Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager for the Society of Radiographers
There has been a lot of criticism of the lack of substance to the policy announcements from the Labour Party during conference week. Important announcements about abolishing the bedroom tax, freezing fuel bills and the promise to repeal the 2012 Health Act should not be underestimated and the impact these will have for working people and the working in and relying on our NHS will be immense.
Nevertheless the policies announced are all details and the lack of an over-riding context for them plays into the hands of those who claim there is really little difference to choose between all three main parties. This of course is further evidenced by Nick Clegg’s apparent indifference to who he will get into bed with, as long as he can get into bed.
So you have to go back to the Andrew Marr interview before the start of the conference to find the most important announcement made by Ed Miliband, and also to find the issue that will win the next election outright for the Labour Party if articulated correctly.
During the interview Ed Miliband referred to the fact that, for the first time in Britain’s post war history the link between economic growth and improving the standard of living of the majority, working people, has now been well and truly broken. Even Thatcher was not able to do this.
Members of my own union, the Society of Radiographers, have not had a pay increase above RPI for 5 years. Even with annual increments their pay has failed to keep up with inflation. In addition more of their disposable income is now spent on pensions so their standard of living has decreased significantly. Pay cuts have also become more common place as highly skilled workers responsible for delivering high levels of patient care find their jobs re-banded downwards.
This is true of other sectors where pay freezes and even cuts have become the norm in both the public and private sectors.
For the last 3 years RPI, however measured, has been higher than average earnings. But it is not the statistics but the message behind the figures that matters. If the statistics say inflation is higher than earnings then that means quite simply that any improvement in the economy is not being translated into improving standards of living for the vast majority. In the past, although the distribution was unequal, there was still an overall improvement when the economy grew. The fact that this has come to an end will be seen by those the Tories represent as the holy grail of politics and the ultimate aim of the Thatcher revolution. To the rest of us it is nothing short of the cynical use of austerity measures for political and ideological means.
So Ed is right to highlight the problem. But to win the election he must do two things. He must ensure his policies ensure the link between economic growth and earnings growth is restored and he must ensure the Tories and their coalition partners are held to account for exploiting the austerity measures in a way that has deliberately broken the link. If he does, and the TUC and individual unions work with him, then victory at the election is not just possible but will be meaningful.
So let’s not have a debate about the links between different sectors of our movement and instead start talking about the link that really matters for working people, the link between economic growth and earnings growth and in so doing expose the deeply ideological approach of this Conservative led coalition.
Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager for the Society of Radiographers
The latest debate on zero hours contracts seems to be taking place with little or no trade union input. Instead, owners of small businesses are invited by various different media to speak up for such contracts. One such “entrepreneur” is quoted in the Guardian (letters, 6th August 2013) saying that “we can employ people on fixed hours contracts when you, the consumer, are prepared to pay them to sit at home”. So the blame for the use of archaic employment practices lays with us the consumer.
Frustratingly, with no union view sought, no one seems prepared to challenge this view. Instead sympathy goes to the struggling business owners doing their utmost to meet our needs as consumers while the Institute of Directors claims that without zero hours contracts the UK economy would have “gone the same way as southern Europe”.
But let’s be frank. Any business that relies on zero hours contracts, whether in the private or public sectors, is a business that has an unfair competitive advantage over those not resorting to such tactics. They have an unfair advantage either because using zero hours contracts is the only way they can make money, in which case are they really the type of business our economy needs, or they are making unfair and excessive profits compared to others.
While it is tempting to see all business owners as money grabbing, unscrupulous profiteers the likelihood is that many are simply masking their lack of entrepreneurial skill by exploiting workers, shifting the blame on to consumers and as a consequence undermining companies with a stronger vision who do wish to compete through long term sustainable policies based on using skills to be better not cheaper.
We therefore need to shift this debate away from the Institute of Directors and the individual small business whose owners may genuinely believe they have no choice but to use such contracts. No doubt these are the same people who predicted the collapse of our economy when the minimum wage was introduced and for whom the concept of a living wage is as alien as the idea that work should allow people to develop their skills and contribute meaningfully to society.
We need to do this because the zero hours contract issue is part of a much wider debate that touches on all of the issues looked at by unions 21 through the fair work commission. Zero hours contracts should be outlawed, but not just because they exploit individual workers, but because they are part of a series of measures that help prop up failing businesses that otherwise would not be able to compete with those businesses that do invest in decent employment conditions, skills and maybe even trade union recognition.
In the 1970s and 80s the Tory’s made much of Labours attempts during the 1974-79 period to prop up “failing” businesses by nationalising them. So why should today’s workers artificially prop up failing businesses today by accepting a form of exploitation that many of our international competitors in Europe avoid.
We also need to start challenging with some vigour the idea that consumers want something different to workers and therefore demand zero contract hours as a means of achieving the aim of goods and services at the lowest possible cost. Instead we need to make the argument that not only do consumers and workers have identical interests they are in fact the same people!
And we need to challenge the Institute of Directors and its view that a de-regulated, low wage, low skill economy is the only way to compete internationally.
Information about our fringe meeting on zero hours contracts at Labour Party Conference can be found here.
Paul Moloney is a member of the Unions21 Steering Committee and Industrial Relations Manager at the Society of Radiographers
A week is a long time in politics as they say. Well the last couple of weeks have been very long for the Labour Party and its relationship with the trade union movement. It began with the problems of selecting a prospective parliamentary candidate in Falkirk and ended at the Durham miners’ gala with the RMT General Secretary Bob Crow calling for the creation of a new “party of Labour” presumably with the ultimate aim of replacing the Labour Party as the natural home for some trade unionists.
Others will no doubt comment on this at length on the rights and wrongs of another attempt to set up a new party of the left, but my concern throughout the last couple of weeks has been the narrowness of the media coverage of the debate. Throughout the discussion there has been an absolute assumption that all trade unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and that the large multi-industry, multi-occupational union model is the only one in town.
Many of those offering an opinion on Falkirk ignore the fact that the Labour Party was created by the Union movement and therefore ignore the crucial fact that the relationship between unions who affiliate to the Labour Party and the party itself is fundamentally different to that between business and the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. Although almost always presented as a discussion about “how unions buy influence” in the Labour Party the debate is essentially about how trade unions and trade unionists are integrated into the democratic structure of the party. A difficult relationship and one that needs to reflect the times but a debate that simply does not apply to the way other parties are financed.
So what has all of this to do with my own union, the Society of Radiographers? On one level very little. As a Union that has never sought affiliation to the Labour Party, but strong enough to be prepared to debate the issue at this year’s delegate conference, it could be argued that the debate is for others and not us.
Nevertheless the narrowness of the debate and the implicit assumptions about what a trade union is, and what a trade unionist is, is of concern. Many of our members, listening to this debate, could be forgiven for thinking that all trade unions are the same and that the term trade unionist applies to a very narrow group of people. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
We are very different from the stereotypical media description. For a start, like the majority of unions affiliated to the TUC, we are not affiliated to the Labour Party. Instead we have a very clear policy, also reviewed and reinforced at this year’s delegate conference, of political independence. A policy that means we engage robustly in the political arena with the aim of influencing decisions but that we do so purely from the position of what is in the best interests of our members, not what best suits a particular party. A stance that has a proven track record over the years and certainly works for us.
We are also a lot smaller than the stereotype portrayed in the media. If the latest round of merger talks that Unite is involved in happens then we will be a little over 1/100th of the size of Unite. The Labour Party debate conjures up images of large union “barons” wielding huge influence as a result of the size of their union. There is an implicit assumption that size equals power. Well we can never be much bigger than we are now but that does not mean we are not strong and that we are not influential.
Our strength however comes in a different way and lies in the fact that the vast majority of those who can join do. With a density rate of over 80% we are able to speak with authority on behalf of members working at all levels within radiography. And we achieve this density rate by combining the work of a trade union with that of a professional body and recognising that terms and conditions and job security are best protected and enhanced by ensuring our members skill levels and professionalism are also protected and enhanced.
The most frustrating thing about the media portrayal of the Labour Party debate is that we are not the only ones who are different. In fact most of the trade union movement is different. The large Labour Party affiliated unions represent just one model of trade unionism working under the TUC umbrella. Like us, Equity, the Professional Footballers Association, the Musicians Union, the British Dietetic Association, the British Airline Pilots Association and Prospect, to name only a few, all offer alternative models that concentrate on high density levels, rather than Labour Party affiliation, to be influential. And this is not to mention many unions that have yet to affiliate to the TUC.
Perhaps it is time for the TUC to promote some of the alternative models within its family and in so doing promote the full depth and breadth of the movement, qualities that ultimately deliver a resilience that this year, against all the odds has seen overall union membership increase slightly.
What’s your view? Contribute to the debate by writing for this blog
You would be forgiven for thinking that one of the last places you would find traces of horsemeat would be in a trade union officials blog but you will be disappointed.
One of our challenges as a movement this year is the changes to employment law that come into effect this year. So what is the common thread that links the horsemeat scandal and the latest attack on employment rights by the coalition?
In my view there is a very direct link as a result of the way this Government wants to see competition work in the UK. It is a particularly dangerous type of competition that is not only tolerated by the current Government, but through these changes, actively encouraged.
Shock and horror can be expressed at every stage of the food chain stretching it seems across the whole of Europe but it is difficult to conclude that no one knew that cheaper meat was being advertised and sold as more expensive meat. The Chief Executive of Waitrose has recently been quoted as saying that if consumers want higher standards they will have to pay for it.
And it is that attitude that exposes the real scandal about horsemeat in burgers and the link to the removal and limiting of employment rights. This simple statement shows that it is all about competing on cost. The sole obligation of any Chief Executive is to maximise return to shareholders which is achieved by either being better than competitors or by being cheaper. The horsemeat scandal is simply a consequence of competing on cost rather than quality.
The greater scandal however is that the attack on our employment rights has to be seen as a green light to those who can only compete on cost. Employment rights give individuals important protection but they also limit, to a small extent, the ability of a business to compete through exploitation and discrimination. The removal of these rights, or the curtailment of the ability to enforce them, represents a very clear statement by Government that they want more competition on cost and want to undermine those doing their best to compete on quality.
That means not only will we continue to find horsemeat in our burgers, but we will continue to see training budgets slashed and the undermining of essential protections such as the minimum wage and the working time directive.
In the health service we are about to see the implementation of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act which is designed to increase dramatically competition in the provision of health care. While eating horsemeat may not be a threat to human health, competition on cost in the health service is. It seems somewhat contradictory that we face this possibility while at the same time coming to terms with the wider implications of the Frances Report into Mid Staffordshire.
Perhaps the trade union response to the horsemeat scandal therefore is to reconnect with consumers and show how the attack on employment rights is an attack on us not just on the shop floor but also in the shopping centre.
The need for rights for working people is as important for consumers whether they be customers, passengers of patients as it is for workers. Health and safety legislation, the minimum wage, the working time directive, the equality act and even the requirement to auto-enrol workers into pension schemes not only protect us while we are at work but also help ensure that businesses competing for our custom are doing so by trying to be better than their competitors rather than by being the cheapest. These pieces of legislation therefore not only protect us as workers and employees but also protect our interests as consumers.
The horsemeat scandal may well make many think about turning vegetarian but our job as trade unionists is to make sure people understand that our interests as workers and as consumers coincide entirely. If we can get that argument across in the Health Service, where we are talking about patients rather than consumers, then we can re-build the consensus needed to deliver first class health care in the UK.
Industrial Relations Manager
Society of Radiographers