Maria Exall says labour market reform holds the key to a transformative Labour government.
To succeed in the next general election, Labour must learn the lessons from the current strike wave. Our dysfunctional labour market and the harsh realities of our contemporary world of work mean there is mass public support for the strikes. We are way beyond the ghosts of the ’70s and ’80s that, in the past, have forced Labour on the defensive on rights at work. Labour should go on the offensive on progressive labour market reform and union rights and show the electorate how it is prepared to support fair pay and justice in the workplace when it is in government. This will be a vote winner.
The issues that are writ large in the current wave of strike action have informed Labour’s New Deal for Working People. The New Deal is the summary of the policies negotiated between the affiliated unions and the party which we believe are necessary to bring about radical change in the workplace. Presented at 2021 Labour Party Conference and agreed in 2022, it contains improvements to individual and collective rights that would bring about a sea change in the balance of power at work. The New Deal has a far-reaching agenda but a necessary one to address the concerns that have been expressed in the strikes.
The strike actions we have seen in the last few months are evidence of a wages crisis. Yes, it’s about inflation and the cost of living, global energy shocks and Brexit, but the level of pay for millions of workers has been going down for years. Unison estimates that nurses have, on average, lost 20-25% of the value of their salaries since 2010. These strikes are indeed an ‘enough is enough’ moment about the current state of the world of work.
In the public sector, 12 years of Tory funding cuts and outsourcing have meant that health workers, teachers and civil servants and others have been consistently working much harder for less. Performance management, increasing workloads, zero-hours contracts and reliance on casualised labour and the consequences of the pandemic mean services are at breaking point.
It’s not just the public sector. The strikes at Royal Mail by members of my own union, the CWU, are about resisting the comprehensive ‘gigification’ of the postal sector and maintaining a decent service to the public. Transport workers on the rail, at the ports and in bus companies are all striking to keep up their living standards but also to regain decent terms and conditions eroded by the market fundamentalist ‘race to the bottom’ of their employers.
If Labour wants to win the next general election with a mandate for radical change in the world of work, it has to address all these concerns. The party should make clear its support for the hundreds of thousands of people taking collective action to improve their working lives. It is this collective action that our movement and our party was built upon. We should recognise the resonance of the justice of the strikers’ demands amongst millions of other working people who have similar experiences at work.
The union members taking action in the last few months are those in the most organised part of our economy. The density of union membership has to be high to meet the absurd thresholds of the anti-union laws. In many areas, the strikes have led to increased union membership. Bus drivers in Abellio in London Unite have recorded a 100%-plus increase in membership along with an 18% pay rise. Teachers have been joining the NEU in droves since the first strike days were announced.
Midlands GMB have used the historic first strike in Amazon in the UK to recruit a quarter of the workforce in the Coventry mega-site. They are taking further action and organising a new layer of activists and reps.
Under Labour’s New Deal, trade unions will gain rights of access to the workplace to recruit and organise and there would be a real opportunity to increase unionisation in emerging parts of the economy. Under sectoral collective bargaining plans, sectors as diverse as logistics and the care sector will see unions given bargaining rights which will drive up pay and terms and conditions.
Many of the current troubles in our society stem from inequality and injustices in the labour market. The unions and the Labour Party together can transform our society by tackling this. The wave of strike action in the last few months has reaffirmed the importance of the promises in the New Deal for working people. If we centre these asks in our offer to the electorate, we will have a convincing win which can be the platform for a radical and transformative Labour government.