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This special TUC comes at a historic moment for the labour movement

Middlesbrough MP ANDY McDONALD on why unions must press Labour for a comprehensive new deal for workers

TODAY’S special Congress called by the TUC could not be more timely, coming at a critical point in the struggle over the right to strike. 

The Minimum Service Levels legislation that the Tories have forced through Parliament in recent months is an affront to a free and democratic society in which the liberty of working people to withdraw their labour is respected. It therefore demands the strongest possible response from the labour and trade union movement.

So, it is vital that trade unions take the opportunity presented by what TUC general secretary Paul Nowak has described as a “once in a generation gathering” to send a message to this contemptible Conservative government that workers will not lie down as their rights are ripped apart. 

At this moment it is also crucial that the movement’s expectations of a future Labour administration are clearly set out — not simply to see the restoration of those rights and protections taken away by the Tories, but the delivery of an altogether positive and comprehensive new deal for working people.

Even before the passing of the anti-strike laws intended to limit the rights of rail, ambulance, and border security staff and potentially many more to take industrial action, British workers already faced some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the developed world. 

After 13 years of punishing Tory austerity, along with the ever-escalating cost-of-living crisis, it is no wonder that so many thousands of public-sector employees are taking strike action to fight for better pay and conditions. It is sickening to see the hypocrisy of government ministers attempting to demonise the very same key workers they praised only a couple of years ago for putting their lives on the line to keep our country going throughout the Covid lockdowns.

Indeed, it speaks to the gravity of the position working people have been placed in that across the past two years so many have managed to organise effectively to overcome obstacles designed to prevent them from striking for the pay and conditions they deserve. 

Take, for example, the barrier of still having to stick with paper balloting, which has kept trade unions from utilising 21st-century electronic voting technology that the Conservative Party itself deems secure enough for its own internal ballots.

Yet, seeing the successes of trade unions in winning deals for their members — such as the unconditional pay offer secured by the RMT from the Department for Transport and private rail operators last week after many months of sustained action — has evidently agitated those at the top of the Tory Party. It is this determination and resolve of workers that the ministers are trying to break by bringing forward such draconian legislation.

Thankfully, it appears we are approaching the dying days of Rishi Sunak’s government, as voters are turning away from the politics of division and hate, in search of an offer that actually addresses their material needs. 

While the Conservatives attempt to outcompete one another with their attacks on foreign nationals — among other things, the Home Secretary’s plans to raise the minimum salary threshold to a level that will only drive out the brilliantly skilled individuals essential for the UK economy and our communities to thrive — Labour should instead put forward a programme that prioritises working people across the country, no matter their nationality.

During my time as Labour’s shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections, I had the privilege of collaborating with the party’s affiliated trade unions to develop an employment rights green paper, A New Deal for Working People. 

In the document we set out a whole host of policies to redress the lot of workers: bringing in a single status of “worker” to prevent exploitation in the gig economy and end bogus self-employment; extending full day-one rights; and strengthening those individual and collective rights on issues ranging from sick pay to maternity leave.

Most significantly, we set out plans to reinvigorate sectoral collective bargaining — a process by which trade unions and employer representatives are brought together to negotiate pay, terms and conditions for workers across a sector of the economy. 

This would build on statutory “fair pay agreements” that would form a baseline “floor” for workers, and prevent exploitative employers gaining a competitive advantage over others who engage their workforce on good terms and conditions. 

Given the dire state of the care sector, Labour has identified it as an initial sphere of the economy in which to launch the policy, as this would undoubtedly bring about deep and lasting change in favour of working people and some of the most vulnerable in society.

Now, as we approach a general election, it will be essential that the party recommits both to repealing the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation — including the latest anti-strike measures — and implementing the green paper in full, through the Employment Rights Bill it has promised to bring forward within 100 days of entering government. As a matter of democratic accountability and integrity, it is pivotal that these guarantees are upheld by the Labour leadership.

So, when trade union leaders meet today at the special Congress to decide on how best to fight back against the Tories’ attacks on fundamental workplace rights and protections, they must also begin to look beyond this parliament, towards a future in which the conditions could well be ripe for workers to get on the front foot and achieve a positive new deal for themselves and the people of the UK at large. 

With determined and resolute leadership, the labour and trade movement can and will rise to this historic moment to win a better world.

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