When is a climb-down not a climb-down?

Perhaps compromise on cuts was the plan all along.

Every TUC Congress gets the right wing media fired up. Headline writers always go back to the 70s and 80s for their inspiration and over-hype confrontation with the government, usually based on the forecast of another "winter of discontent". Maybe if the TUC moved its Congress to the spring or summer the cliché might die... Maybe pigs might fly! 

This year's Congress is the first to be held under a Tory government for 13 years and union leaders know that to grab headlines before next month's unprecedented Comprehensive Spending Review, they need to ratchet up the rhetoric above and beyond the ever-reasonable Brendan Barber. In the arms race that is the Sunday press conference circus, which happens at every Congress, it is often Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka who fire the most quotable chaff. In today's Evening Standard, Matthew d'Ancona fires some back. He advises ministers to keep the public on their side if they are to win their confrontation with the unions.

While the public accepts the need to tackle the deficit through greater efficiency and reduced public sector spending, the government have no mandate for a showdown with the unions. Likewise, union leaders -- even Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka -- will always seek to negotiate after balloting members on strike action because no strike ever ends in "victory", only ever in compromise.

Protests are very different to strikes and public service users are likely to join public sector workers in opposing cuts that disproportionately affect those least able to cope. Ministers will need to compromise if they are to achieve deficit reduction because of their weak mandate from the last election. Not only did the Tories fail to win a majority but all parties avoided spelling out the implication of spending cuts.

Unions will have more influence if they pick specific cuts to oppose rather than reject the process entirely. Rather than a show-down, we are more likely to see a series of climb-downs because not every service cut will be as unpopular as others.

Matthew d'Ancona claims that ministers have been "war gaming" the cuts. At the moment, we are in the period where the debate is still being framed. Last week's announcement by George Osborne that £4bn will be cut from benefits might have been to shift the news agenda from the phone-hacking story engulfing Andy Coulson but it was accompanied by a message that benefits as a "life style choice" would no longer be tolerated. The government is doing all it can to convince the public that service cuts can be avoided if welfare cuts are accepted. For the right, there is an implicit political calculation that those with the least social capital -- benefit recipients -- are least likely to campaign against cuts while organised and motivated public sector unions and service users groups will be far harder to beat. Public opinion is also easy to mobilize against those seen as "benefit scroungers".

When Margaret Thatcher and Michael Portillo had to drop the Poll Tax, Plan B was to raise VAT by 2.5%. This time, that is part of Plan A. So George Osborne has given himself wiggle room by cutting faster and deeper not just in case his economic forecasts fall short but in case some of the planned cuts need to be cancelled because of the strength of opposition.

So when is a climb-down not a climb-down? Well, when it was all part of the plan that you "war gamed" all along.

Richard Darlington is Head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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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.