Unions in election mode – Frances O’Grady

In setting out the trade unions’ stall for the next government, in CHARTIST 274 Frances O’Grady is encouraged by Labour’s workplace manifesto

As we count down to the most important general election in a generation, what are unions looking for from the next government? As the coalition government has pursued a relentless agenda of cuts and privatisation over the past five years, the TUC has kept a sharp focus on our campaign priorities. Early in the parliament, we were among the first on the national stage to put pay and living standards front and centre. By spring 2015, even the Prime Minister was using our ‘Britain needs a pay rise’ slogan – though there was scant evidence he was doing much to deliver it, as ordinary workers continued to face the longest living standards squeeze since the Victorian era. As well as pay, we’ve called for real, practical change to clamp down on exploitation and give workers a stronger voice.
Our policy prescriptions for pay include action to better enforce the minimum wage and to curb executive pay at the top end. We supported living wage campaigns and the campaigns of NHS and other public service workers to get the pay rise they were denied by the government. But for many low to middle earners in the private sector, we believe the answer lies in a new, sectoral approach. Social care, where low pay and precarious work have led to exploitation of workers and damaged service quality, would be an obvious place to begin. Agriculture and contract cleaning are other sectors where such an approach could work. Such changes would make a real difference to the lives of the women and migrant workers who make up a large proportion of those workforces.


Worker voice

We’ve also been campaigning hard for a worker voice in the boardroom. So many decisions about people’s working lives are taken by a corporate closed shop at the top. We’re looking for a stronger voice in that decision making, which would inject a much-needed dose of reality. A good starting point would be with worker representation on remuneration committees – a proposal we were pleased to see reflected in Labour’s workplace manifesto published earlier this month. Executive pay in the FTSE100 is set by an out of touch elite, whose average pay is £441,383 – sixteen times more than the average worker. These people come from a small pool, with the majority holding at least one board position at another company. The TUC has drawn up full proposals for how the introduction of worker representatives could work in practice, right down to the details of training and support for reps.


We’d like to see an incoming government make this simple change early on, with reforms to information and consultation requirements to support the process.
Alongside our work on pay, unions have been campaigning hard against insecurity and exploitation at work. As employment started to pick up after the recession, it was clear that much of the supposed recovery centred on low-paid, insecure jobs. Our ‘decent jobs week’ in December 2014 highlighted the creeping growth of casualisation – not just in the lowest paid sectors but in areas like further and higher education, too.


The explosion of ZHCs

Analysis by the TUC showed that, the number of women in casual work had increased by more than a third since 2008 and by more than 60 per cent for men. The explosion of zero-hours contracts has in many ways come to symbolise this casualisation, and the end of exploitative contracts should be an early priority for any government.
We also need to see an urgent end to the fee system for employment tribunals. The introduction of fees has had a devastating effect, slashing the numbers of cases taken to tribunal by 70 per cent – and more than 90 per cent where sex discrimination claims are concerned. It’s high time this damaging experiment was scrapped and access to justice restored.



Exploitation at work has also fuelled debate about immigration. It’s essential that we focus attention not on scapegoating migrant workers, but on exposing the unscrupulous employers who exploit migrant workers to undercut others. The TUC’s Migration Messaging project found that talking to people about the role of exploitation had an important effect. Measures to stop employers undercutting wages by exploiting migrant workers make sense and are popular, too.
Union campaigning has helped shape the political debate. Much of what we are able to achieve now rests on the outcome of the election. Labour’s workplace   manifesto is a solid starting point, picking up many of the issues unions have tirelessly campaigned on. If Labour leads the next government, the challenge will be to make these changes real as soon as possible, so that people can begin to benefit. Whether or not Labour wins, the onus will be on unions to organise, maximise collective bargaining and continue to shape that public and political debate.


This article appears in the May/June 2015 CHARTIST issue 274

Chartist 274 cover







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