A Workers’ Economy from Canteens to Coffins 

Clare Peden reports on one union’s campaign for an economy in the hands of workers not profiteers.

In September last year, hundreds of trade unionists and campaigners gathered to stage a protest at the Glasgow headquarters of Scottish Power, one of the UK’s energy giants. Spearheaded by Unite’s ‘Unite for a Workers’ Economy’ campaign, it marked the beginning of a new campaign building working-class power in ‘heartland’ communities, starting with Glasgow, Hull, Grimsby, Morecambe, Leigh, Workington, Barrow and Crawley.

Our economy is not working for workers and their families. In Glasgow, tens of thousands suffer from food poverty and cannot pay their bills. A Unite survey conducted by Survation revealed that 152,000 Glaswegians, or 24%, are living in food poverty. The survey across the seven Glaswegian ‘battleground’ Westminster constituencies also found that more than 82,000 people, or 13%, simply cannot afford their household bills this year, and that they are piling up credit debts by using plastic to pay now for what will become crippling debt later. Meanwhile, back at Scottish Power, in the first six months of 2022, profits zoomed to £925 million, in touching reach of a billion pounds. And the chief executive’‎s pay was £1.35 million, up £200,000 in one year. Food and fuel fears, rampant inflation, poverty wages and poor pensions plague our towns and cities, and it’‎s only getting worse. The workers who kept our nation running throughout the pandemic now choose whether to heat or eat. It comes as no surprise that Unite members are taking industrial action.

While we are confronted daily by these nightmares, the gas and electricity giants have plundered our energy networks. In 2021, energy sector companies made more than £15 billion in profits. All the while, Ofgem has continued to give free reign to big distributors like UK Power Networks who have made £2.4 billion in profit since 2019. Unite’s research shows that at least 30% of Ofgem’‎s price cap increase is made up of profit guarantees for big energy while millions fear the energy bill arriving. And corporate greed is not industry specific. It is a systemic issue impacting all sectors of the UK economy. The profit margins for the UK’‎s biggest listed companies are 89% higher than they were before the pandemic. In that same timeframe, wages rose only 2.61%, and fell by 5.7% after accounting for inflation.  In the midst of the cost of living catastrophe, Rishi Sunak appeared, saying that he was going to save the British economy and the British people along with it. Then he appointed a desperate crew of slashers and cutters. When Hunt and Sunak talk about ‘difficult choices’, those are code words for a second wave of crippling austerity. The Cabinet’s aim is to make workers pay for a crisis that was not of their making.

So what is to be done? Forcing Sunak upon the British people is a democratic disgrace. Of course there should be a general election. Of course we want a Labour Government in Westminster. But it cannot be a Labour government that is pledged to austerity like the way that Labour was last time when workers paid for the greed of the City in the financial crash. And workers must demand that the devolved governments face up to the same huge problems. The days of ‘It’s all Westminster’s fault’ have to end. We want a Labour Government that faces up to the fact that it needs to move from talking about energy tax windfalls to confronting the reality that taking the whole energy sector into public ownership is a necessity, if the looting going on now is ever to be stopped. However the power sharing agenda develops, an SNP government likewise must confront the same issues.

We know that when workers join together and organise they can win. Over the past year, Unite has won over £300 million in extra pay for our members in more than 600 pay disputes, winning 8 out of 10 disputes. 75,000 workers took action to fight for a better deal. That historic advance was built on the central understanding that we had to get back to what it says on the trade union tin – fighting for jobs, pay and conditions. That struggle goes on. But those workers referred to in the opening paragraph of this commentary, linking the union with local communities to protest Scottish Power’s profiteering, represent the early stirrings that will bring Unite’s campaign for better wages, justice, and a fair deal, from the workplace to our communities. 

There has never been a more important time to fight for an economy that delivers a fair deal for workers and their families – a workers’ economy. We are tired of the politics of disappointment. Our aims to link the industrial struggle with the struggle of local communities are bold. Our new campaign ‘Feed the Weans’ is demanding the eradication of school meal debt and school meals for all primary school children. From supporting striking Co-op coffin makers in Govan to hosting a ‘solidarity not charity’ fundraising gig and collecting food for those in need, we are shaping this campaign from the ground up, to grow it from a trickle into a flood that forces change, and a better deal for all.

Clare Peden works for Unite the Union on the Campaign ‘Unite for a Workers’ Economy’