Standing up for European solidarity

Frances O’Grady says workers must not be made to pay the price for Brexit

This is a defining moment for the trade union movement, and even more so for the working people we represent. The UK is on the verge of leaving the EU, the government is in a shambolic mess and hard right Tory advocates of capitalist ‘creative destruction’ would prefer no deal at all. At stake are workers’ jobs, rights and living standards for generations to come.

After a decade of crash, recession and stagnant wages, working people are rightly angry at a system that is plainly failing. Worryingly, the globally funded and networked ‘Alt Right’ is gaining traction by scapegoating migrants and refugees for problems caused by pro austerity politicians and tax dodging corporate titans.

Given succour by Brexit and the election of President Trump, right-wing populists now hold the keys to power in Italy, Hungary and Austria, and are a potent political force elsewhere. Here in the UK, Tommy Robinson’s street thugs have been encouraged by leading alt-right figures including former White House adviser Steve Bannon. As the democratic voice of workers from all walks of life, trade unions have a special responsibility to lead the fight back against this growing menace. And we must work with our friends world-wide to out-organise the new far right.

We need to address the root causes of people’s anger: insecure jobs… sky high rents… schools, hospitals and councils starved of cash year after year
A top priority is to ensure workers do not pay the price for Brexit. That means striking a deal for fair trade, investment and growth on which jobs and wages depend; safeguarding workers’ rights trade unionists fought so hard to win; and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. The TUC has looked at all the options and believes workers’ interests would be best served by staying in the Customs Union and Single Market, which guarantees a level playing field of rights at work on which collective agreements build. We’ve been clear that if the government has got a better idea then we want to hear it. But so far, the Prime Minister can’t convince her own Cabinet, let alone anyone else.

We also need to set out our vision of the future beyond Brexit. That’s why the TUC is calling for a New Deal for working people. We need to address the root causes of people’s anger: insecure jobs that don’t pay enough to live on; sky high rents and a shortage of council housing; and schools, hospitals and councils starved of cash year after year. Every worker deserves the dignity of a great job, somewhere decent to live and public services they can rely on, from cradle to grave. Instead of blaming migrant workers, we want to stop wage undercutting with a £10 minimum wage, a ban on zero hours and stronger trade union rights.

We also must get to grips with the profound challenges posed by the automation and digitalisation of work. The Bank of England estimates 15 million jobs may be vulnerable to new technology, with those communities already battered and bruised by industrial change most at risk. Companies such as Uber have made workers slaves to an app, denied even basic employment rights, and the likes of Amazon use surveillance tech to oppress and control workers. Yet technology could be used to liberate us all by creating socially useful goods and services, a greener economy and more satisfying work.

Whether it’s the rise of the alt-right or the rise of the robots, we need a strong and growing global trade union movement to create a more equal and democratic world. History has shown that workers advance furthest and fastest when they join together and bargain collectively. And that’s why unions must put organising at the heart of everything we do.

In particular, we must engage young workers on the frontline of insecurity: speaking a language they can understand, harnessing their hopes and dreams and making a difference to their working lives. The TUC marked our 150th anniversary in June by launching a new digital programme, to find new ways to win young workers into union membership. It’s still work in progress, but in an age when many people live and work through their smartphones, increasingly unions must go digital too. Throughout our history, our movement has been at its best when we have been boldest.

Times may change, but our values stay true. It’s by sticking together and fighting together that working people win together. Over the past year or so, trade unions have scored some incredible successes: workers took their first ever strike action at McDonalds and won a pay rise; UNISON took the government to the Supreme Court and won a famous victory when tribunal fees were ruled unlawful; and despite facing every union-busting tactic in the book, trade unions finally won recognition at Ryanair.

For all the challenges we face, we should be confident about our future. Our movement has never been more relevant, nor more needed, than now. And if trade unions reach out to a new generation of workers to build a more equal economy, we can defeat the alt-right’s politics of hate with a new unionism of hope.

Frances O'Grady

Frances O’Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC