Raffy Marshall is a history student.
Recovery or not, it’s been a difficult decade for the worst paid. Real wages still haven’t returned to 2008 levels, leaving the average person worse off than they were seven years ago. Contracts have been torn up and rewritten to offer people less stability and fewer rights. Unreliable zero-hours contracts threaten family life and employee health. Far too many people still think Britain’s best days are long past.
But we Conservatives couldn’t care less about that, right? After all, our economic policy is basically ill- concealed financial sadism. We have closed wallets and cold hearts. Luckily, our education policy has left voters so deliciously confused that Lynton Crosby somehow managed to trick eleven million of them into supporting us. This stuff must be true; you can get it on a t-shirt.
But it’s no good us periodically denouncing such slurs as unfair if people continue to find them plausible. It’s our job to make them sound as ridiculous to everyone else as they do to us. We’re moving forward – but parts of the Trade Union Bill threaten to set us back.
We need to rule as the One Nation party that millions of Britons have long been waiting for rather than as the interest group our opponents need us to be. The Conservative Party that Britain deserves would not allow the Trade Union Bill to pass in its current form.
Some of the Bill’s provisions are very useful, but one seems to have forgotten most trade union members aren’t tube drivers. Permitting employers to draft in agency workers during strikes will leave the low-paid and low-skilled without effective union representation: for the easily replaceable, striking will become an exercise in financial self-harm with a minimal effect on employers’ bottom lines.
You shouldn’t have to be a budding Corbynista to find that tragic. Most trade union influence ultimately derives from members’ potential to strike: without it, negotiations on conditions or wages would become a meaningless charade. It would be perverse if a Government so committed to giving people dignity through work endangered the dignity of those in work. The people already being screwed over by a changing economy don’t deserve attacks on their collective organisations or the implication that low paid strikers are hostile to our values.
One example. National Gallery Attendant is a fairly grandiose job title, but the job itself is less glamorous. Until last month some attendants were paid £7 an hour. Nonetheless, they’re not natural Corbynistas. For one thing, those handsomely priced anti-capitalist t-shirts are beyond the reach of anyone so very underpaid. But for many long-term staff, their work protecting the National Gallery was a central to their identity and self-respect. They strongly identified with the collection – proud to be part of a great British institution.
But a new contract drawn up during outsourcing described committed attendants as standard issue security guards, who the contractor could cart off to patrol a supermarket or a casino on a whim. Expressions of understandable outrage elicited no reaction. That’s powerlessness for you: even an institution you’ve given the best part of your working life doesn’t particularly care.
In some cases, the state has to make difficult decisions, but this simply wasn’t one of them. Terrified of being forced out next year, a third of the staff walked out for two months over the summer. It must have been a difficult couple of months for strikers left without an income, but eventually success was forthcoming. Attendants will be paid the London Living Wage, and their unique status appears to have been recognized.
Not all strikers have so compelling a case to be answered – but, frankly, that’s not the point. The point is that employees need a voice so their case can be made at all: without effective unions, Britain’s lowest paid people risk becoming seen but not heard. They deserve better from the party of working people.
Perversely, the legislation won’t hamper the militant vested interests at whom it is apparently aimed. Disruptive unions are heavily concentrated in monopoly sectors. There aren’t, and never could be, agencies with several thousand extra tube drivers or a hundred thousand spare teachers on the books. We risk building a union movement only available to the comparatively privileged. Militant middle-class leftists will continue to fleece the taxpayer, while loudly bewailing their predicament to anyone who’ll listen – but the many real victims of social injustice will be silenced.
Low wages and poor conditions are the enemy, not unions. If we forget that, we’ll break our promise to become the real party of working people and union members will lose their chance of a decent workplace and a decent wage.