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THIS month will see a historic first in the fight against low pay, zero-hours contracts and the appalling slump to the bottom in Britain’s deregulated labour market.
Sheffield Trades Union Council and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BAFWU) have joined forces to hire a Sheffield union organiser to work across the low paid, unorganised sectors in the city — in retail, fast food, hospitality and more.
This will be the first time a dedicated union organiser post will be created for a city area and not tied to a particular trade union or specific company target. We think this could have a snowball effect in reaching out to unorganised workers across Sheffield’s disparate jobs market.
Sheffield TUC launched our Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise campaign just over two years ago. Our city has lost thousands of good unionised jobs in the last decade — in local government, steel and engineering, the Civil Service, printing and public transport to name but a few. In their place, new jobs have been created but they’re predominantly low paid, insecure jobs on the minimum wage (or less), zero-hours contracts, part time, temporary and/or bogus self-employed.
Jobs with no future. And often accompanied by bullying bosses and an anti-union culture.
Meanwhile those with proper jobs have barely kept pace with inflation and many have had pay cuts in real terms.
We realised we at Sheffield TUC needed to act following a Resolution Foundation report early in 2016 which identified Sheffield as one of the worst cities for low pay and precarious contracts.
Apparently more Sheffield workers benefited from George Osborne’s so-called national minimum wage for over 25s than any other city in the country. We have since commissioned further academic research on Sheffield’s job market which has revealed some shocking truths: 25 per cent of all workers are on the minimum wage and/or zero hours’/part time/bogus self-employment.
Worse still, pay levels are equal to 2004 levels in real terms, as wages have stagnated and fallen behind inflation continuously for eight years or more.
While our Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise Campaign does highlight these issues and mobilises protests exposing the worst employers, we soon realised that we need to do more to make a difference.
So in summer 2018 we proposed to our delegates a fundraising drive to take on a union organiser specifically for Sheffield. We set off with a target of raising £10,000 — enough to take on a part time organiser for 12 months at £10 per hour on a 20-hour week. To our knowledge, no other trades council in the country has taken on such a venture.
We were amazed at the response from our local union branches but also from a number of local Labour Party CLPs and branches, as well as some very generous donations from individuals. By Christmas we had reached our initial £10,000 target and discussions were soon concluded with our partner BFAWU. They have secured additional resources to expand the post to 25 hours per week and fund employer costs, pension contributions, travel and other essential expenditures.
As a trades council run by volunteers we don’t think we are competent to employ an organiser ourselves. The BFAWU will fulfil that role and will play a key role in training the new person and there is a plan to take him or her to the US to experience first-hand the Service Employees International Union’s method of organising in the fast food and service sectors.
Back in Sheffield, the new organiser will work with all of us to identify targets and join/lead campaigns to end exploitative wages and conditions in our city.
This isn’t just about organising the low paid to fight back and win £10 per hour. It’s about fighting back for our city, rebuilding our shattered working-class communities and injecting money back into our failing economy.
It’s about the future for young workers who have no hope.
It’s about justice and an end to humiliation and bullying at work, dead-end jobs and anti-social behaviour.
Interviews for the post take place this month. Ronnie Draper, general secretary of the BFAWU will be in Sheffield on Thursday February 14 at 4pm for the historic signing of the agreement with Sheffield TUC at the Central United Reform Church, Norfolk Street Sheffield. This event will be open to the public and the press.
Martin Mayer is secretary, Sheffield TUC.
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