Fighting for security at work

By EM Johns

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to legislate for security at work for everyone. This centres on banning zero hours contracts, extending workers’ rights, mandatory collective bargaining for larger companies, and making it easier for trade unions to organise.

This is an unambiguously pro-worker agenda. It starts from the position of what workers need in order to have a good life, without muddling this up with any business-friendly (i.e. boss-friendly) language. In more detailed, fleshed-out form, they could form the basis of a workplace policy by which the state regulates for a decent standard of living, but which recognises that the collective action of workers is the most effective guarantee of winning and keeping hold of better working conditions. The party’s Workplace2020 initiative, which seemed to go by the wayside during the last leadership campaign, should be revived so that we can take this agenda to the shop floor, develop it in collaboration with rank-and-file trade unionists, and win our colleagues round to it as a coherent political platform.

So what can a Labour government do? Pay is the most obvious starting point. The National Policy Forum’s document covering work manages to wax lyrical about the problem of in-work poverty without giving a mention to the obvious solution, higher wages. The party should never stop saying Britain needs a pay rise. Millions of public sector workers who have suffered under the pay freeze, and private sector workers, for whom the increased cost of living is eating into any pay rise they might get, should be told again and again they’ll be better off under Labour. We should hammer away at the demand for a £10 an hour minimum wage until it’s in the national consciousness, the way $15 campaigners have done in the US.

A statutory living wage is much easier for the government to enforce than the myriad other daily battles and gripes which make up everyone’s working conditions. This is where mandatory collective bargaining comes in. But even under that framework, employers will do everything in their power to cut corners and drive conditions down. We can legislate for higher wages, and even the abolition of zero hours contracts, simply enough; but it’s much harder to legislate against a bullying boss, a management who makes you work through your breaks, or a workplace culture that expects you to do parts of your job in your own time. Welcome as the introduction of collective bargaining would be, these kind of issues will have to be tackled by combative organisation in the workplace.

Abolition of Britain’s many anti-union laws would make this easier. John McDonnell has long championed this, and proposed a Trade Union Freedom Act to positively enshrine the right to strike and other rights. Recently, however, the leadership has talked openly only of repealing the latest Trade Union Act (against which the movement put up scarcely any meaningful opposition). We ought to bring back and popularise the idea of a positive ‘bill of rights’ for trade unionists. Legislating for such rights, for sectoral bargaining, even for the closed shop, cannot solve our problems in the workplace. But it can create a situation where our collective action on the shop floor can be stronger, bolder, and more militant. And that’s ultimately the way we’ll tackle insecurity at work.

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