“Millions of people need a pay rise. That requires the trade union movement to succeed. Just as the government is not neutral over the strikes, neither should Labour be.”
This article is a published version of the speech given by Simon Fletcher at the Arise Festival session “Labour movement strategy in the crisis.” Read Simon’s contribution or watch the meeting in full below:
I want to preface this by saying firstly that the day-to-day work of trade unionists in the workplace deserves credit at all times, not only when there are big national disputes in the headlines.
In terms of this subject – “labour movement strategy in the cost of living crisis”, my comments are primarily on the political side, under three headings. One, how the cost of living crisis is working its way through politics; two, briefly, on how some unions are thinking about politics; and three, implications for Labour and the left.
The cost of living crisis constitutes the biggest collapse in living standards for decades, affecting millions of people. It is deepening a wages squeeze that has been underway for years. Wages are lower in real terms than they were in 2008. The TUC’s analysis of OECD figures shows UK real pay will slump by six per cent in the next two years, the worst fall in the G7.
Rishi Sunak’s spring measures did not abolish the wages crisis and we are heading for more eye-watering energy price rises in October. That will inevitably lead to renewed labour movement mobilisation.
So millions of workers are being made to pay by being forced to accept worsened pay levels, alongside attempts to change their working conditions or cut their jobs altogether. That is: extracting more out of working class people for less. And measures such as fire and rehire, or legalising agency work for strike-breaking, are part of the arsenal to enforce that.
As the pressure on living standards works its way through, so wider layers of society have to respond to it. And in the process trade unions are being placed in the centre of the argument. The cost of living crisis has changed the terms of the debate about living standards, and with it the role of the unions – even with our restrictive trade union laws.
I don’t mean this in a flippant way, or to downgrade party politics, but as this dynamic unfolds, a considerable part of the leadership of the opposition is being passed to the labour movement directly. Both because trade unions are directly opposing the everyday reality of the crisis. But also because the crisis drives big labour movement arguments about the British economy, through the trade unions, right into mainstream debate.
Within all this, the spark that lit the fire was the situation on the railways. In the time we have here, I just want to make the point that the RMT, by taking the step to initiate a national dispute involving strikes, massively galvanised the labour movement and wider progressive opinion.
At the same time we are seeing a change in how some sections of the trade union movement talk and think about politics. In particular, there is a shift to place greater emphasis on the argument that unions cannot wait for or rely on political parties and that unions have to do things for and amongst themselves. This was a theme of several speeches from General Secretaries at the Durham Miners Gala this month. Not all of this is driven by the cost of living crisis, though it is sharpened by it.
As one example, the CWU is pressing for a new deal for workers, involving working across unions to agree collective bargaining agendas in sectors of the economy, deepening links between local trade union branches and community organisations at a local level – and a different approach to politics. That is, away from supporting Labour nationally and instead giving support to politicians who support the union, such as strengthening relationships with metro mayors, regional and local politicians.
In general there is a discussion about how the unions can work together both industrially and in a campaigning sense. [This relates to Jo Grady’s comments at the start of this meeting about the need to build power].
All of this has political implications – implications for Labour and for the left.
For Labour. In these extreme economic circumstances, every single person who wants to protect household incomes needs the government’s pay squeeze to be defeated. Millions of people need a pay rise. That requires the trade union movement to succeed. Just as the government is not neutral over the strikes, neither should Labour be. This is why what is a trade union issue is also a wider social one that is able to bind many more people together around it.
Unfortunately, the Labour leadership mishandled the RMT strike by focusing attention internally over a ban on frontbenchers joining picket lines. But Mick Lynch is correct when he argues that Labour should ride the wave of working people’s reaction to the government’s austerity and bring forward the programme that addresses it. His argument at the TUC’s rally last month was right – ‘stand up and fight with us or get out of the way.’
There is widespread support in the party for the unions. Jon Cruddas MP, not on the Campaign Group left, recently argued for example:
”we cannot swerve around this. Labour must support those fighting to defend their living standards when, in effect, they face pay cuts nearing 10% – if it doesn’t, you wonder what the purpose of the party is. We must support unions when they contest this unparalleled attack on workers incomes.”
In terms of the left in the Labour party. The scale of this economic squeeze on peoples’ incomes means it is the responsibility of socialists to help bring this movement through the Labour party.
The left has to show that it is the most effective anti-Tory force.
That means (in no particular order and by no means exhaustive):
-organising solidarity at all levels of the party, from local CLP level, through regions and into conference. Trade union officers and political education officers are tremendously important in this situation.
-building support for the green paper on employment rights launched last year at conference. And pressing Labour to stay focused on the cost of living crisis.
-supporting trade unions when they are being attacked by the Tory party including when leading trade unionists are being denigrated and red-baited.
-it involves the development of an economic agenda that shows concretely how to pay for improved incomes and better services, in a way that is economically coherent.
-it means arguing that support for these workers is necessary for the advance of the Labour party, not counterposed to it.
-it also means supporting the work of unions as they reach out to build alliances themselves, to help break down attempts by the right to play people off against each other. That means serious alliances at all levels of the party based on the principle of real solidarity.
- Simon Fletcher was speaking at the Arise Festival 2022 session on “Labour movement strategy in the crisis,” hosted on June 19th, 2022 – watch the discussion in full here.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left.
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