Unions are leading the fight for a better Britain, says Paul Nowak. The Tories should ditch anti-union plans and start negotiations
This is a critical moment for trade unions and working people. We face the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation. The economy is on the verge of recession. And, after a decade of neglect, our public services are falling apart – with the NHS now on life support. But rather than supporting workers through these tough times, the Government is cutting public spending and attacking our hard-won rights.
The TUC’s number-one priority is to help working people through the economic emergency. Inflation has surged to a 40-year high as food and energy bills have rocketed. Mortgages and rents are increasing. Millions of families are struggling to make ends meet – with food banks unable to meet demand.
Workplace by workplace, negotiation by negotiation, unions are addressing these challenges head on. Across the private sector, we’ve secured some impressive pay deals, including double-digit settlements for Luton Airport workers, BT engineers, Cadbury’s staff, B&Q warehouse workers and others. From refuse collectors and construction workers to bus drivers, unions are winning for their members. But elsewhere, Britain faces an acute pay crisis.
Last year, average earnings shrunk by nearly £80 a month, with key workers in the public sector £180 worse off. But the problems facing working people have been much longer in the making: workers are grappling with the longest pay squeeze in over two centuries. On average, UK workers have lost £20,000 since 2008 as a result of pay not keeping up with inflation. All this is happening as the rich get richer, CEOs trouser massive packages, and profits and dividends shoot through the roof.
That’s why the TUC is calling for an urgent support package for working people. Instead of removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses, we want the Government to boost benefits, pensions and pay, starting with a £15 minimum wage. And rather than falsely invoking the prospect of a wage-price spiral, ministers should deliver an inflation-proof rise for public sector workers – funded by equalising capital gains tax and income tax. At the very least, they should stop hiding behind pay review bodies and start meaningful negotiations to settle wage disputes.
In the long run, trade unions want to build a new economy that rewards work not wealth. We’re calling for a New Deal for workers, with stronger rights and a clampdown on exploitation. We’re campaigning for fair pay agreements for sectors such as social care. And we’re demanding an industrial strategy worthy of the name to deliver the productivity increases we need to fund higher pay. Labour has pledged to deliver this agenda in full should it win the next general election – and we want a constructive dialogue to deliver the political change workers need.
Our second priority is to push back against attacks on our rights – including the Retained EU Law Bill that endangers paid holidays, equal rights for part-timers and many other protections. But our main focus is the Government’s anti-right-to-strike bill. It’s brutal, counter-productive legislation that will let bosses sack workers taking part in democratic strike action – wrong, unworkable, and almost certainly illegal. The Tories have gone from clapping keyworkers to sacking them. Their legislation is designed to undermine workers’ bargaining power and make it harder for unions to stand up for fair pay – a desperate act by a government that has run out of ideas.
But we’re fighting back. At the beginning of February, the TUC held our ‘protect the right to strike’ day of action, coinciding with industrial action by hundreds of thousands of teachers, lecturers, civil servants and train drivers. We’re working with peers to delay and dilute the bill and exploring how to defeat it in the courts, highlighting how the UK has breached its obligations under international law. In the meantime, the TUC stands shoulder to shoulder with striking workers by coordinating industrial action, building public support and providing practical assistance through our new Solidarity Hub.
Our third priority is simply to build a stronger, more representative, more diverse trade union movement – something that is fundamental to our fight for better pay, rights and services. As well as putting more resources into organising, we must recruit the younger workers and private sector workers; we need to grow. Above all, we must become a genuinely inclusive movement: stamping out sexual harassment, putting equality at the heart of everything we do and leading the fight for racial justice. With a government that will stop at nothing to divide working people, trade unions must promote unity. Black or white, we must speak up for today’s working class in all its diversity. That’s the best way to build a stronger, more resilient movement, defeat this rotten government and shape a fairer, more equal country.