“The same companies controlling prices are wholeheartedly committed to union-busting… [but] millions are no longer willing to settle for crumbs, and know that rights aren’t given but fought for and won.”Nabeela Mowlana, Young Labour Students Rep.
By Ben Hayes, Islington North CLP & Arise Festival volunteer
In the wake of Boris Johnson’s resignation announcement, activists from around the country joined a panel of trade unionists, parliamentarians and youth activists and more to demand a New Deal for workers at an online discussion as part of this Arise Festival 2022.
You can read the report back of “50 Years After the Pentonville 5 – Now’s the Time for a New Deal for Workers” or watch it back in full below:
Adrian Weir of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom chaired and facilitated the event, opening with an outline of the attack on workers’ rights, waves and conditions over recent decades: “the whole point of neoliberalism was for the elite to claw back all that had been taken from them”. Noting that pre-pandemic strike levels had been at a record low, he argued that the current wave of disputes represents a significant change of direction – and posed the question of whether they can be the beginning of a wider challenge to the policy agenda of the government (and the employers they represent).
Nabeela Mowlana, Student Representative on Young Labour’s national committee, spoke about entering the workforce aged 17 with little knowledge of employment rights or trade unionism, with staff working 50 hour weeks and grievances going unaddressed. She pointed out that huge numbers of young people will be experiencing similar conditions right now and “living one pay cheque away from homelessness” due to the housing crisis.
Connecting the attacks on organised labour with the cost-of-living crisis, she highlighted “that the same companies controlling prices are wholeheartedly committed to union-busting”. Nabeela pointed to a series of recent victories for trade unions and organisations such as ACORN, the tenants’ union, as evidence that “millions are no longer willing to settle for crumbs, and know that rights aren’t given but fought for and won”. Encouraging all attendees to get involved in their union and local communities organisations, she pledged the support of Young Labour activists in organising for the coming period.
Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, discussed how low wages have left “millions working for their own poverty”, with the driving down of public sector pay seen at the beginning of the austerity era being mirrored in relation to workers in the private sector. Arguing that “workers being asked to pay for a crisis not of their own making”, in the context of four decades of of policy designed to weaken the power of labour – such as restrictions on trade unions, privatisation, deregulation, and even state infiltration of the movement, as revealed in the Spy Cops scandal.
Turner argued that what secured the release of the Pentonville Five, as well as the campaign for justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets (which started that same year) was what these policies were a response to mass action and organisation. Drawing comparisons from his own experience entering employment in 1982 (with 80% of employees being covered by a collective bargaining agreement, trade union membership at 12 million, and 65% of Britain’s GDP going to wages) to today, he described a pattern of “wage theft”. He also paid tribute to those who had helped draft Labour’s manifesto policies in relation to workers’ rights (such as sectoral collective bargaining and repealing anti-trade union laws), and called for pressure to ensure the party maintained a commitment to these pledges. Emphasising that “struggle secures progress”, he called for a focus on building trade unions and social movements in the months ahead: “when we have confidence, anything is possible”.
Marian Carty of Goldsmiths UCU highlighted the scale of casualisation in the education sector – with 46% of universities and 60% of further education colleges having employees on zero hours contracts, and even many experienced teaching staff on fixed-term contracts.
Describing casualisation as “dehumanising”, she outlined how many are left without sick or holiday pay, struggling to build roots in any one place, and without sufficient time to help students. Other sectors are now also fighting back, with recent industrial action from casualised workers such as cleaners employed by Churchill Group and outsourced Mitie hospital staff. The campaign against casualisation must be viewed as “part of a fight for the future of higher education: we have a vision of a sector run for the public good rather than profit.” She pointed to the increasingly outlandish student rent charged by private landlords as an example of how this battle impacts wider communities by driving up local rents overall.
The situation at Goldsmiths was described as a typical example of what is taking place throughout the sector. “Restructuring” proposed on the basis on getting rid of permanent jobs and further casualising the workforce, as well as two prominent union members being targeted for “defacto suspension”. The UCU branch have fought back with 37 days of industrial action this academic year, as well as an ongoing assessment boycott. Praising the support shown by students, she promoted an upcoming rally at the campus on – emphasising the importance of events such as this for building solidarity and collective confidence.
Sarah Woolley, General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers (BFAWU), asked “if now isn’t the time for a new deal for workers, when is?”. Millions have lived through 12 years of austerity with a weakened NHS and education system, public sector pay freezes, and a rolling back of the rights of disabled workers. She noted this all as part of a longer process of being told to “just be thankful for what you have” but stated that the pandemic has “shown who the world keeps the world turning”. With increasing numbers of people finding that their wages barely cover the costs of getting to and from work, she described a shift in the public mood as collectively workers are saying “no more”.
Citing recent strike action from barristers as an example of how widespread discontent had grown, Wooley stated that “each group of workers fighting back are inspiring more and more.” Warning that “Johnson will be replaced by a more focused and cruel Tory leader set on continuing the work that his scandals had become a distraction from”, she emphasised the importance of unions building alliances both with each other and wider community groups: “standing together can bring change”.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, MP for Salford and Eccles, predicted that “as winter comes, further economic misery will follow”. Slamming the “pitiful” economic support offered by the government, she argued that whilst they had attempted to spread division in response to the RMT’s industrial action, they had underestimated the union and the extent to which its message would resonate with the wider public.
“Tory leadership candidates parading around TV studios trying to outdo each other on corporate tax cuts are illustrative of an ideas vacuum”- Long Bailey called on the left to fill it. She set out a platform of measures both to deal with the immediate crisis impacting communities across the country, such as inflation-proofing of incomes and controls on rent and energy/food prices, and to create a new settlement in the longer term, including public ownership of utilities and a Green New Deal. Anticipating a surge of resistance to the government’s agenda in the coming period, she stated that “the more workers stand up, the more others will join them”- and emphasised that “it’s time to make a decision: you’re either on the the side of working people or you’re not”. Long-Bailey pledged her support for all workers in dispute in the coming months:
“the more politically awakened people become, the more this government’s days are numbered”.
Labour peer John Hendy QC detailed the scale of profits announced by pilot companies in the first 3 months of 2022 alone- with BP making $6.2 billion and Shell making $9.1 billion. Describing them as a “global cartel”, he stated that price hikes “are no reflection of rising costs – they’re simply about desire for rising profits”. Hendy called for a strong rejection of the “wage/price spiral” explanation of rising inflation, pointing out that the decline of collective bargaining as well as decades of derecognition, outsourcing, rolling back of public procurement regulation and attacks on trade union rights has left millions in a pay slump. Emphasising the importance of strong leadership from the labour movement in response to the current crisis and attempts to use agency workers to undermine industrial action, he pointed out that “we have always had to fight in the adversity – we can do it again and win”.
Adrian Weir echoed the call to back all workers taking action, and highlighted that within three months of Transport Secretary Grant Shapps condemning P&O Ferries’ policy of replacing sacked workers with agency staff, he was now proposing they be used to break RMT strikes: “the Tories couldn’t be more two-faced or barefaced in their contempt for working people.”
This call from Shapps was accompanied by a push for a ‘minimum service agreement” and proposals to quadruple the potential statutory damages paid by unions – Arian warned of a full frontal attack” coming on organised labour, the need to campaign for a legal approach that enshrines trade union rights is clear. Concluding the event, he thanked all speakers and attendees and encouraged attendance at other online sessions being organised as part of this year’s Arise Festival.
- Watch “50 Years After the Pentonville 5- Now’s the Time for a New Deal for Workers” here. The online discussion was hosted by Arise Festival on Monday 11th, July.
- You can view all of Arise Festival’s upcoming and past events here, and book your tickets to the festival to help cover the costs of hosting the people-powered month long event!
- You can read a published version of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s speech on Labour Outlook here.