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The Institute for Employment Rights takes its manifesto to Washington

CAROLYN JONES reports on how the IER is looking to build the movement for workers’ rights in the US and beyond

LAST week, the officers of the Institute of Employment Rights were guest speakers at an international conference of trade unionists, policy makers and academics in Washington DC.  

The IER’s Manifesto for Labour Law and our more recent Rolling Out the Manifesto had been read by the conference organisers and they were keen to hear about our proposals in more detail. They wanted us to “start a conversation” about sectoral collective bargaining in the US and we were happy to oblige. 

The conference was called The Future of American Labour Law and despite movement setbacks, the mood was overwhelmingly jubilant. Two reasons for the optimism stood out. 

First, US unions had been expecting a massive loss of membership following the Supreme Court decision in Janus v AFSCME, which denied unions the right to collect agency fees from workers who do not pay membership dues but benefit from bargaining arrangements. 

Instead, unions representing teachers and local government workers had not only signed up the agency fee payers into membership but had won new members during the organising campaign. According to one union president, “for every member we lost, we gained seven.”

Second, teachers across the country had been taking strike action in the period leading up to the conferences. So, teachers in Oklahoma, Los Angeles, Virginia, Denver and Oakland had all been out on the streets demanding higher pay and more investment in schools. 

More importantly, the main teachers’ unions and those representing support staff had joined forces in organising against Janus and to support members on strike. There was a definite sense that unity, solidarity and expectations of future gains permeated the conference. 

And why not? Democrats now control the House of Representatives (a few of the labour movement’s best spoke at the event including Pramila Jayapal, Tom Suozzi and Tom Perez). 

Plus public opinion for unions is standing at a 15-year high (Gallup reported recently that 62 per cent of Americans approve of unions). 

Little wonder that the activists at the event seemed energised and keen to hear how the labour movement is doing in Britain. 

So it was great to be able to set out not just some of the detail of the IER’s manifesto, but the impact the manifesto is having across the labour movement and in the corridors of power. 

We spoke about our 30-year history, spanning three main periods: the Thatcher years of outright hostility, when a new round of anti-unions laws was introduced every two years, weakening unions’ internationally recognised rights to bargain, to strike and to freedom of association; then the Blair betrayal years, when every piece of anti-union legislation remained on the statute book, with some concessions based on tinkering with the framework of individual rights rather than reinforcing collective freedoms; and now the years of hope, with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell offering the visions of another world — one that recognises both the worth and the role of trade unions in society. A vision that incorporates the IER’s proposals for a ministry of labour, the re-establishment of sectoral collective bargaining, the introduction of a single, simple definition of worker to end bogus self-employment and zero-hours contract abuses and much more. 

IER president Keith Ewing gave a brief history of trade union growth and decline and the correlation with the growth and decline of equality. 

He looked back at the joint industrial councils created in 1918 and the impact they had on collective bargaining coverage. 

He pointed out that the current British model of enterprise-based bargaining — similar to that operating in Canada, Australia and the US — just doesn’t work and is not fit for purpose in the 21st century. 

IER chair John Hendy then went on to outline how the IER’s manifesto would change the bargaining framework, switching the focus to the sectoral level — mining and transport, the care sector and hospitality — established by a minister of state. 

He noted that each sectoral agreement will go beyond pay, hours and holidays, instead covering a wide range of issues for negotiation. 

The audience also heard from speakers from Canada, Argentina and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), all of whom agreed that collective bargaining at the sectoral level had proven more effective at reducing inequality, promoting workers’ rights and increasing trade union density and collective bargaining coverage for all workers. 

The case of Argentina was particularly heartening. Following the introduction of sectoral collective bargaining and the union revitalisation plan of 2003, real wages had nearly doubled. 

Economist Cecilia Nahon pointed to the virtuous circle of sectoral collective bargaining — improved wages, improved working conditions, increased working class political power. 

She said the positive effects of their policy included a reduction in inequality, a trickle down impact on outsourced and non-organised firms, expansion and diversification of negotiation contents and a guarantee of representation of workers and unions. 

Both the Argentinian and British examples gave not just hope that another path is possible but an explanation and understanding of why we need to take that path and the benefits that will flow for workers, for productivity and for the economy as a whole. 

As Hendy concluded, now we need to explain this pathway to workers, then we have to explain it to employers and get them on board — and then we have to win the next general election. 

We can all do our bit to make sure that happens. 

Carolyn Jones is director of the IER.

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