We must have that change, not just for working people but for the planet we inhabit.Laura Pidcock MP
Below is the speech given by Laura Pidcock MP, Labour’s Shadow minister for Labour, at TUC Congress 2019.
Thank you very much to everyone here at Congress and thank you so much for that fantastic welcome. And thank you for everything that you do in your trade unions, in representing and protecting workers. Thank you too for all the work goes on behind the scenes. I know it can be stressful and it is often without thanks!
Thanks, of course, to Mark Serwotka and Frances O’Grady and the TUC for its support; and to John Hendy and Keith Ewing and the IER for all their hard work and good advice. The people in this room do the most amazing job of all: you represent workers in their time of need; you negotiate on their behalf for better terms, conditions and pay and you deliver time after time for those people – in a seriously difficult legislative environment.
We are at a point in history where we have two paths ahead of us: we have a very stark choice about what kind of society we want to be. One path leads us to more deregulation, privatisation and poverty pay.
The other is a socialist vision of the workplace, where the trade union movement is free to do their job, where workers feel confident to be an active member of a union, feel free to meet with other union members and with their representatives and can talk freely about their participation.
We have to be frank with each other in this room: there is a real sense of dissatisfaction in workplaces across the UK, because workers in this country know that, despite working longer hours than those in all other EU countries, except Greece and Austria, millions cannot afford to make ends meet and are in poverty – 14.3 million people to be precise. And that shamefully includes 4.6 million children.
Is there anything worse than the feeling of not being able to feed your own child or knowing that you are not able to give them everything that they need? Going out to work, day in day out, working unsocial hours, often far from home, often in hostile environments, and at the end of that working week, still not be able to live a life that allows you to be comfortable and free from worry?
And it is particularly sickening that that the number of people living in poverty includes 9 million people in families where one or more adults are in work.
There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this: workers across this country are not being paid enough. A recent survey of its members by USDAW, the shopworkers’ union, found that half of the members surveyed had missed meals in order to pay essential bills with well over a third doing so on a regular basis.
These appalling statistics are the consequences of the fact that, in real terms, the value of people’s wages is still lower than ten years ago. Yet leading CEOs are now paid 133 times more than the average worker.
So, whilst some are able to lounge around in their excessive wealth, there are a huge number of people who cannot put food on the table, who are stressed by their rising debt, who are buying their shopping on credit cards, who are riddled with worry that another price rise will break the bank.
There exists in our society staggering levels of inequality. In the UK, 40% of total income goes to the top 20% of earners, while just 7% goes to the bottom 20%. We know very well that pay stagnation and income inequality are a direct result of the attack on workers’ ability to organise through their trade union.
Trade unionism is a simple and beautiful concept at the heart of this movement – and for every young person who has only ever heard about trade unions through the framework of the vested interests of those whose aim it is to smash organised Labour, I want you to know that best way to see your pay increase, to see a safer environment at work, to feel freer to express your opinion and have your rights realised is to join a trade union. It will be the best thing you will ever do.
It’s not just about protection at work, it is not just a personal insurance scheme, it is a statement of a common bond between fellow working people because all we have is each other.
I understand that the Labour Party has not always been the best ally of the trade union movement. New Labour, with its three parliamentary majorities, could have repealed the restrictive anti-union Thatcher legislation. And they shamefully missed that opportunity, and as a result many working class people lost confidence about which side this party was really on.
But now, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we have a once in a life time opportunity to right that wrong and we will do just that! We need a radical transformation of the workplace.
A Labour government will establish a Ministry of Employment Rights. The Department will be responsible for transforming our workplaces by delivering a huge roll out of individual and collective rights at work and legislating for enforcement powers to make these rights meaningful.
It will establish a National Joint Advisory Council for representatives of government, employers, unions and experts to meet and advise. Above all, this will mean that the voice of working people will be heard at the Cabinet table, exactly as it should be.
The beating heart of this department will be the roll out of Sectoral Collective Bargaining. Now, I realise that this concept may be familiar to people in this room, but people outside of this room may be wondering what on earth I’m talking about, and I don’t blame them. Because the percentage of workers covered by collective agreements has dwindled rapidly over the last 40 years.
Our Labour government will re-establish national collective bargaining between trade unions and employers in each sector of our economy. That was the British way for most of the Twentieth Century and it still is the way that the successful economies of Northern Europe manage their industrial relations.
Sector-wide collective bargaining will set minimum and legally binding pay, terms and conditions for every employer and every worker in the sector.
In practice it means that rather than the employer having all the power to determine what your conditions and pay are at work, they will be legally obliged to enter into negotiation with your trade union – a giant step forward in rebalancing the unequal power relations that exist between worker and employer.
Imagine the transformative impact that would have on, say, the care sector, where the mostly female workforce has seen this highly skilled and professional area of work become a minimum wage job, where care workers are not paid for travel time between visits and can end up working 10 hours for 5 hours pay. What a scandalous state of affairs that the very people looking after some of the most poorly and vulnerable people in the country are being paid less that the minimum wage. And think of the effect on those in their care. Well, we are calling time on this kind of exploitative practice.
Because under a Labour government, those care sector employers would be legally obliged to come to the table and negotiate all aspects of the industry, the conditions in workplaces and, fundamentally, their pay. So, whether you are a care home worker from Dundee or Durham, you would be secure in the knowledge that minimum terms and conditions negotiated for the sector will restore dignity and a decent life to you and those you look after.
As socialists, we know that to blame individuals for what are failings of the system is futile. We don’t do it. We know that often, issues over pay and jobs can fuel racism towards minority communities who have come to live and work here. It is utterly misguided to blame the suppression of wages on migrant labour.
The blame must be placed squarely with the greedy exploitative employer, because we know anything that creates division amongst us is helpful to them. Sectoral collective bargaining will mean that, whatever your nationality, you will be on the same terms and conditions. And we will repeat again and again that immigrants are not a threat to your way of life but austerity, a government run by millionaires, who could not care about working people, is.
Of course, the roll-out of sectoral collective bargaining will take time. But, in the meantime, once we have passed the legislation, there are things that we will be able to do very quickly.
Jeremy mentioned them earlier, but let me say again what will change and let’s repeat this until we are blue in the face to every person who says nothing will change!
We will fix the problem of different categories of workers having different rights by creating a single status of ‘worker’ for everyone at work – except those genuinely in business on their own account.
We will ensure every worker will have their full rights from day one. We will raise the minimum wage for all workers over 16 to £10 an hour by 2020. We will eliminate zero hours contracts by requiring employers to give all workers a contract that accurately reflects their fixed and regular hours.
There will be four new public holidays on top of statutory holiday entitlements, so that workers in the UK get the same time off workers in other countries are given. We will make equal pay a reality – and make equality and discrimination law fit for purpose.
We will hold a public inquiry into blacklisting to ensure that truly becomes and remains a thing of the past. We will ban anti-union practices and protect union members from intimidation, harassment and threats. And we will strengthen protection of trade union representatives against unfair dismissal.
The Labour Party will repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act, but more than that we will stop trade unions being weighed down by unnecessary and burdensome legislation and create new freedoms that enable workers to organise and negotiate better pay and a better quality of working life.
So, of course, we will facilitate online balloting – as you resolved yesterday afternoon. But we will go further and allow workplace ballots and elections: secret, secure and free from interference. We will make trade union access to the workplace much easier.
And as the future Secretary of State, let me assure you that I understand that working class people do not withdraw their labour without good reason. It is always the last resort – when all else fails. So, our new trade union rights and freedoms will acknowledge this. What we are proposing to do is not an act of charity from the Labour Party to the trade union movement, but it is simply upholding our international obligations and doing what is right by working people.
Nobody goes work to be injured, made ill or lose their life because of inadequate protections at work. Yet these things happen too often. The GMB have reported: at one warehouse in Staffordshire, where ambulances were called 115 times in 3 years. Harm at work is commonplace, and therefore even before the new legislation comes in, I will establish a Royal Commission to examine all aspects of health and safety and to advise on new, fresh, relevant legislation to keep every worker safe and well.
Of course, I also understand that the Labour Party can announce some of the most progressive rights for workers that Britain has seen in generations, but without the power to enforce them, they become much more difficult to realise. The current Government regularly announce that workers will have the right to request this or that – a contract of employment or flexible working, as if that will somehow be good enough, when in reality the employer can consider that request and turn it down with very little scrutiny.
A Labour government will therefore set up a Worker Protection Agency, which will be properly resourced and have the power to enter and inspect workplaces, issue enforcement notices and, in some cases, reinstate unfairly dismissed workers. They will uphold national and workplace agreements. They will enforce the outcome of tribunal rulings and much more.
This will be a mechanism that good employers can use to stop being undercut by bad employers. The Agency will be an ally of the worker, the trade union and the good employer.
I mentioned two paths at the beginning, one which further entrenches us in the grip of unfettered capitalism and worker exploitation – or one which breaks from this tradition offering a wave of hope to working people: I know that everyone in this room and working people across the UK will choose the path of hope, light and justice. It is now within our gift to deliver it. That is some responsibility, but I have actually never been more optimistic that our movement can achieve what we’ve set out to do throughout our history and that working people will see that, they will see a socialist-led Labour Government, delivering the most progressive and life changing legislative programme the country has ever seen.
And when we are attacked for this transformative programme, which we inevitably will be, we should remember that our opponents do not attack us because they are strong but because they are weak and losing their grip. They attack us because they know we are right.
We must have that change, not just for working people but for the planet we inhabit. The crossroads we’ve talked about for many years has arrived. We must not be led astray from that path of hope and fundamental change, we must show no fear.
We have to stay focused and in the coming weeks and months, as a movement we have to convey to the almost 33 million workers out there – and the families who depend on them – exactly what it will mean to have a Labour government
John McDonnell promised to bring unions into the heart of government. My Department is the door through which they can enter.
But this inspiring vision, these essential reforms will be no more than hot air if we don’t win the next election. So, we will depend on you, your resources, your influence, your energy, your eloquence and your persuasive powers to get the message out to the working people of our four nations. But have no doubt, brothers and sisters, that we can and we will win.