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Winning the Argument on Bargaining

A new Europe-wide campaign by IndustriALL aims to persuade workers and society at large of the benefits of being covered by a collective agreement.

The European trade union federation IndustriAll Europe, which covers seven million manufacturing, mining and energy workers, has launched a campaign which aims to demonstrate the positive impact of collective bargaining in delivering a better life for working people.

The campaign is seen as a major step for European trade unions in co-ordination and co-operation on the issue of collective bargaining, and will run under the slogan ‘Together at Work’. Amongst the reasons for its launch are the attacks by employers and governments in many parts of Europe on the principle and practice of bargaining.

Luc Triangle, IndustriAll Europe’s General Secretary, told a media launch on September 26th that collective bargaining has been “eroded throughout Europe” in recent decades.

“Following the 2008 crisis collective bargaining was attacked by both national governments and European institutions as a means to lower wages and restore profitability. The increase in individual contracts has left many workers unable to stand up for themselves and led to a rise in precarious work and in-work poverty. This has resulted in a vicious cycle where lower bargaining coverage undermines the power to act collectively and to improve conditions for all workers in society. It also erodes social cohesion and now threatens the future of our social security systems, as workers can no longer afford, and employers no longer have to, contribute sufficiently to ensure adequate protection.”

The Together at Work campaign plans to demonstrate the advantages for workers, employers and society as a whole of a model of workplace relations with collective bargaining at its heart. It will emphasise the importance of strong trade unions and employers willing to sit around the table, as well as paying particular attention to the concerns of young workers, women and the precariously employed – each of whom would benefit particularly from a labour market that was less anarchic and more properly governed by collective agreements.

The campaign will be launched through IndustriALL’s 181 affiliated unions and, in the UK, it will be backed by Unite the union. Here, collective bargaining has been under attack by employers and the UK government for longer than most. Back in 1979 71% of UK workers were covered by collective agreements including national sectoral agreements and company wide agreements covering pay, working hours, holidays, overtime and shift arrangements, apprentices pay and many other issues. Eleven percent of workers were also covered by wages councils which protected some of our lowest paid workers in sectors such as agriculture and box making.

UK Government statistics today suggest that just 26% of UK workers are covered by collective agreements. The decline is most stark in the private sector, where only 14.7% of workers are covered by collective bargaining, but even the 58.9% of public sector workers covered marks a steep decline.

This falling away of collective agreements has been disastrous for UK workers. There is massive and growing inequity in terms of pay and conditions between the wealthy and ordinary working people, zero hours contracts have taken hold, and low pay is endemic, with people having to work two or three jobs just to make a living.

However, the Labour Party has signalled its intention to break this cycle. It plans to roll out sectoral collective bargaining and ban zero hours contracts when it takes office.

Shadow Minister for Employment Rights Laura Pidcock MP announced to both Trades Union Congress (TUC) and Labour Party conferences in September her intention to pursue an ambitious programme of introducing minimum, legally-binding pay, terms and conditions for every worker on a sectoral basis.

“We are at a point in history where we have two paths ahead of us: one path leads us to more deregulation, privatisation and poverty pay. The other is a socialist vision of the workplace, where the trade union movement is free to do their job, where workers feel confident to be an active member of a union, feel free to meet with other union members and with their representatives and can talk freely about their participation,” she told the TUC.

Her speech also highlighted the role collective bargaining can play in combatting racist attitudes towards migrants by preventing employers from using migrant labour to undercut existing workers’ conditions. “Sectoral collective bargaining will mean that, whatever your nationality, you will be on the same terms and conditions,” she said, “and we will repeat again and again that immigrants are not a threat to your way of life but austerity, a government run by millionaires, who could not care about working people, is.”

That international perspective will be crucial if campaigns such as Together at Work are to succeed.