Monday, November 04, 2013

Trade unions need to toughen up

I'm not sure if getting the headline on the letters page of the Grauniad necessarily signifies an upturn in the class struggle (‎).

However, a good UNISON comrade, George Binette, has managed to shame the paper into headlining his letter about last Thursday's Higher Education strike‎ (which points out that Friday's print edition ignored the strike when it was a significant news story). That letter then leads several others dealing with union issues and the living wage.

As this is Living Wage Week‎, with the uprated living wage set to be announced today, it's a good time to reflect upon how we should respond to the longest period of declining living standards for UK workers in living memory.

The Living Wage is, of course, a worthy cause. Setting a standard below which workers ought not to have to live is good sense. However, there are a couple of reasons for caution.

First, as trade unionists, we ought to aspire to raising wages through collective bargaining - the joint, collective, regulation of the employment relationship. We've not been doing particularly well on that front in recent years.

If an increasing number of low paid workers come to rely for a pay rise not upon their own collective organisation but upon a more or less arbitrary announcement by a well-meaning cross section of the great and the good, or upon sudden generosity from employers because the Government offer them tax breaks, then where is the space, or the incentive, for trade union organisation?

Secondly, as important as it is to raise up the living standards of those at the bottom of the pay pyramid (and it is vitally important - which is why I welcome the flat rate pay claim for local government workers), it is also important to reverse the fall in living standards for workers who are not low paid.

It is a scandal that so many thousands of our fellow workers earn ‎less than the modest sum required to live with a modicum of decency - but it is also a scandal that all local government workers have seen our real earnings fall by one sixth since 2009.

So, yes, we need to campaign for the living wage for all, but we also need to organise for a pay rise for all workers, and to organise all workers into trade unions. This "economic recovery" which cheers the CBI while workers' living standards continue to fall is a direct consequence of the weakening and marginalisation of our trade unions.

As the headline writer on the Guardian letters page puts is so well, trade unions need to toughen up.

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