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.