by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser • The British TUC meets in Manchester for its annual congress, 150 years after its founding meeting in the Mechanics Institute of the same city.
Much has changed in life since 1868; but much has remained the same, with the fundamentals of class division and capitalist exploitation.
The TUC is potentially a very powerful force for change, but only if it had a leadership determined to challenge the employers and governments in pursuit of the many progressive polices agreed by its annual congress—by mobilising the 6.3 million workers organised in the 48 trade unions affiliated to the TUC.
The trade union movement has been instrumental in winning many vital reforms in living conditions for millions of workers and their families: an end to systematic child labour; improved health and safety; paid holidays; weekends off for some workers; equal pay and minimum wage legislation, etc.
But every reform won has required mighty struggles. Struggles against the resistance of capitalist employers and their hired governments, but also within the unions, against conservative right wingers and overpaid bureaucrats who’ve quivered and capitulated at the thought of going into battle with the employers.
Many momentous events in history have proved the baleful role of the right wing compromisers, and the urgent need for fighting socialist leaderships in the unions, accountable to the members, engaged in mobilising those same members in action for change.
The TUC’s betrayal of the 1926 General Strike; their desertion of the heroic miners’ struggle of 1984/5; their exclusion of the RMT from talks with Southern Rail bosses last year in the midst of a ferocious RMT members’ strike against Driver Only trains; their failure to lift a finger in pursuit of “a £10 minimum wage for all workers” for the four years since it was passed—unanimously—at the 2014 TUC congress…
These are just some harsh reminders of the need to transform the potentially mighty trade union movement into an instrument for change, with a democratic, fighting, socialist leadership at every level.
A major theme of the 2018 TUC congress is their ‘Great Jobs Agenda’. Conference documents carry devastating evidence of the millions suffering jobs that are anything but ‘great’.
Alongside many other policy Motions for investment in skills, sustainable ‘green’ manufacturing, and public services, one from my own union—Usdaw—calls for a pioneering new policy to replace the rampant job insecurity of zero-hours, short-hours and fixed-term contracts.
Usdaw’s Motion is based on the brand new policy I successfully moved at the union’s annual conference in April, on behalf of Glasgow no.1 branch, calling for a ban on all zero-hours contracts, to be replaced by a legally guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for every worker who wants one, in tandem with an immediate £10-an-hour minimum wage.
We’re subjected to the hollow Tory and big business boasts of record levels of employment. In reality, low pay, insecure jobs and mass underemployment have sidelined mass unemployment as the biggest sources of punishing poverty for millions in this rich land.
Wages have been crushed whilst prices rocket; by 2025 the average worker will have lost out on £18,500 in real earnings. (TUC Research).
Ten years after the financial mayhem triggered by the bankers’ greed, real wages are today worth £24-a-week less than in 2008. All the forecasts agree wages won’t be restored to 2008 levels—which weren’t exactly luxury living!—until after 2025; the longest period of wage decline since the Napoleonic Wars, 200 years ago.
The government’s own DWP admit there are 300,000 more in poverty now than a year ago—and 55 per cent of those are in working families.
The sins of the capitalist profiteers have been visited upon the children!
Over 3.1 million kids with working parents are below the breadline, here and now in 2018, compared with 2.1 million in the year 2000.
And an astonishing two-thirds of all the children living in poverty have one or two parents working.
Public sector cuts and crucifixion of in-work benefits have been major causes of this catastrophe. But underlying it all is the merciless robbery of wages by the capitalist employers over recent decades, aided by successive Tory AND Labour governments, with anti-union laws their weapon of choice in boosting profits at the expense of wages and public services.
Nearly one in every eight workers (11.9 per cent) is in some form of insecure job: on zero-hours contracts, agency, casual, seasonal, bogus self-employed, and pitifully short-hours contracts. For instance, all the giant supermarkets offer a minimum weekly contract of a mere 8 hours.
A full one million part-time workers want a full-time job but can’t get one, as employers escalate use of micro-jobs to put workers at their beck and call, dragged in at short notice to do extra hours to match ‘business needs’, then cast back onto miserably small contract hours when the bosses want to cut their wage bill.
No wonder stress is hitting the roof in workplaces; millions have no control over their daily working lives, and just as little control over their income.
That’s a taste of the reasons it’s critically important the Usdaw policy Motion—for a guaranteed minimum 16-hour week for all workers who want it—is passed at TUC congress.
And not just agreed and then stashed away in a filing cabinet (or its digital equivalent!), but made the active property of every union member in workplaces across the country, with an action plan to fight for it immediately.
This one measure, twinned with an immediate £10 minimum wage for all workers, rising with inflation, would begin to transform the lives of millions—children included.
Alongside demands for investment in skills and learning (currently, scandalously, at only half the level of the EU average!); a million ‘green’ jobs; vast expansion of public sector housing and transport… such a package of radical measures, seriously fought for by the trade union movement, could bring about genuinely ‘great jobs’.
As could a struggle for use of digitalisation and robotics to slash the working week without a penny loss of pay—as opposed to the dystopian nightmare of new technology condemning millions of workers to unemployment and destitution.
It’s a question of who owns and controls the new technologies, as with the wider economy. Many workers have already asked me ‘How can we get the TUC to act on good policies, like a £10 minimum wage and guaranteed minimum 16-hour week?’
There was nothing pre-ordained about committing the TUC to a £10 minimum wage nor Usdaw to the new policy of a 16-hour minimum working week; they had to be organised and argued for, through union structures, from branch level upwards. That’s a start.
Assuming the TUC, representing 6.3 million trade union members, adopts this policy, trade union activists and socialists have a massive role to play in getting action to implement such life-improving reforms.
We will need to argue for and organise meetings of union members in branches and workplaces to discuss and popularise the arguments for £10-an-hour and a guaranteed 16-hour week as immediate minimum employment standards—to make union polices the property of thousands of workers.
That’s the best way to light bonfires beneath the backsides of the TUC and national union leaderships, demanding action and resources of them.
Leaflets and literature arguing these policies should be demanded of the TUC and national unions, to spread the word, involve members on the streets as well as in workplaces, through days of campaign activities.
An aware union membership is indispensable when union negotiators put these demands to employers—as they should and must, if policies are to mean anything.
Ultimately, unions need to prepare their membership for the possibility of needing to use industrial action to win such reforms.
It’s to their eternal credit that the Bakers’ union (BFAWU) have already recruited, organised, balloted and led McDonald’s workers out on strike ‘for £10 and a union’, and are now doing the same with Wetherspoons staff.
These are also sectors rotten-ripe for the demand for a 16-hour minimum for all workers who want it. Other unions need to implement TUC policies with the same determination.
We also have other pressure points that should be pounded with these demands by the unions, in particular local government and the devolved Scottish Government.
In the policy passed unanimously at Usdaw conference, those points are specified, calling for lobbying all these levels of government, demanding they introduce the £10 and 16 hour minimums for all their directly and indirectly employed staff… which amounts to a massive 500,000 workers in Scotland!
Socialists and trade unionists need to bombard councillors and MSPs—regardless of their party label—with demands that in the forthcoming budget-making process for 2019/20, they set both a £10 minimum wage and guaranteed 16-hour week into No Cuts budgets, and then mobilise workforces and communities in struggle for the funding off Holyrood and Westminster to implement these reforms.
Many who’ve joined the SNP and Scottish Labour proclaim themselves socialists. Now is the time for them to make demands on their own councillors and MSPs to stop implementing Tory austerity and start standing up for the working class with concrete, radical reforms like £10 and 16 hours minimum.
The STUC should take the bold step of organising protest demos demanding this of MSPs and councillors.
The potential power of unified trade union action has all-too-rarely been applied. The crushing poverty and insecurity of millions of workers and their families cries out for such action.
The SSP will continue to vigorously campaign on these policies, both within our own workplaces and unions, on the streets and in colleges.
We appeal to others to join us in that crusade. The combined forces of the trade unions and socialist policies are a force that could change the lives of masses of people. Join that struggle!