Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona, Unsplash

200 years of workers rights are being rolled back

It’s Heart Unions week; a week celebrating the rights and progress that our trade unions have helped us win. Check the TUC’s website for how to get involved in your area, resources, and stories from different parts of the movement.

We’ve all been talking for a long time about the way that the post-World War Two welfare state has been shrunk. Everyone should be able to live safely and securely with a decent standard of living, and the shrinking of the welfare state has made that impossible for many people.

But now, as our system’s inability to answer our entrenched crises becomes more and more apparent, the political right have started attacking the gains won by workers and unions in the 19th and early 20th centuries: pensions, labour laws, health and safety regulations. All over the world, from South Korea and the US to here in the UK, 200 years of gains by workers are being rolled back.

The UK enjoys some of the most restrictive labour union laws in the world, with most aspects of the laws being direct attacks on the tactics unions have found to be most effective. Ballots are compulsory; solidarity, fare, and wildcat strikes are banned; and pickets restricted. Since 1971, the activities of unions have instead been funnelled into legal battles in tribunals, giving a big advantage to employers. The consequences have been clear: the percentage of workers in a union halved and collective agreements fell by two thirds. Poverty wages and insecure work soared, while the ability of workers to organise politically collapsed. 

Labour and Conservative governments alike have been happy with this outcome, but a new series of attacks on trade unions began in 2015. This time, however, attacks focused on the ability of unions to exist at all. The 2016 Trade Union Act brought in unique turnout thresholds, made it more difficult for unions to run strike ballots, and demanded that unions pay levies for the privilege of being regulated in this way. When unions began passing these arbitrary new requirements, another law was passed, allowing ministers to force workers in swathes of the economy to keep working and allowing workers to be sacked and unions to be sued for cost if strikes continued. 

This goes well beyond the 1979-2015 British model of weak unions acting within tribunals and public services; it’s an attempt to make organising for better working conditions impossible in a way the government hasn’t tried since the 1927 Trade Unions Act. 

Alongside existential attacks on trade unions have come new attempts to remove their gains. You may have seen headlines recently about experts agreeing the “need” to soon raise the state pension age to 71 – an age where only half of adults are physically able to work. Other European countries have followed, raising the retirement age to 68 in Ireland and 67 in Germany, while the Republican “Plan to Save America” includes raising the pension age to 70. In France, there have been furious protests against plans to raise the retirement age that came alongside an €8 billion tax cut for corporations – and there’s the rub. There is no metric by which these countries are not vastly richer than they were when pension ages were lower; instead, they’re choosing to give larger and larger shares of that wealth to the richest.

On the other end of the scale, child labour is back! Over a dozen states in the US have loosened restrictions on child labour after lobbying from big business, while Democrats and Republicans co-operated in the federal US House to introduce a bill that would allow 16-year olds to work in the logging industry. Injuries and deaths have followed. Eliminating child labour was one of the causes that helped birth the modern trade union movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. Now, the hard-won principle that children shouldn’t work in dangerous environments is under attack for the first time since the 1930s. Efforts to roll this back aren’t limited to America: UNICEF warns that child labour is on the rise across the world, and here in the UK, the decision in the last budget to start winding down the UK’s modern slavery work despite a rapid rise in cases (of which nearly half involve children) won’t help. Our own work with young people found evidence of systemic exploitation and up to £1.65bn of wage theft for 16-24 year olds.

And what about the length of the day you work in between childhood and retirement? The 8- hour day was one trade union movement’s biggest fights, and one that was never quite won in the UK. Our first regulation on the length of the working week came in 1998, matching the EU limit of 48 hours a week. Government ministers have repeatedly floated scrapping this cap, most recently coming alongside the attacks on union rights in May 2023. South Korea’s trade union movement only recently fought off an attempt to increase the working week to an astonishing 69 hours a week; not to be outdone, Indian billionaire Narayana Murthy called for a 70-hour working week to increase productivity. Whether you call it hustle culture or exploitation, billionaire bosses have been keen to encourage longer working hours. Our ability to spend time outside work has been increasingly undermined, with the gig economy, “flexible” or zero-hours contracts, and casualisation of previously secure work all amounting to putting workers at employers’ beck and call. 

The good news is that trade unions are fighting back. After decades of decline, trade union membership in the UK did make a small recovery from 2017, although Covid-19’s impact interrupted this trend. The UK’s tech sector, after years of watching a new wave of American unionisation enviously, has finally started to unionise thanks to the efforts of new, activist unions like IWGB, who have also made huge strides organising gig workers. We’ve had summers of strikes for the first time in decades, producing real wins for all of us: keeping ticket offices open, fairer pay for outsourced workers, some pay restoration for NHS staff. And this has been popular: agreement that unions are a force for good rose from 30% to 38% by the end of 2023.

Together, we can fight off plans to make us pay for the failings of the richest. Even better, we can win the more equal, better society we deserve. But we need to organise together to do it.

Dario Goodwin, Senior Digital Engagement Officer

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