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AS the CWU meets for its annual conference this weekend and I look back at all that has been achieved by our reps in the workplace, our members and our national leadership over the last couple of years, I can say our union is in a good place.
Our success with the Four Pillars campaign at Royal Mail, the Say No to BT campaign and Close the Gap show that industrial work will always be at the heart of everything we do.
The result of our industrial action ballot at Royal Mail is recognised across the movement as showing the way that the Tory anti-trade union laws can be beaten.
And that’s important because, if we’re honest, we have been in decline as a movement for many years.
We all saw the statistics last year showing a 275,000 drop in trade union membership.
There are good reasons for that decline. We know there have been changes in the world of work with skilled jobs in areas of high union density being replaced in this country with insecure work in the gig economy.
But we can’t just sit back and accept that. Insecure work and in-work poverty have become massive issues on our watch and it is incumbent on the trade union movement to do something about them.
We’re only going to achieve change by working together.
That’s why I keep saying that, if we want credibility over securing a workers-first Brexit, then we have to show we’re willing to do something at home that helps deliver change for the better for working people.
And the start of that can be the May 12 rally for a new deal for workers called by the TUC.
There have been great demonstrations in this country led by fantastic organisations like the People’s Assembly which I’m proud to support.
But this is a moment where the trade union movement itself must take the lead and start to shape the future of the world of work.
At the CWU we’re redesigning our own union because we know that we have to do things differently to cut through to young people, to start organising unorganised workers and to face the challenges posed by the gig economy and the fourth industrial revolution.
Has there ever been a time in the last 40 or 50 years when workers have been under so much pressure to work harder, faster and for less?
It’s not just the case for our members but is true for nurses, doctors, teachers, transport workers.
So the CWU has put forward a four-point plan.
Step one is the demo itself on May 12, but we can’t let the demo come and go. It needs to spark a fresh debate on how we reassert trade union values.
That debate should bring us to point two — the development of a common bargaining agenda. There’s room for individual trade unions to fight on their own issues, but we can still come up with two or three things we all agree on. An agenda we can take to every employer in the country.
And that leads into point three — at some point later this year, perhaps around the TUC congress, we need to publish a manifesto defining what a new deal for workers would look like.
We face two possible futures. One where companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft increase their power and wealth beyond that of most countries but the rest of us face inequality and poverty and insecure employment is the only type of work that exists.
The other future is one where the collective trade union movement becomes, once again, the true voice of working people, where we reverse the decline in membership and organise all workers in the public and private sectors.
We need to ensure that workers get our fair share of the benefits of digitalisation and the fourth industrial revolution. We need to transform the contractual status of workers in this country. We want proper contracts, proper holidays, proper sick pay.
I don’t just want an end to zero-hours contracts. We need to tackle fixed-term contracts, short-term contracts, specific event contracts.
We have got to shift the burden of pensions back onto employers.
That might require some fresh thinking and the movement needs to come together to provide it. Defined contribution schemes are just not good enough in their current format. It’s part of the whole debate around the way companies are run.
We need workers to have a genuine say in how companies are run, making the people who lead companies much more accountable to their workforce and the public.
We have to change the thinking we see in Britain, where a CEO has to be paid top dollar to get the “best” person, but the workforce is dispensable and can be paid whatever the boss wants.
We must challenge the way work is valued in our society. One example is care workers — with an ageing population we’re going to need more care workers, so why should we be paying them the poverty pay they’re on now when their work is of increasing social value?
Why should we pay CEOs who just make cuts and break things up such unbelievable sums?
It’s time for a completely different mindset over what a successful organisation looks like.
If you’re going to pay good money to a CEO, let’s see evidence that they’re building things — services, products, jobs.
Politically our union is in a good place. We called for change in Labour and we have helped deliver it.
Three years ago, I had serious concerns about the political state of the left in this country.
The truth is that Labour had walked away from working people and needed to change. Nothing demonstrated that more than the attempt to sell off Royal Mail.
Backing Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 was the start of changing all this and we should be proud of the role we’ve played since then. When the leadership has been under attack, we haven’t blinked and have stood by them.
I’m very encouraged by the ambitious thinking we see in the Labour Party, where Corbyn, John McDonnell, Rebecca Long-Bailey and others are not writing off old industries — like the postal industry for instance — but looking about how those industries can flourish in the future.
Why can’t the role of postal workers be expanded given the technological revolution we’re seeing? With a more creative approach there’s no reason postal workers shouldn’t be as useful to future society as they have been in the past.
Why can’t universal delivery of ultra-fast broadband be delivered as a public service and natural monopoly?
Once we have some of that clarity around ideas we get to point four — forms of action.
After TUC congress we should be agreeing a date where workers everywhere will take some form of action in the fight for a new deal.
As I’ve said before, there’s no point in starting the debate on the proposal for a general strike. Most unions will not be able to get their members out for one and so the talk fizzles out.
Let’s start instead by asking, what can we deliver?
Imagine if we used the power of social media, the combined powers of all our communications teams and that of the TUC, on a given day — September 30 maybe — to promote a day of action for a new deal.
By that time we could have published our manifesto and this would cut through to unorganised workers.
When we talk about redesigning our movement, that will only be achieved by open and honest co-operation towards the goal of changing the status of Britain’s workers.
There are some great trade union leaders and activists across the country right now and I know we have the imagination and the determination to find ways of connecting.
Let’s not let May 12 come and go. Let’s make it a springboard for pushing the boundaries of what trade unionism means in the 21st century.
Dave Ward is general secretary of the CWU.
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