In Monty Python’s Life of Brian there’s a famous scene centred on whether or not the Romans had contributed anything to the lives of Judean people. In it, John Cleese asks: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” It’s an exchange premised on the simple truth that we all take too much for granted.
In 2016 the Trades Union Congress released their own version of this sketch – this time set in call centre – asking: “Apart from equal pay, equal opportunities, maternity pay, weekends off, the minimum wage, the living wage, higher pay, more holidays, more flexible working hours, greater job security, improved health and safety, education and training, better sickness and pension benefits, protection from bullying, harassment and work place discrimination, defending public services and legal help. What have the unions ever done for us?”
The message is clear. Too many people forget the advancements that were won by Trade Unions, and too many people think that these victories are irreversible and permanent. They couldn’t be more wrong.
In July, the Resolution Foundation reported that millions of people are no better off today than they were in 2003, with many workers having experienced a drop in wages and, as a result, are falling into poverty. Whilst in his excellent book Hired, James Bloodworth showed that in today’s Britain “an increasing proportion of work is poorly paid, precarious and without regular hours.” The fight to protect working people remains a vital one.
As the MP for Barnsley Central, the Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, and a proud member of UNISON, I am not just concerned about how bad working conditions are today, I am also concerned about the risks posed to them by life outside the EU. Whatever hopes or fears exist about what Brexit may bring, we cannot ignore the fact that it also presents a risk to many of the workers’ rights that we now take for granted.
The Prime Minister may have promised that the Government’s Great Repeal Bill will convert these rights into UK law and that they will all be guaranteed while she remains leader of the Conservative Party. But the question remains: What happens if a hard-right Thatcherite takes over from her? With no EU and no European Court for Justice, what is to stop the next Conservative leader from stripping away the hard-won rights of working people?
In last year’s TUC report on the subject, Frances O’ Grady makes clear thata low tax, low regulation Brexit both “risks expanding the share of [the UK] economy which is composed of insecure, poorly rewarded, low skill, low productivity jobs” and risks further polarising the labour market into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Yet with Trade Union membership less than half of what it was when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, fewer workers are protected, more workplaces are left with little or no representation, and the overall influence of Trade Unions has declined. All of which means that workers today are more vulnerable than they have been for a generation.
If we are to fix the problems that working people face and mitigate the threats that future post-Brexit Tory leaders may bring, we must do everything we can to promote the positive influence of Trade Unions in 21st Century Britain. The days when teenagers joined a union the morning they started work may have gone, but we can still do more to encourage union membership and ensure working people’s voices are heard.
For the next Labour government this should mean: worker representation on boards; the compulsory recognition of Trade Unions by firms with 10 or more employees; and piloting auto-enrolment (where every new employee is given automatic union membership until he or she decides to opt out of it). And whilst we are out of power nationally, part of the response to these problems and threats can come from devolution, mutualism and greater worker representation – three legs of the same stool; giving working people a seat at the tables where decisions are made.
When I stood to be Mayor of the Sheffield City Region, as well as promoting mutualism and devolution, I committed to improving union representation in the key institutions that direct and guide South Yorkshire’s economy. That is why today, in the first initiative of its kind, the Regional Secretary of the TUC became a member of the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP).
I worked to deliver on this promise because I believe that it’s only through increasing the influence of our Trade Unions that they will be in a position to shape our economy, protect our labour force, and fight not just the battles of today, but those we may face tomorrow.