The “Great Opportunity Party”

Yesterday's GOP.

I could spare you the niceties of yesterday’s GOP convention and just say that the Republican agenda is very much aligned with the preservation of The American Dream. But besides missing out on some fine and rather compelling rhetoric, you’d also miss out on attempts to humanise flip-flop Mitt, if only by proxy.

Some of the finer points of the Republican plan to revitalise “what America has always offered in abundance – opportunity” (John Boeven, Senator for North Dakota) include “unshackling (…) assets” that will lead “to real energy independence” (John Sununu, Governer of New Hampshire). Here Hoeven and co. are referring to the “Obama red tape” that is allegedly blocking the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. However, as FactCheck notes, these claims are largely untrue and overstate the positive impact of the Keystone XL (the much touted rise in employment would be as negligible as the impact on fuel prices).

The point is, the whole evening was carefully orchestrated to signal that Republicans stand for the shift from “an entitlement society to an opportunity society” (Bob McDonall, Governer of Virginia), and that Mitt Romney – a hard-hitting business man that crawled his way up from the gritty Detroit suburbs - best embodies these values. Obama, on the other hand, was repeatedly caricatured as a dirty European Socialist who would rather drown in Obamacare debt than embrace “free enterprise” or recognise American Exceptionalism. (This may or may not be my biased abridged version of it.) But the theme of American Exceptionalism, I promise, was as prevalent country music intervals.

In addition to fitting Romney squarely into the “Great Opportunity Party” (coined by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn) ethos, Steven King (National Committeeman) and Ann Romney (Potential First Lady) attempted to make the man that kept his dog on the roof his car a bit more personable.

King did so the only way he knew how - by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, apparently, “even at the age of 27, (…) was a man with big ideas and the courage of his convictions”. This bodes nicely for Romney, mainly because it’s a well-known fact that integrity is osmotic. Paul Ryan is also a “genuinely good man from the Midwest” who “can be found at church on any given Sunday” before retiring to watch a Packers game and exchanging stories with neighbours about fishing (I’m not making this up).  It’s good that Paul Ryan likes sports, like the rest of us, because Mitt Romney probably has “some great friends who are football team owners”.

Ann Romney would later address her husband’s social awkwardness head-on by acknowledging that he was the funny, shy type that girls liked for his vulnerability. In all seriousness though, Ann did a good job of making Mitt seem less robotic. In particular, she stressed his willingness to help others, both in the private and public sphere. This proved a good opportunity to rebut Mitt's reputation as an opportunist:

“Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.”

Ann then strengthens the Mitt-as-the-embodiment-of-the-Land-of-Opportunity theme by concluding,

“This is the genius of America – dreams fulfilled help others launch new dreams.”

The land of opportunity Photograph: Ghetty Images
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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.