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Editorial: Organising for a new settlement: the task before the TUC

THE Trade Union Congress opens tomorrow with a resounding demand for action to prevent mass unemployment.

General secretary Frances O’Grady points out that, since the logic of programmes like the Job Retention Scheme and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme was to protect jobs during the pandemic, withdrawing them next month when coronavirus is again on the rise is perverse.

Trade unions were instrumental in negotiating these schemes in March, and held back the “tsunami” of job losses of which O’Grady warns. It would be catastrophic if all we have managed to do is delay the impact for six months.

And for many the blow has already fallen. Whether to apply for furlough subsidies was always up to employers, while in a workforce riddled with insecure jobs — zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment, outsourced labour — there were legions of loopholes through which individual workers and their families could fall.

Millions of people have taken a big hit to their incomes. Millions have had to apply for universal credit. 

The big household-name firms — British Airways, British Gas, Boots, Lloyd’s Bank, Pizza Hut, the list goes on — announce job cuts by the thousand. Smaller-scale employers don’t make the headlines but these have been folding or downsizing too.

Unemployment ruins lives. When concentrated, it can scar whole generations and suck the life out of entire communities; the Thatcher and Major governments visited this fate on whole regions of Britain. There are towns today staring this fate in the face.

And as we’ve seen at a number of employers already, unemployment or the threat of it empowers management to attack workers.

Firms demand that staff agree to take a pay cut in return for keeping their jobs. On a broader scale, the increased competition for remaining jobs allows bosses to drive down wages. 

That is the logic of the misnamed “labour market.” It is what “the market” will do to us, unless we stop it.

But a few short months ago, millions of us were coming to our doors and windows each Thursday evening to “clap for carers” and the NHS. Ministers were singing the praises of the “key workers” who are so important to our society that they could not stay at home despite the terrible risk of contracting Covid-19. 

These were not the City slickers idolised by Tony Blair or the “business leaders” who promote their poisonous ideology on second-rate shows like The Apprentice.

It turned out that the people who kept the wheels turning were the transport workers, the cleaners, the shop assistants, the delivery drivers, the factory and food-processing workers, the fruit-pickers, the carers.

People paid, in the main, low wages and often employed on insecure terms — though in truth the “gig economy” in which a secure job and a guaranteed income are things of the past has been extending its tendrils into every sector, and a university lecturer is as likely to be on zero-hours now as a courier.

The demand for a new deal for these workers — a recognition that enough is enough and the relentless casualisation and immiseration of the workforce has to be reversed — is in a better position than ever to command mass support.

Instead of unemployment and further downward pressure on pay, we need a new settlement.

This week trade unionists must look at how to mobilise for one. How is the maximum industrial and political pressure to be applied? Can unions co-ordinate at sectoral level to drive up pay and conditions in a sector, rather than compete for members within it? 

Can they work through regional TUCs and trades councils to build leverage at community level? As the pandemic has made the importance of joining a union clearer than ever, could the movement mount actions and campaigns that promote trade unionism itself to Britain’s mostly unorganised workforce? For workers, organisation is power.

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