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Finding a Voice at Work – ain’t easy

The rise and decline of union membership and power in my time (since the 1960s), has been the defining characteristic of a long career in the trade union and labour movement. From being ‘the wave of the future’ when I joined the T&GWU (it had nearly 2million members in the 1970s), union membership has gone downhill from the 1980s. As is well known, TUC membership has slumped from 13 to 6million and successive WERS surveys have tracked the contraction of collective bargaining from 80 to 20 per cent of workplaces in the private sector. Now, the previously resilient public sector is also under severe pressure.

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Unfair and discriminatory pay set to continue with this government

Victoria Phillips is head of employment rights at Thompsons Solicitors

Another damning indictment of this government came last month when the High Pay Centre released its report on the pay of CEOs in FTSE firms. The figures clearly show that those at the top are continuing to command ridiculous wages at the expense of the average worker.


Extreme pay has been increasing year-on-year, which now means that a FTSE 100 CEO is paid 183 times that of their average full time worker. While so-called reforms introduced by the Con-Dem coalition in the shape of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 at least allow us to see the absurd levels of pay, the ‘reforms’ themselves have made no difference.


At the time, the then business secretary, now former MP, Vince Cable, promised that the reforms, which included giving shareholders a binding veto on annual remuneration, would tackle the “disconnect between pay and performance”. Do the beneficiaries of such levels of pay really believe that their contribution to the company is 183 times that of their average employee? Or are they still getting away with paying themselves huge salaries because the legislation was, and is, weak?


Far from tackling the culture of high pay, the High Pay Centre report shows that the top ten CEOs alone were paid £156 million and that the average pay for FTSE 100 CEOs has risen by almost £1 million since 2010. Let’s remember that this is while three quarters of FTSE 100 companies are shamefully failing to pay the living wage.


This is a clear reminder that those in the highest positions are treated very differently when it comes to employment and remuneration. While average pay continues to fall in real terms, as big businesses increase their profit margins by restricting pay at lower levels, the very few are rewarded with ever-growing pay packets.


The last government’s superficial and half-hearted move to encourage shareholders to challenge excessive pay company at AGMs was a failure. Instead of taking it upon themselves to do what is best for the vast majority of employees, shareholders have, too, bought into the morally derelict culture of excessive pay for some, low pay for the rest. So much so that the average vote against remuneration policies at FTSE 100 companies was just 5.9% in 2014.


Shareholders that are eligible to vote on remuneration packages must now show some responsibility and leadership. A survey carried out by the Institute of Directors showed that 52% of their members thought that excessive pay was a threat to public trust in businesses – but an equivalent poll of employees themselves would provide a far more important body of feeling.


It is also a worrying trend that those in the most senior positions are not simply content with dividing themselves from their workforce, but also from one another. 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, women in executive positions are getting significantly less pay than their male counterparts. According to a survey carried out by the Chartered Management Institute and XPertHR, women in directorships at FTSE 100 companies earn over £13,000 less than their male colleagues and just half of their bonuses. This is despite women in their twenties tending to earn more than men of the same age; an indication that the glass ceiling of gender discrimination is still present once women start to progress into more senior roles.


It is a disgrace that these trends look likely to continue. Certainly they will without a proactive response from this government to reform pay. The pay gap is such that the UK is now one of the most unequal countries in the apparently ‘developed’ world. As many people struggle to get by, it is a clear injustice that poverty wages at the bottom continue to supplement luxury pay at the top.


Angela Eagle writes for Unions21 on Fair Work


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The right to be treated fairly at work is the essential right of every worker in Britain today. It means being paid properly, respected by your employer and having rights to sick pay holidays and to health and safety protections that are properly enforced.


It was the Labour movement that first fought for basic rights for workers, and Labour in government delivered substantial change – a national minimum wage, enhanced health and safety laws and important protections against discrimination in pay and the provision of goods and services. We should be proud of our collective record, whilst being very aware of the work that is yet to be done.
Workers’ rights are already coming under sustained attack from this Tory government with the publication of their partisan and oppressive anti trade union Bill.


I’ve been vocal in opposing this. As Deputy Leader I would make sure that Labour stands up for workers and the trades unions that represent them. Tory attacks on collective bargaining and on rights at work must be resisted. And the Tory’s desperate attempt to reincarnate themselves as some kind of workers’ party must be exposed for the sham that it is. A government that was serious about representing workers and ensuring they’re treated fairly would work with trades unions, not try to use the law to weaken them.

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Tom Watson writes for Unions21 on Fair Work

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The next Deputy leader of the Labour Party must work to ensure the party speaks to a wider range of people in work and better demonstrate it genuinely understands their pressures, experiences and hopes. No-one expects us to have all the answers, but we need ongoing conversations with working people and to show we can solve some of these problems together.


There’s so much riding on this. Greater fairness at work is a crucial building block for a fairer society. Our identity, self-esteem, finances, health and happiness are often shaped by what happens to us at work. The Tories have taken a one-dimensional political approach to employment largely centred on the quantity of private sector jobs. They’ve shown little regard to the pay people take home, the hours they work, job security, the skills developed or required and future prospects across the whole of the labour market. Worse still, government policies and crude cuts have actively contributed to the deterioration of work creating an increasing social and economic price later on.


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Ben Bradshaw writes for Unions21 on Fair Work

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In the 115 years since the Trade Union Movement brought the Labour Party to life in collaboration with the Co-Operatives and the Fabian Society, Britain’s economy has changed beyond recognition.


That pace of change is only increasing today. From the increase in self-employment, and “self-employment” while tied to specific companies, to the stagnation of take-home pay and new business models that take advantage of globalisation, the challenges we face to protect workers’ rights and fight inequality are immense.

If we’re to meet these economic challenges that face workers across the UK then the Labour Party and Trade Unions must work hand in glove to defend what we have spent our history fighting for – a fair deal for workers.


Trade unions are facing unprecedented attacks from this Government, who see unions as a barrier to productive business and state run services. We know this isn’t true. In an age where the state – taxpayers – are subsidising low paid workers across our economy, the role of trade unions is vital to ensuring that the interests of employees is balanced with those of the employer.

Where Trade Unions work well with business leaders, the business works well. The strong relationship between Unite the Union and BAE Systems is one such case – working together, BAE Systems and workers operate some of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world, with high levels of productivity. Usdaw the Union has bucked the general trend of unions by growing their membership through nationals agreements with large supermarket chains.

But there are sectors of the economy that desperately need union representation. Where can call-centre workers go for help? Who can Uber drivers look to for protection in the workplace? As the economy changes, so must the response of the Labour Movement. Without unions, we cannot hope to protect the social fabric of our society that we’ve fought for.

I’m proud of the work we undertook together on union learning under the last labour Government and I want to see us re-establish that and grow it bigger and stronger than before. We need more, better quality apprenticeships to help us create the high skilled jobs of the future. It’s a measure of our ideas that this Government has stolen our clothes on apprenticeships. It’s also a measure of our failure that we’ve allowed them to.

While I welcome the Government’s move on apprenticeships, I abhor their twisted use of the language of the Living Wage. Let’s be clear – what Osborne announced was no Living Wage, but an increased Minimum Wage – which would be fine, if it weren’t accompanied with cuts to working tax credits, leaving working people worse off overall.

We need pay that isn’t eroded over time, but rises with the cost of living. We need to fully implement the Equal Pay Act and the Equality Act, so equal pay is a reality and not an aspiration, and so we make sure opportunities are based on our talent and skills, not where we’ve come from.


I also believe it’s absolutely time for workers’ representation on the boards of businesses so workers have a say in the running of the business, and a voice in decisions that impact on their pay and conditions from the very start. This will require training for reps and serious thought as to the roll-out, but it works in Germany, and it will work here too.


But we can’t do any of this, and more, while we’re in opposition.

I’m standing to be Labour’s Deputy Leader to be an ambassador for the party in the country, and a voice for our movement within the Party. Part of the role as I see it will be to go out and defend the Labour-Union Link.

Where we embrace the diversity of the trade union movement, it will strengthen our party and our movement. I am a long-standing member of the NUJ, GMB and Usdaw. In my local party in Exeter, we have active members from across the union movement – including our fantastic Exeter Council Leader who is an RMT member.

I absolutely don’t believe that we should break the link. We need to mend the link. I want union membership and party membership to go hand in hand. I want Union members to feel they can stand for selection as candidates locally and nationally because their activism at work is valued. Union members need a party that will work with unions to develop political leaders based on talent, not based on who you know, or time served.

I’ve been an MP in Government, and now in Opposition. I know that everyone throughout our Party and Movement agrees with me that the very worst day of a Labour Government is far better than any day of a Tory Government. We owe it to people in this Country to do our very best to make sure we have a Labour Government in 2020. We only do that by working together.


Stella Creasy writes for Unions21 on Fair Work


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At twenty one you’re on top of the scrapheap
At sixteen you were top of the class

All they taught you at school

Was how to be a good worker

The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself

In 1983 Billy Bragg defined the threat a generation faced from Tory policies. Thirty two years later his words ring true again as we face a Government blind to the damage they are doing to the prospects of so many. Labour must offer more than opposition. We must be an alternative, fighting for a better future for all. In doing so, trade unions have a vital role to play contributing ideas, energy and experience. Following the election defeat it is vital that we do not retreat, but instead renew again our movement as the voice and vehicle for working people. We must not mourn- but organise.
Britain’s union movement has a proud tradition of progressive change –delivering weekends, paternity and maternity rights and equal pay. In doing so, they have helped to not just protect but create millions of jobs, saving business’s time and money, and helping the state deliver services that save lives. Despite this, the Tories are proposing the biggest crackdown on trade union rights for 30 years. We can and will oppose their agenda. But the truth is they will be able to pass this into law because they won. My campaign is about getting us ready to win again, because winning is the only way we can guarantee a Government that respects and appreciates trade unions. And with much is at stake, we must not let Matt Hancock or Francis Maude define their purpose or wait until the election to challenge their destructive agenda. Instead, we must together put productivity and pay on the political agenda, using the work many unions already do as a template of how this benefits employees, employers and the economy.
British productivity levels are falling far behind our competitors: as a result of Britain’s limited skills training and poor infrastructure, we produce 30% less per hour than workers in Germany or France. Or to put it another way, by Thursday lunchtime a French worker has produced as much as we do in a week. Improvements in technology are also creating a “Second Machine Age”, where many of the jobs currently done by humans are being computerised. Osborne claims to support a living wage, but the bitter reality for those on low incomes is that they will find any increase in their wages will be wiped out by cuts to tax credits – and then some. In giving with one hand but taking much more with the other he has made it more likely people will live not just in poverty, but also in financial difficulty. This is now one of the most indebted countries in the world, as families try to bridge the gap between what they earn and what they need to live through borrowing. Under Cameron’s watch, our low pay high debt economy is causing misery for millions.  
The Tories pretend all these issues could be solved if only people worked harder or if trade unions were weaker. We know the UK’s productivity crisis and low pay cannot be met by deregulating business and regulating unions. A smarter government would get all the players – government, business, schools, employees and trade unions – working together. At Royal Strathclyde Blindcraft Industries in Glasgow, Community Union has worked in partnership with management to develop training programmes that take physically disabled young people through a training programme which leads to a decent job. The project is supported by local government bringing the business and trade union together in partnership to make a positive difference to workers’ lives. Such collaborative approaches offer a model for how people can develop new skills and gain the confidence and security they need to move from industry to industry over the course of their careers.
While the Tories view trade unions as barriers to change, we know that they can be the facilitators of success in the workplace, both within sectors and at a national level too. Helping tackle poverty pay is just the start of the conversation about the role they can play in driving up productivity and supporting employees in the global economy. In the years ahead Labour must put into practice the partnerships that can help us demonstrate this is a possibility for all- both in our policy making and our campaigning. By renewing our power of collective action we can show how we would deliver fairness and prosperity for all – doing so as the biggest political organisations by far in the UK. As Labour’s next Deputy Leader ensuring our movement leads this debate from the front would be a personal priority. 

Caroline Flint writes for Unions21 on Fair Work

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Work helps create a society in which people can be independent, raise a family and be part of a community. It also ensures that through those that work we can provide for schools, hospitals and other public services essential to the common good.  That’s why we are Labour.


I’m the daughter of a lone parent.  My mum worked in pubs and shops. At 13, I worked two nights after school in a newsagents. The day I finished my O-levels Mum signed me up to work in a dry cleaning firm for the summer before I started my A levels.  Weekend, evening and holiday jobs were part of my work experience up and until my first proper job after university.


I was the first in my family to go to university; my brother and sister left school at 16. We should never treat skills, apprenticeships and experience on the job, as less important than degrees that earn you letters after your name.  They are different but vitally important.


My grandma’s family worked in a paper mill. It’s still there today. Her family expected to have the same job for life. That seems a luxury today. Some things have improved for the better since that mill first opened but work is less secure and too many employers exploit employment laws to avoid giving permanence to employees; and poach rather than train. Change isn’t all bad. Trade unions have a vital role in supporting workers to take up new opportunities whilst not being undervalued and undermined.


Working In local government, I introduced my borough’s first workplace nursery; and recruited the first women trainee plumbers and electricians.  Even today, I get angry at the outdated attitudes which underpin job gender segregation.


Leading on Labour’s energy policy for the last four years I know that investment in this sector to provide for a lower carbon future will create jobs throughout the UK.  But we are facing a massive skills shortage and women are a small minority when it comes to skilled and well paid jobs across this sector. Primary school children today need the right education and encouragement to take up the opportunities of the future – girls and boys.


So what would I do?


First, Labour policy should encourage investment in employees; and reward permanence over temporary employment.  There are too many ways for employers to avoid making any commitment to an individual. Our employment laws need revisiting, challenging the minimal hours culture.  Flexibility, should not equal permanent insecurity.


Second, fair work only comes with fair representation.  How often do temporary staff have their “contract” ended (i.e. the phone stops ringing) only to be robbed of holiday or other pay.  As soon as an individual makes a formal complaint, employers should be required to hand them a list of unions, lawyers and other agencies to represent them.


Third, firms work better, more fairly, and have fewer disputes, if they have a workplace partnership with trade unions. I campaigned with the then ISTC, writing to every employee and standing at factory gates, to secure union recognition at a large firm in my constituency.  The firm still thrives today and has a great apprenticeship scheme. We should celebrate positive partnerships between unions and employers.


Fourth, I support a Living Wage and any genuine programme to achieve it, although the Tory argument for excluding 21 – 25’s isn’t fair. But we should question the opaque pay policies which create unnecessarily hierarchical structures in which often women and lower paid workers lose out. In my experience, bonus or performance pay structure don’t always produce the desired outcomes or fairness in an organisation, private or public.


Fifth, Government can boost productivity.  Two common mistakes about productivity: one is that public sector productivity is only achieved through privatisation; second – improving productivity involves losing workers. A McKinsey report in 2009, argued that public sector reform, doing things differently, made more impact than just putting the same workers into new (private) uniforms.


They also noted that raising the quality of what employees do, through training, skills and investment could be successful in raising productivity.


Government must encourage investment in training (the Chancellor’s apprenticeship levy is borrowed straight from Labour) and investment in R&D (still too low in the UK). In the public sector, government should reward authorities with low absenteeism. Poor management, low staff morale, and high public sector sickness rates are linked. When workers feel valued and supported, their attendance (and therefore, productivity) improves.


Sixth, we need smarter public procurement which can encourage apprenticeships, innovation and support small and medium size businesses embedded in our communities.


Seventh, clear Government direction encourages long term investment, training and job creation, transforming the economic landscape. Take low carbon energy: hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created if Government offers a stable, long term direction.  Chop and change has characterised Tory policy, deterring investment as firms wait for clear signals about future intentions.


I believe that trade unions and the Labour Party can rise to the challenge of the 21st Century world of work whilst remaining true to our values.

Jeremy Corbyn writes for Unions21 on Fair Work


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The British labour market is in crisis. That may seem an odd thing to say with the Conservatives crowing about record levels of employment, but the crisis is not of quantity, it’s of quality.


Working together, the Labour Party and trade unions (whether affiliated or not) can make a difference. Indeed we were established to deliver for working people, whether in Parliament and in their workplaces. That is our shared movement.


Workers in the UK remain worse off in real terms than they were before the crash. We have record levels of in-work poverty because of endemic low pay and insecurity. The number of workers on zero hours contracts has trebled and more and more working households are dependent upon the lifeline of tax credits and housing benefit, which George Osborne has set his sights on cutting.


Even before the crash, average workers wages were stagnating, and as a share of national income wages have been falling since the late 1970s. The attacks on trade union and employment rights in that time have made that possible.


Trade union membership over the same period has halved, even as the number of working people has increased. There is a real challenge for trade unions, especially in the private sector where only 14% of workers are in membership.


Unions improve pay and make jobs more secure. Companies with better recruitment and retention tend to be the ones who invest in training their staff. As a country we don’t invest enough, and George Osborne is grossly irresponsible in having cut the adult skills budget, and further education since 2010. We are going in the wrong direction.


The Labour Party needs to work closely with the labour movement while in opposition to strengthen your hand, to support and promote the work you do in organising workers and delivering a fairer society.


Now the Tories’ propose a minimum 50% threshold on union ballots – a legal hurdle that exists in no other ballot, either for public election or for any other democratic organisation.


The Tories say this is about democratic mandate. This is a deceit. As Thatcher’s Chancellor Nigel Lawson confessed in his memoirs, “a reduction in union power was an important aim of Conservative policy even though it was couched in language of checking abuse , democratising procedures and so on”.


We know they pursue the same agenda today, because they have rejected trade union proposals to boost turnout through secure workplace balloting.


The same agenda drives public sector pay cap, hurting the families of public sector workers and damaging the morale of each and every public sector worker – and of the service provided. We need to invest to provide the well-funded public services that act as a springboard to an economy that enables everyone to prosper.


The next Labour government must ensure the recommendations of national pay bodies are implemented, and restore national pay bargaining. We urgently need an inflation-plus pay rise for public sector workers and we will need one even more by 2020.


But low pay isn’t limited to the public sector. Some of the worst examples of low pay and poor working conditions are to be found in the private sector, where too many workers lack trade union membership. We need to increase the resources going into enforcement of the minimum wage to target illegal abuse.


Last year, UK company profitability hit record highs. But without unions in many workplaces, any increase in returns only gets shared in the boardrooms and between shareholders.


Trade unions are the most effective force for equality in our society. Research by The Spirit Level authors Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett shows that both in the UK and across the developed world greater pay equality correlates with higher trade union membership.


So how can a Labour government enable trade unions to deliver a more equal society? One key change would be to give trade unions the right to access workplaces to recruit and organise.


But we also need to look at establishing wage councils with binding standards in some low paid industries – and extend the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority into industries where exploitation and unsafe practices are worst.


When Labour leader John Smith made his last speech to the TUC he set out a ‘Charter for Employment Rights’ to:


“give all working people basic rights that will come into force from the first day of their employment. We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent.


“We will give every working man and woman the right to protection against unfair dismissal, and access to health and safety protection. And every worker will have the right to join a trade union and have the right to union recognition.”


That modest charter – for equal rights for all workers from day one – needs to be in the next Labour manifesto. I hope you will back it.

Andy Burnham writes for Unions21 on Fair Work


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In the months since our devastating Election defeat, Labour has been consumed by a round of painful soul-searching.


I spent the early stages of my Leadership campaign focusing on the most difficult issues we heard on the doorstep – the deficit, immigration and benefits – because we won’t win until we regain the public’s trust on them. But this doesn’t mean copying the Tories. Far from it. Labour wins when we are better than them.


The focus on our weaknesses has given Labour’s Leadership campaign a negative feel. The time has come to lift people with a bigger vision. In the 21st century, what is Labour for? My answer is simple: to help everyone get on in life.


The hopes of people at all levels of society are pretty much the same: a secure job; a decent home; a good standard of living; prospects for their kids; and proper care for their parents. But these dreams are dying for millions. Labour’s mission must be to revive them.


The first Budget from a majority Conservative Government in 19 years made it even harder for young people to make their way in an already challenging world. It raised the prospect of a two-tier workforce, dividing young and old, and disproportionately hits families in work.


While raising skills is crucial to raising pay in the long term, we must break the cycle of low pay and productivity by boosting pay at the lower end of the pay scales.


David Cameron continues to wage his campaign of demonisation against our union movement. I will oppose this unjustified attack on the legitimate role of trade unions to protect people in a fragmented and casualised workplace and if the new proposals get through Parliament I will repeal them.


We have seen the return to work undermined over recent decades, both due to the weakening of workers’ rights and wider economic trends including globalisation and technological advances. Improving the economic position of British workers is not a simple challenge, but it will be at the heart of my mission as Labour leader. We need to invest in the skills and industries of the future, so that we have an economy of high value, high paid jobs.


The sad truth is that despite his attempt to commandeer the language of the living wage campaign, the Chancellor has delivered nothing of the sort, with a measure not based on cost of living, taking no account of the slashing of tax credits, and ignoring the higher living wage rate needed in London.


I welcome plans to raise the minimum wage but, by applying the measure only to those 25 and over, the national minimum wage has now become a five tier system, with your pay decided by the year you were born not the job you do. I want the raise to apply to every age group.


One of the greatest failures of post-war public policy has been this country’s lack of focus on technical education. Our schools system is geared towards the academic, University route. Young people who aspire to go on that route have clear goals to aim for and support to get there. But the same cannot be said for young people who aspire to a high-quality technical education. They have been neglected by successive Parliaments full of people who went to University and have made that the focus of education policy.


No wonder so many people feel that politics doesn’t speak to them. I will take Labour out of the ‘Westminster bubble’ and make it the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of ordinary people once again.


I will end the discrimination and inequality that is still inherent in our school system and bring true parity between academic and technical education. The best way to raise standards in schools is to give all children in those schools hope that they have something to aim for at the end of it. And the best way to build a modern economy is to invest properly in our skills base.


I will trust our councillors again and the time has come to trust local communities with more financial freedom too. We need the most ambitious house building programme in half a century – the best way to bring down the Housing Benefit bill is to let councils build homes again.


This period now, the next few years after a bad defeat, will be defining for our Labour movement, party and unions together. We will either rise to the challenge with bold solutions to big problems or we will be written off as timid, small and irrelevant. The change I offer is to take our Party out of Westminster, put it back in touch with people across our country and I would like to ask for your support in doing that.