After decades of bosses’ attacks, Labour has promised to “put power into the hands of workers”.
Labour’s shadow business minister Laura Pidcock unveiled the “radical measures” at the TUC union federation conference last week. She said “tinkering around the edges will no longer do”, listing stagnating wages and runaway bosses’ pay, zero hours contracts and declining union membership.
But will Labour’s policies meet the scale of the challenges outlined?
At the heart of the plans is a Ministry of Employment Rights and Workers Protection Agency.
The minister would be tasked with rolling out workers’ rights across the economy. And the new agency would have “extensive powers to inspect workplaces and bring prosecutions and civil proceedings on workers’ behalf”.
Unions would have far greater rights, including being able to go into workplaces to organise.
But the bedrock of Labour’s plan is rolling out “sectoral collective bargaining” across the economy.
This would see bosses and union leaders negotiate national agreements on pay and terms and conditions. Each industry, whether fast food, retail or building, would have its own joint bosses and workers’ council.
It would set a legal minimum for wage rates and working conditions, then unions could push for more from individual companies.
This would be an obvious advantage for workers, particularly those in workplaces with weak or no union organisation.
But there are also dangers.
Unions could see their job as negotiating national agreements, and walkouts at workplaces as rocking the boat. There have been plenty of sweetheart agreements between bosses and union bureaucrats in the past.
A lot of Labour’s plan rests on a “social partnership” between government, bosses and unions.
Many European governments brought in this model during the long boom of capitalism that followed the Second World War.
Sections of big business saw it as a good way of managing capitalism and keeping “industrial peace”.
Jeremy Corbyn argues that it’s still a system used “in many of the most successful economies” and “fosters workplace stability”.
But everywhere it’s been tried, it’s often been about putting a cap on workers’ demands.
Bosses in Britain loved it in the 1970s because it meant stifling militant local struggle. Union leaders agreed to years of bad pay deals under a Labour government, and it laid the ground for Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and the defeats of the 1980s.
Now bosses don’t even want social partnership. Global capitalism hasn’t recovered from the credit crunch of 2007, and bosses want to squeeze more out of workers to restore profitability. Other European countries were slower to dismantle “social partnership” than Britain, but they are all moving in that direction.
In France, for instance, 98 percent of workers are covered by national or industry-level agreements, but bosses have launched big attacks.
And many of Germany’s industries have seen a dramatic decline in bosses being part of collective agreements since the 2000s.
Unions will have to take on bosses to “put power into the hands of workers”.
Labour’s pledge to “repeal the Trade Union Act in its entirety” could make a difference to working class struggle.
The Tory law brought in thresholds in ballots for industrial action.
Even if a majority votes for strikes, the law says workers can’t walk out if the turnout is below 50 percent.
And in “essential public services” such as health, education and transport, a minimum of 40 percent need to back the action.
The law requires unions to give 14-days’ notice of a strike.
And the ballot has to be renewed after six months—or nine months if bosses agree to it.
Labour’s plan to repeal the act and give unions access to workplaces to recruit workers would be positive.
But Britain already had some of the most draconian union laws before the Trade Union Act was passed.
Labour has not said it would get rid of them.
These laws ban working class solidarity, for instance.
A group of workers could not legally vote to strike in support of workers on strike in another workplace.
Labour has said it would introduce electronic and workplace ballots.
Details about what a “workplace ballot” would mean are unclear, but it should go further.
Workers should have the democratic right to vote for strikes at workplace meetings and walk out without any notice to the bosses.
Without the right to strike, promises of collective bargaining amount to little. The TUC’s official policies to push for “trade union freedom” go further than what Labour’s promising.
But union leaders have all staked their hopes on waiting for Labour to bring in the changes.
Union leaders will have to fight now—and defy the present law—as part of the fight against the Tories and union-bashing bosses.
Labour has said it would give all workers a national minimum wage of £10 an hour from the age of 16.
Many unions, such as Bfawu, led the charge for a universal rate of £10 an hour. This led Labour promise to give “£10 an hour by 2020” in its manifesto at the last election.
But £10 is now too little. For instance it lags behind the London Living Wage, set by the Living Wage Foundation, of £10.55 an hour.
Bfawu is now rightly campaigning for a £15 an hour minimum wage.
Laura Pidcock outlined a major improvement in individual rights at work.
Labour would ban bosses’ right to pay agency workers less than directly-employed workers.
Unpaid internships would be outlawed.
And instead of zero hours contracts, workers would have the right for genuinely flexible hours to give them a work/life balance.
But there also needs to be a bigger overhaul of employment law in favour of workers.
For instance, there should be increased fines for employers who have victimised workers or not paid wages.
And workers should not have to have worked somewhere for two years in order to qualify for a claim under unfair dismissal.
The Ministry of Labour would “create single status of worker for everyone apart from those who are genuinely self-employed”.
This would be a blow to bosses in industries that try to push workers into bogus self-employment. This denies them a steady wage and statutory employment rights.
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