The Challenge Facing Our Unions

Politics and the workplace are changing. Britain’s unions need to change with them.

On becoming CWU general secretary in 2015, Dave Ward pledged to ‘continue the fight against austerity and ensure that protection and enhancement of jobs, pay and terms and conditions.’ (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.)

One of the most striking social media stories of the summer was a viral video shot by Antoine Dangerfield. The video shows an entire construction site of workers in Illinois downing tools and walking off the job in support of a small group of Latino workers who had been picked on by their manager.

Many people will remember the video for Antoine Dangerfield’s narration — ‘we rise together, homie!’ — but what stuck with me was the show of collective workplace strength in support of those who were being victimised. It was the sort of solidarity many commentators would have us believe is a thing of the past in 2018.

The action in Illinois was echoed by Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) members in Plymouth, Grimsby, and Sunderland facing down managers and walking out of Royal Mail sites over bullying and harassment. This sort of workplace action reminds me of a simple fact: of all the roles I’ve done in the CWU, I’ve never had more power to stand up for members than I did as a local rep in a Tooting delivery office.

When this type of action is the exception and trade union coverage is at a record low, it’s no coincidence that the world of work is now a harsher place than at any time in living memory. Equally, it’s no coincidence that a message like ‘take back control’ resonated with so many when most workers have no voice, find every aspect of their lives and communities shaped by the demands of global capitalism, and are told that ‘there is no alternative.’

Alongside the grim statistics we are familiar with on insecure employment, one of the most worrying consequences of our current economic model, as well as the fall in trade union membership, is that when you talk to young people there’s a sense that however badly they’re treated at work they have to accept it.

This has not happened overnight, or simply as a result of austerity, and by now there should be little doubt that the Labour Party in the 1990s was wrong to sign up to the idea that we’d reached the end of economic history. In recent decades not only have we seen a massive transfer of wealth to those at the top, we’ve seen a huge shift in power. This has not only left us with record levels of in-work poverty, it has robbed workers of the ability to do much about it.

With a newly-emboldened far right on the march across Europe and America, no one can believe this status quo is sustainable. One of the most important consequences of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is that the 2017 general election killed off the notion that a bold left-wing alternative could not succeed electorally, and that we need to sacrifice principles for power.

While the Right has tried to write off this agenda as ‘a return to the 1970s’ the truth is that stronger trade unions, new models of public and business ownership, as well as a proactive role for the state to invest in the economy are necessary if we have any hope of dealing with the problems we face today. The inequalities that led to the financial crash, as well as challenges such as automation and climate change, require fundamental change to our economic model and a shift in the balance of forces in the United Kingdom back to working people.

The response to right-wing populists cannot be a lecture about liberal values, it must be a positive vision that gives people meaningful control over their lives.

Alongside this fight for political change, there is a more immediate question for trade unions of how we respond to the problems in the world of work ourselves. For years, we have been talking up the severity of the situation we face. Employment practices such as zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment and temporary agency work have moved from the margins to become pillars of a low-cost labour market; and while there has never been a greater need for trade unions, we have never spoken for fewer people in work.

Addressing this requires a serious strategy. On 12 May, thousands of workers took to the streets to march for a new deal for working people, something my own union had pushed within the Trade Union Congress for a number of years. But this must be the launch-pad for a wider programme if we are serious about fighting for change.

Firstly, we are calling for unions to agree to a common bargaining agenda to tackle insecure work, including zero-hour contracts, bogus self-employment, contracts without holiday pay or sick pay, and poverty pay below a true living wage. If all trade unions agreed to push this in collective bargaining it would serve not just as a powerful message to employers, but as a signal to workers everywhere that trade unions are on the march.

Secondly, unions should agree a new charter that brings about greater co-operation on how we organise the millions of people who aren’t already members. In truth, the current principles that deal with disputes between unions aren’t fit for purpose: competition between unions is holding back efforts to recruit and employers continue to play unions off against one another and in some cases pick their preferred bargaining partner.

But we have to go beyond a set of rules just to resolve disputes and think about how we can work together. If we cannot do this, and if we cannot work out how to reverse the trend of declining membership that many unions are seeing, the movement will not survive.

Thirdly, we need to publish our own manifesto, setting out our political demands on a new deal for workers and making the case for collective bargaining. The Labour manifesto, taking its cue from the Institute of Employment Rights, gives us a clear agenda we should rally behind to reassert trade unions’ voice in the economy. The task of the TUC and its member unions should now be to make this the number one political issue in the country.

Finally, the CWU is pushing for unions to come together and agree to take a day of action in early 2019. I have listened to many people calling for a general strike down the years and I know that too often — where this lacks widespread support — it does little more than provide an excuse for unions not to do anything. So my challenge to the movement is to start the discussion not by talking about what we can’t deliver, but by asking what form of action we can all sign up to.

For me, the fight for a new deal for workers is about the trade union movement reconnecting with our fundamental purpose of fighting for change in the workplace and reclaiming our role as the voice of working people.

Just as the Labour Party has done under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, this requires us to grasp the need to shift the balance of forces in the economy and to seize the opportunity to cut through with a bold plan that promises to put real power in the hands of workers. By uniting behind a campaign for a new deal for workers, unions can tap into a growing mood for change.

As Antoine Dangerfield might put it, we have to show that ‘we aren’t bullshitting — we rise together!’