We all depend on trade unions

What is one day of paralysis compared with a lifetime of poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Who knew that a student blogger with a pet peeve for public sector workers could incite so much anger? Sara Malm, a journalism student at the University of Kent, probably had no idea when she ranted against "disgraceful, selfish and, quite frankly, passé" industrial action.

Her post, published on the Independent's iWriters section on Friday, has inspired 300 comments, as well as a response from blogger Lucy Snow denouncing her "vitriol." And while anyone sympathetic to workers' rights should denounce Malm's insulting article, you have to wonder why people are surprised.

Britain is seething with anti-union sentiment. Be it Michael Gove proposing to abolish teachers’ staff rooms in order to save money, or the right-wing press attacking “Red Len” McCluskey’s call for strikes during the Olympics. Thatcher used all she had in her to curb the power of unions, but the return of a Conservative-led government is reflected in our media, our fellow citizens and, now, our youth.  

Criticise the cash-for-access scandal that erupted last month and the ensuing revelations of the power of big businesses over the Conservative Party, and you will be met with claims that the Labour Party is just as reliant on its union funding. Well, yes. But unions speak for thousands of ordinary people who share similar stakes in society – which, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think necessarily appeal to the chairman of the world’s largest interdealer broker (Michael Spencer, who enjoys Downing Street dining so much he paid nearly £4m for the luxury).

But the problem is that many of these ordinary people don’t recognise the beneficial nature of unions – including Malm, who doesn’t seem to realise that she has the right to union support herself. The very fact that Boris Johnson prides himself on his pledge to limit the power of the transport unions shows how far this has gone. If elected next month, he promises to make key underground lines driverless within two years. Rather than arousing concern for the inevitable job losses this will create, the move is hailed as somehow freeing commuters from the constraints of irritating tube drivers and their endless demands; the picture painted of tube unions is not unlike the terrorising hostage-takers that Malm describes. And Boris, saying “I want to be the Mayor who does that” (create more driverless trains), has tapped into the public contempt that his own party has helped to fuel.     

A lot of the time, people who moan about industrial action don’t understand the reasons behind it. And this is something that Malm fails even to address. The strikes that the NUT proposes for later this year are about defending national pay rather than a performance-related salary – akin to much of the private sector – that Gove is suggesting. The education secretary wants teachers’ pay to be more “market facing” – a flagrant example of the creeping veil of privatisation with which this government is stifling public services.

But performance-related pay works both ways: bright young graduates should be attracted to a career in teaching with decent salaries, pensions and working conditions. Otherwise, what is to stop the best potential candidates preferring professions that don’t immediately benefit society? Don’t we want our children, Britain’s future, to be taught by people who are intelligent and enthusiastic rather than worn out and grumpy? Ironically and perhaps unknowingly, Malm hints at what the NUT is complaining about, claiming that strikes have “no place in a market economy, especially not one four years into a recession.” But that is the very problem: that the recession is incessantly taken out on people like teachers. It’s no good creating – and maintaining – a consumer-driven society that conditions people to be motivated by success, only to devalue on so many levels the careers that really matter.

Of course a strike across the London transport network is devastating on any day, let alone during the Olympics. Thousands of ordinary people will not be able to get to work, children won’t be able to go to school and the capital’s economy will dip – for a short period. But people strike to make that very point: we are all reliant on public sector workers. We need to stand by them while they protest job cuts, pay freezes and pension reforms. After all, what is one day of paralysis – to borrow from right-wing rhetoric – compared with a lifetime of badly-organised, poorly-funded and under-staffed services?

Workers at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory on the Wirral. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

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.