On the march in Copenhagen

The atmosphere on the streets was the antithesis of the gloom inside the centre

Panda bears with flames coming out of their heads, flying blue dragons, the usual rake of tree-hugging environmentalists and an inordinate number of polar bears took to the streets of Copenhagen today. Estimated at 100,000 strong, the march set off towards the Bella Centre, the venue for the UN's COP15 climate summit, at 2pm today. There they'll greet world leaders and give them a piece of their mind, irrespective that no one of note has shown up yet.

Suited up like Robocop, the Danish police are huge and ready to take on any climate heros, but so far they have been left with very little to do. Since an early ruckus in which 400 people -- part of a peripheral march by the anarchist group "Never Trust a Cop" -- were arrested, the march has been overwhelmingly peaceful.

At 1pm speakers greeted the crowd outside Copenhagen Town Hall. The usual rhetoric and a guest appearance by the new climate poster girl Helena Christensen left me withering and cynical in the cold. But the spirit is there and the atmosphere is a positive antithesis to the doom, gloom and general angst among those inside the centre.

Whether organisers planned this march in protest or solidarity with COP15 is hard to tell. Their demands are vague. They are calling for "climate justice" and "a legally binding agreement". But they don't talk about numbers, and they avoid the kind of contentious debate over targets that has already caused drastic divisions within the conference.

The crowd is diverse and illustrates one of the most interesting aspects of this summit. Here, for the first time, environmental action groups have come together with development agencies to acknowledge the threat of climate change to human lives. It is no longer just a movement of the green elite, a luxury guilt that only rich nations can afford. References to the human effects of climate change are ubiquitous. As Naomi Klein said yesterday, this conference is about "people, not polar bears".

As the first seven days round up, it's clear that this first week was all about the little guys -- letting small island states and the less significant developing countries have their voices heard before China, the US and the EU fly in and bang up a deal. Whatever influence figures such as Sudan's Lumumba Di-Aping might have felt in the past six days (speaking out against the leaked "Danish text") will be obliterated once the real bargaining begins. What could prove significant, however, are the alliances that smaller nations have had the chance to make, if these can withstand the bargaining tactics of the greater powers. These tactics are the kind that stopped the Philippines negotiator and "dragon woman" Bernarditas Muller from joining her country's delegation at the summit.

But then this kind of cynicism has no place here on the streets of "Hopenhagen", and I have to get back to the march. After all, a bit of positive people action can't do any harm.

 

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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.