My speech to the Prospect Big Pay Debate

I took part in a debate on pay at a Prospect union learning at work day in Harwell.


Here’s the transcript of my speech:


Thanks for having me here.


For a quick intro to Unions21: Frances O’Grady talking about us at our conference earlier this year said: “I always like to think of Unions21 as the trade union movement’s answer to the TaxPayers’ Alliance – but with less money and more brains.” – so you get the idea.
We’re concerned with everything to do with unions. Pay is a key aspect. The ‘trade union premium’ – the fact trade union members receive higher wages – remains central to the union offer.
But there’s wider issues in the current economic circumstances than that ever present ‘premium’.


So I want to ask today – Can we dare to dream of Fair Pay?

Read More…

We will say “Never Again” again

On Easter Sunday I spoke at the NASUWT conference in Bournemouth at a fringe meeting on austerity, here’s my speech:

young workers publication

Thanks for opportunity to speak. I’ve been coming to the conference for a few years and it’s great to be able to speak as Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement.


Frances O’Grady talking about us at our conference earlier this month said: “I always like to think of Unions21 as the trade union movement’s answer to the TaxPayers’ Alliance – but with less money and more brains.” – which we appreciated.


And the support of NASUWT has always been appreciated through the years.


I’ve been asked to talk about how austerity has impacted on young people.


So: Unions21 as an organisation is 20 – what’s it like to be a 20-year-old person in austerity Britain? And can unions provide credible hope for young people?


I’m going to use some polling conducted last month by Survation for Unions21 of 1000 working people to help describe what it feels like to be a young worker and also present some of a report that was written previously for Unions21 by Professor Melanie Simms on young workers in the recession.


The two main effects of austerity I’ll concentrate on are unemployment and the decline in standards of living, but I also want to bring in some related effects around reduced training and opportunities.


Some of these issues are clear social issues and there’s also issues for unions to organise around too.

Read More…

Fair Work for Young People: Mission Impossible?

As was highlighted on their release, the results of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission employment survey contained some encouraging lessons for the trade union movement.


There is evidently an appetite amongst the UK workforce for a type of ‘social justice’ campaigns which the unions are well placed to deliver. Three quarters of working people are more likely to buy from Living Wage employers, 83% think that the national minimum wage is not sufficient to meet the living costs in Britain, and 72% would support a legal cap on the total bonus any individual can receive.

However, if we look beneath these headlines, and focus in on the views of young people (18-34) some interesting, and some worrying, trends are revealed. Some of these are well known. Young people, for instance, are less likely to be trade union members. Others can be directly linked to recent developments in the workplace. Younger workers place less emphasis on discrimination and temporary employment as barriers to ‘fairness’ in the workplace, likely reflecting increased regulatory protection against employment discrimination and the normalisation of a far more flexible labour market. 

Some findings will come as more of a surprise. To start with, young workers are significantly more likely to think that power lies in the employee’s hands, rather than in the employer’s. Twenty seven per cent of those surveyed felt that this was the case, compared to 17.9% amongst the 35-54 age group, and 9.6% amongst those above 55.

Whether this reflects reality, or just a growing naivety, there are corresponding lessons to be learnt for unions. As can be seen in the graph below, significantly fewer members of the younger age group see protection from employers as a trade union priority compared to older groups. By contrast pay is growing importance to young workers.
These lessons are not as simple as they may seem. Contradictorily, compared to the rest of the working population members of this same age group are 12% more likely to think that pay is already fairly distributed in their workplace and 15% more likely to think that their wages have kept up with rising living costs over the last two years,. Assuming that these younger workers are employed in the same workplaces as their older colleagues this suggests a troubling acceptance of pay disparities and a lack of awareness of real term cuts in their salaries. 

Furthermore, amongst younger workers there is a noticeable decline in interest in the ‘social justice’ agendas mentioned at the beginning of this article. Younger workers are 11% less likely to support a legal cap on bonuses and 6% less likely to oppose unpaid internships. This second point is particularly bizarre as younger workers are far more likely to be exploited by unpaid internships. It suggests either a growing acceptance of unpaid internships, or a growing desperation amongst young people, or both.

For the labour movement all of this suggests an emergent need for extensive education and awareness campaigns amongst young workers. The example of the normalisation of temporary work cited previously, a battle seemingly lost long ago, should be enough of a warning of what may happen if we do not act.

Here the Living Wage should be a source of optimism. Amongst the 18-34, which is 5% more likely to feel that the minimum wage is already adequate compared to the rest of the workforce, there is actually 7% more support for the concept of a Living Wage. Credit for this must go to those behind the Living Wage campaign, whose use of imaginative organising strategies and modern communication methods has evidently caught the imagination many young people. For the unions this dissonance suggests that the right campaign can still reach out to young workers, and can push back the incoming tide of apathy.

The germ of one such campaign is perhaps contained within these results. Young workers are impressively progressive in their views of paternity leave, with 60.3% of 18-34 year olds in support of the extension of paid paternity leave from two to six weeks, compared to 32% amongst the rest of the workforce. Similarly, young people are 14% more likely to support paid leave for those caring for seriously ill family members. Furthermore, as can be seen in the graph above, family friendly workplaces is an area which younger generations are increasingly identifying as a priority for their trade unions. 

Modern marketing techniques often teach us to segment individuals based on their narrow self-interest. However, it would seem that in an increasingly isolated and fragmented society we need to look beyond the supposed individualism of younger generations, and consider the importance they place on the relationships they have with those around them. There are few easy answers for trade unions today, but protection of the family and an emphasis on localised relationships, two things which are, coincidentally, closely associated with the Living Wage, would seem a sensible starting point.


Unions21 will be at the NASUWT conference on Sunday to take part in a discussion on young people and fair work.


Bankers bonuses – even Conservative voters want a cap

Commenting on plans announced in Brussels that bankers’ bonuses are to be capped across Europe, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:


‘For all their tough talk on bonuses, the Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are today standing up for the cosy pre-crash arrangements in the City, when bankers pocketed billions of pounds of undeserved bonuses and reckless decisions brought us to the brink of financial ruin.


‘But ordinary people, who have been made to pay for the folly of bankers, have longer memories and will not tolerate a return to the pre-crash status quo.


‘The EU is absolutely right to push ahead with its bonus cap, and the UK government should start siding with the interests of the electorate and the wider economy, rather than the rich and powerful elite in the City.’


Unions21 polling has shown 67% of Conservative voting employees would support a move to cap bonuses at double base salary (72.8% of Labour voting employees).

‘Just paying the bills’: The cost of disengagement

Last week Union Home released some fascinating polling as part of its Fair Work Commission. For me, the most striking finding was the number of people who are clearly not engaged in their work.


An astounding 61% of employees said that their current job was ‘just a way to pay the bills until I find something else to do’, rather than seeing it as a step in a longer career. Interestingly women and part time staff were more likely to agree with this. The biggest disparity was in terms of socio-economic group – semi-skilled and casual workers were more than twice as likely just to see their job as purely a way to get by compared to professionals and senior managers. It is downtrodden workers at the bottom who feel least engaged and enthusiastic.


These starling findings tally with research by Kenexa who found that only around a third of employees in the UK can be seen as engaged. The figure of two thirds of employees who exhibit low levels of engagement matches closely the 61% who see work just as a means of getting by. Read More…

We’re not powerless…yet

It did not come as a great surprise that the poll by Survaton for the Fair Work Commission found that employers have more power than workers. However, it was surely right to ask this generation whether they think so. What is revealing is that despite over four decades of  employment protection legislation – since the Equal Pay Act 1970, the Health & Safety At Work Act 1974, the Employment Protection Act 1975, Pensions Act 1975 and countless others since, including a raft of European Union Directives -  more than 1 in 10 employees feel they have no power and therefore rights, at all!


So, was it all a waste of time and effort by unions and the TUC since the late 1980s, in plugging this line of ‘positive’ individual legal rights, almost as an alternative to the traditional ‘voluntarist’ focus on industrial relations? Of course not. Many of those legal rights have significantly improved things for millions of workers who would otherwise not have anything. But there has been a tendency to rely too much on perfecting such ‘paper’ rights at the expense of up-dating traditional, but more difficult collective forms of protection.


However, the fact is that in today’s ‘flexible’ and ever contracting labour markets, employees are still extremely vulnerable, despite having some legal rights. Unions 21 are to be congratulated for its many imaginative initiatives to stir the collective imagination of workers to find other solutions again – at the workplace and wherever they operate. That seems to me to be the way forward.

Fair Work Commission finds 1 in 10 part-time workers receive no workplace training

Figures released today show apart from being less well-paid, part-time work often comes with a career and training penalty.


A new poll of 1,163 employed people, performed by Survation as part of the Unions21 Fair Work Commission has found 6 in 10 say their current job is just a way to pay the bills until they can find something better, rather than one step in part of a longer career. This is higher for part-time workers (76.6%) than full-time (54.8%). 


Part-time workers are more likely to see ‘lack of opportunities to progress’ in their jobs as a barrier to workplace fairness, with 18.7% identifying it as their priority.


Part of the reason for this disparity in career prospects is likely to come from the training gap between full and part-time workers. 1 in 10 part-time workers (10.2%) said they received no training at all compared with 6.3% of full-timers.


The poll found that part-time workers rated their current workplace training as worse, with only 31.14% rating it ‘good’ compared with 44.3% of full-time employees.


From the policies we presented in the survey, working people picked ‘a guaranteed minimum level of training for all employees’ as their favourite (40.5%).


They also favoured an extension of paid time-off for training for basic skills to those up to the age of 25 (up from age 18) (17.3%), and a commitment from employers to give all employees statements on the training they should expect (15.6%).