Joining the dots on Labour and unions

Maria Exall says positive proposals for workers agreed at Conference need joined up politics to work

At this year’s Labour Party Conference, Labour’s affiliated trade unions put forward bold policies that could form the substance of a successful appeal to working class voters by Labour in the next general election. These policies could transform the workplace and should be centre stage in Labour’s offer to the electorate.

A green paper on employment rights was presented by Angela Rayner as a ‘New Deal for Workers’ on the first day of Conference. It crystallised the results of the ‘Power in the Workplace’ consultation with affiliated unions which was co-ordinated by Andy McDonald, and takes forward the commitments on workers’ rights made in the previous Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019.

It is the summary of detailed discussion on key issues, including legislation on ending ’fire and rehire’, dealing with loopholes on employment status so all workers get rights from day one, improving work-life balance, and tackling discrimination in the workplace as well as enhancing health and safety. These are key to dealing with the encroaching threat of the ‘gig economy’ and insecure work.

The paper recognises that facilitating unionisation, especially in the private sector, is necessary to improve working conditions. It makes the case for removing most of the anti-trade unions laws that have restricted the ability of trade unions to take action in defence of their members, as well as a commitment to collective bargaining across all sectors. This has the potential to transform the world of work.

Other areas covered by the employment paper, such as limiting outsourcing and tackling in-work poverty, were the focus of debates led by unions on the Conference floor which were overwhelmingly supported by constituency delegates.

The union motions submitted to Conference included establishing a national care service and improving the rights and pay of care workers; post-pandemic strategies for public services and industrial renewal; dealing with the challenge of climate change and ensuring sustainable energy supplies; and ones calling for public ownership of utilities including transport, postal services and full fibre broadband.

There were also motions that called for a massive increase of jobs based on the development of green technologies together with public investment in local and regional economic development (including a business recovery in retail on our high streets), which all point towards a positive narrative of community renewal that can appeal to those in the Red Wall, Blue Wall and everyone in between.

Other motions supported by many unions at Conference included the ‘socialist Green New Deal’, a motion on the Grenfell tragedy, and a £15 minimum wage rate. CLP motions on health and education and on equalities issues were all enthusiastically supported by union delegates.

The fact that union motions focused on job security for the workforce in their sectors, together with the provision of quality services for the public, demonstrate the importance of the two wings of the labour movement. Building a political appeal based on the realities of people’s working lives and their community life – and the connection between these – is crucial.

To link the two wings of the labour movement requires much more joined-up politics between the unions and activists and members in constituency Labour parties. There is a danger that, without a recognition of the importance of this by everyone in the party, including the leadership, certain existing tensions will pull things further apart.

The elections of Sharon Graham and Gary Smith, as general secretaries of Unite and GMB respectively, on mandates for a greater focus on the workplace and growing union membership represent a ‘syndicalist turn’ by union activists and members. This can be seen as a reaction to the close involvement of some union leaderships with the Corbyn project and the shocking result of the 2019 General Election. It also comes at a time when many think that the party is still years away from winning power.

But we in the trade union movement know the Tories are pathologically against us and we cannot duck the political fight. The Tories have a record of hostility to us ever since the modern trade union movement came into being. In the industrial arena they have supported anti-union employers, from Murdoch in the 80’s to the billionaire ‘union busters’ of today.

Boris Johnson is bringing forward an Elections Bill that would, in practice, disenfranchise millions of (mainly) working class voters. It will drastically restrict the ability of both unions and civil society organisations to campaign politically. This is on top of the restrictions on unions’ use of their political funds by the Cameron Government in the 2016 Trade Union Act, which have an even more damaging effect than the legislation of the 1930’s for affiliated trade union financial and practical support for the Labour Party. As if that were not enough, the provisions of the Police Bill restrict protests, and clearly will be used to punish trade unionists campaigning and taking action.

All of this means it is imperative for the Labour Party to listen to trade union concerns on the future of public services, the necessity of public ownership and democratic control of utilities, strategic industrial policies that create secure jobs, and a more humane welfare system.

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