut in their pay will hit them very hard. Unite members are now gearing up for strike action - YES vote is expected on 28th May.
So how you can help?
Please take a moment to send a message of support and solidarity o Carling workers in Burton-on-Trent by emailing Burton.Brewery@unitetheunion.org.
Donate to the fighting fund.
Cheques should be made payable to ‘Unite’ with ‘Burton Brewery’ written on the back and sent to: Unite the Union, Finance Department, Transport House, 9-17 Victoria Street, West Bromwich, West Midlands, B70 8HX.
You can tweet your support to #burtonbrewery.
Follow the campaign by clicking here.
UPDATE: Molson Coors Strike Ballot Announcement
In a blog posted on this site yesterday I reported on the growth of strikes by non-uniosed workers in US fast food outlets. The strikes and “surprise” strikes are now spreading to other non unionised areas besides “fast food”.
But sticking with “fast food” for a moment, reports from St. Louis say workers at a Jimmy John’s restaurant walked out in a “surprise” strike, with walkouts spreading to other areas of the city and other restaurant franchises. The strikes are being organised by workers backed up by a coalition of community and faith-based groups – with the aim of getting a wage hike to $15 per hour.
In a new twist to the alt.labour protest hundreds of non-union workers in Washington DC recently walked out at Smithsonian museums, the Old Post Office, Ronald Reagan buildings and Union Station. The strikers are part of a a campaign dubbed “Good Jobs Nation”, again backed by community groups. They are demanding that President Obama take action to improve wages and working conditions for workers employed under federal contracts.
One worker said that the federal contractor ICC Cleaning pays her $8.75 an hour. She said she’s supposed to get regular check-ups for a serious heart condition, but only sees a doctor when she goes back to El Salvador, because she’s uninsured.
Good Jobs Nation is backed by the community organizing group “OUR DC”, the clergy group “Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference” and the labour federation “Change To Win”.
The AFL-CIO has now a stated goal of opening “storefront” operations in every state under the name “Working America” in order to agitate for higher wages and better working conditions.