Skip to main content

Today can be the catalyst for a fight to overhaul the world of work

Labour's delivering a new kind of politics. Time for us to step up and deliver a new kind of trade unionism, says CWU leader DAVE WARD

IN THE build-up to the TUC rally taking place today, two reports caught my attention this week.

The Resolution Foundation published its study of intergenerational inequality, making recommendations such as handing £10,000 to 25-year-olds to help them get on the property ladder.

And on the same day, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority revealed that cases of modern slavery are rising, with slaves working in construction, fishing, retail, in shops, car washes and nail bars.

It was like they were talking about completely different worlds, but seeing these stories next to each other on front pages told a story about where we are as a country and why the TUC demonstration is so important.

At a time of record profits for UK companies, the abuse of workers has reached the stage where slave labour is back. And this sits alongside huge economic problems — stagnating wages, plummeting investment and ever greater regional inequality.

Set against this backdrop, think tanks like the Resolution Foundation, just like last year's Taylor Review into modern working practices, are doing little more than tinkering round the edges.

None of these studies seems to get the scale of the problems in our economy or the need to fundamentally change the balance of forces in the world of work.

Giving a £10,000 lump sum to 25-year-olds wouldn't come close to sorting out the problems young people face.

As for the Resolution Foundation's proposal to make pensioners pay national insurance, it's as if they're trying to resolve intergenerational inequality through intergenerational conflict. Let's not forget millions of pensioners live in poverty and pensions are under attack too.

It really is time we started being more ambitious and making greater demands.

I've never been more convinced of how important today's rally is as the catalyst for a real fight to get a better deal for all workers rather than setting old against young or dividing our class on other lines.

The broken society we have now is based on a model of "flexible" labour, begun by Thatcher and carried on through the New Labour years, and it has failed.

The link between economic growth and rising wages has been broken. We need to acknowledge that the workplace is a harder, more pressurised environment than it has been in living memory.

When I say at rallies that I can't remember a time when workers felt under greater pressure to work harder for less, all I can see is a sea of heads nodding in agreement — teachers, nurses, doctors, transport workers, private and public-sector workers are all experiencing this.

And now we face a fourth industrial revolution with the march of digitalisation and robotics. So far the impact on workers has been grim, spawning the super-exploitation of the gig economy and a murky world of bogus self-employment and insecure work.

We need to address the structural inequality and imbalance of power in our economy. And the best way of addressing these structural problems is called trade unionism.

We're at a crossroads where one route will lead to ever greater power for gigantic corporations like Amazon and Facebook, while most of us scramble for whatever short-term, low-pay work they have to offer us.

The other road is one where trade unions reclaim their purpose as the collective voice of workers.

We can't do that by defending a broken system — we can only do it by completely overhauling it. Obviously we need to fight for a Brexit that puts workers' rights and jobs first, but too often it sounds like we're just arguing to keep what we have.

And rejecting the way millions of people voted doesn't seem like the best strategy for engaging our members and mobilising our class.

The fight for our rights doesn't start in Brussels. It starts here, today.

We know Jeremy Corbyn is up for that fight. Even the European Commission recognises that Labour is now about real, fundamental change, as we saw in the Times at the start of the week.

If we're to match that, I believe trade unionists now need to look beyond their own union and recognise that, unless we start to take stronger positions collectively, the decline in our membership and influence will become irreversible.

Lots of unions are doing great things collectively and there are great trade union leaders, but we can't change things on our own. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts — surely that's the point of being in a union in the first place.

We aren't connecting and co-ordinating the different battles we're fighting in a way that will really engage workers across the board.

It's an uncomfortable truth that, at a time when in-work poverty is at record highs, the trade union movement has never spoken for fewer people in the workplace.

If this continues, we'll have not just let down this generation but future generations too.

That's why we cannot march today and then go home.

We have to decide what's coming next — what's the plan?

We're putting forward a simple but effective four-point plan that promotes unity, collectivism and some honest discussions about where we are and where we're going.

It must be possible for the movement to agree a common bargaining agenda to tackle insecure work, including zero-hours contracts, fixed-term contracts, contracts without holiday pay or sick pay, fake self-employment, and use that to challenge all employers where we have recognition and mobilise our members to fight for it.

We need to hold a summit where unions sit down and agree a charter, as we did with the Bridlington principles in the 1930s. Maybe that time has come again, where we can agree a charter that brings about greater co-operation between unions on how we organise the millions who aren't already union members.

We talk about the dangers of competition in society, but we have to act against it in our own movement.

It's not about having a disputes procedure between unions, it's about agreeing a strategy to recruit people who aren't in unions.

And then it's about a manifesto. We can't leave it to right-wing think tanks and the CBI to tell us what's good for working people.

We now need to publish our own manifesto explaining what constitutes a new deal.

There's fresh thinking going on in the Labour Party, often working together with the Institute for Employment Rights and its manifesto for labour law.

We can build on that with some fresh thinking of our own. How are we going to shift the burden of pensions back onto the employer?

How are we going to enforce a real living wage? How are we going to expand trade unionism and collective bargaining?

That leads us to our fourth point, which is about determining forms of action that we can sign up to at TUC Congress.

This should be the most important issue at Congress this year and coming out of it we should be agreeing a day of action early in the new year and then working out what action is deliverable.

In the past, mounting a radical challenge to the government has focused on calls for a general strike, but too often that becomes an excuse to do nothing.

So we should focus on what's deliverable, with action backed up with the collective strength of the communications and social media expertise of different unions, to create a menu of options that workers can choose from on a given date.

There's a different mood out there among workers today. If we set out to work together like never before, we will deliver a bold new deal and workers will benefit from changes in the world of work rather than losing out.

A few years ago it was time for radical change in the Labour Party. That's happening. The Labour leadership are delivering a new kind of politics.

It's time we stepped up and delivered a new kind of trade unionism.


We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.

Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 8,364
We need:£ 9,636
15 Days remaining
Donate today