Preparing the ground for the fightback

It perhaps goes without saying that the election of a majority Conservative government presents a huge challenge to unions, working people and their communities across the nations and regions of the UK.

A huge programme of public spending cuts – including a £12bn assault on welfare and tax credits – will devastate communities from Inverness to Ipswich. A fire-sale of our national assets, including the government’s shareholding in Royal Mail and the public’s stake in RBS, will benefit nobody except the city speculators circling for yet more easy pay-days.

Continued public sector pay caps will result in falling living standards for our nurses, social workers and civil servants, and act as a brake on wages in the private sector and the economic recovery. And on top of all this – and much, much more – it appears the government is determined to drive through wide-ranging and ideologically driven attacks on the rights of working people and their unions.

Increased ballot thresholds, criminal sanctions for so-called picket line offences, the invitation for employers to use agency workers as strike-breakers and plans to limit the lifetime of industrial action ballots are all designed for one purpose and one purpose alone – to try and emasculate the union movement, which the Conservative government clearly sees as a barrier to their ideological plans to shrink the state.

In the face of these challenges, the TUC’s General Council will be asked to agree a new, far-reaching campaign plan. We will continue to make the case for a new and better sort of economy, one that is more balanced and that delivers benefits for working people and their families. But in the face of such a hostile government, we are also clear that we need to have a relentless focus on 5 key priority areas.

First of all, we intend to speak up loud and proud for working people and the unions that represent them, and to resist the government’s efforts to tie unions into legislative knots. We will be working with politicians across the spectrum to defeat the government’s Trade Union Bill – and, if the government is determined to drive the bill through, our aim will be to damage, dilute and delay the new legislation, and ensure the government pays a high political price for this wilful act of political spite. We will reach out to new and unlikely allies to support our case, and we will also mobilise our unions and their members, including through a mass lobby of Parliament in the autumn.

Secondly, we will renew our efforts to expose the impact of the government’s vicious programme of public spending cuts, and its intent to privatise and outsource whole swathes of our public realm. And, that also means standing full-square behind our unions and their members in their efforts to resist further real-terms cuts in their living standards. Thirdly, we will make the case for a twenty-first century people’s EU based on fairness, not a race to the bottom.

We know that the prime minister’s commitment to hold a referendum on Britain’s continued  membership of the EU is a sop to his own back-benchers. And we also know that the government has little appetite for a real social Europe, one that puts the interests of workers and citizens before the interests of big business. So the TUC is already campaigning in Europe with our allies and partners to block the government’s efforts to water-down employment rights and social protections. And, we are sending a strong message to employer groups that if they wish to win a ‘yes’ vote then destroying what makes up a people’s Europe will make it much harder.

Just as the TUC is committed to ensuring that Europe works for working people, so we are committed to ensuring that all the nations and regions of Britain benefit from the economic recovery. A recovery that simply boosts house-prices in London and the South East and which sees the City of London go back to ‘business as usual’ isn’t a sustainable recovery. So that is why, fourthly, the TUC will be working closely with the STUC, Wales TUC, the Irish Congress and TUC regional councils across England to secure the best possible deal for working class people and their communities in every region and nation of Britain.

Some of this will not be easy. The TUC has real concerns about the potential implications of devolving issues such as employment rights, union law, health and safety, equalities legislation and the National Minimum Wage, areas which the STUC believes should be devolved. We worry because the Conservatives and some employers have long argued to break up the national minimum wage because, in low wage parts of Britain, they think they could get away with setting the rate even lower. That could act as a drag on everyone’s pay because, as trade unionists know all too well, ultimately we are only as strong as our weakest link.

But, however, devolution proceeds in Scotland, Wales and the English regions, the TUC will continue to press to ensure that devolution doesn’t presage a ‘race to the bottom’ and postcode pay, terms and conditions, or further fragmentation of collective bargaining. We also want to continue to hold the Westminster government to account – devolution of responsibilities without a fair funding settlement risks letting the Tories off the hook for their ideologically driven programme of cuts.

The very nature of the political environment in which we are operating means that much of our work over the next 2-3 years will be defensive – fending off attacks on the rights of workers and unions; defending communities from spending cuts; and making the case for a social Europe.

But we also want to positively reach out to ensure that unions are relevant for the next generation for workers. That’s why our fifth priority will be launching a major new initiative to engage Britain’s young workers. We know that unions are present in too few private sector workplaces and that while young midwives, teachers and airline pilots see the value of unions, the same cannot be said for young baristas, web designers or hotel workers.

So we want to experiment with new approaches to reaching out to young workers and harnessing public anger against bad bosses, mobilising whole communities to help secure a better deal at work for young people. Helping young people get into work; get on in work; and get on in life – because we know issues such as housing and career progression matter as much to young workers as pay and pensions do to others. That may mean us supplementing our traditional organising approaches with new models of unionism; new ways for people to become active; and new ways of supporting people who don’t work in workplaces with union recognition and a union rep.

Ultimately this fifth priority – reaching out to the next generation of young members and activists – is what matters most. Because we know whoever is in government – in either Westminster or Holyrood –we have a job of work to do to organise the unorganised; to defend our public services and the communities that rely upon them; to articulate our belief that work – and indeed life in Britain – can be better, more rewarding and more fulfilling. A strong, vibrant growing union movement is – and always has been – an essential ingredient of that better society.

Paul Nowak is an Assistant General Secretary at the Trades Union Congress (TUC)