Everyone’s against zero hours contracts now! Our political prophets from Labour, Tory, Libe Dems and the Greens have all been lining up to say how terrible they are. And the SWP & the SP , along with Unite the Resistance & Youth Fight for Jobs have taken action, even together sometimes!
But why the fuss now? Hasn’t this been going on for years? And who is really serious about organising all workers?
Employers, both public and private sector, have increased their use of agency staff, bank staff, staff on temporary contracts or zero hours contracts massively over the last two decades. One employer said “Temporary agency workers are the backbone of UK Plc offering a rapid solution to market fluctuations“. Between 1992 and 2001 employment agencies tripled their share of employment. Perhaps the politicians running the country during this period failed to notice……..
So what about our politicians now?
I can’t be bothered to dig out quotes from Tory & LieDem politicians. So what about those of us fortunate enough to be actually working for a labour or Green council? Surely they’d make sure that their employees were treated better than slaves?
But of course labour councils employ thousands on such contracts. Not much of a surprise perhaps. So what about the Greens?
With only one council under their (minority) control, Brighton Greens have a lot to live up to – especially after the farcical situation of the Green council trying to cut the pay of low paid recycling workers, only backing down after a week long strike. And despite their statements calling for zero hours contracts to be banned, they too are employing up to 1,000 staff on casual contracts. It was left to the council’s GMB branch secretary to remind the council that “These are the lowest paid of the workforce who are on minimum wage and no employment protection. They should seriously look at this.” Whether the Green group will split over this issue as they did during their attempt to cut pay is as yet not known.
So, if we can’t trust the politician’s, how about the revolutionaries?
Socialist Worker gives us a few good examples of casual staff fighting as part of trade union struggles. It also claims “There isn’t an objective reason why workers on more casual contracts or who have worse conditions won’t fight. But there are subjective ones. Union leaders’ failure to lead can make workers feel less confident to take action.” But is this really the case? As Gareth Edwards argues , the reasons for the difficulties in unionising casual staff are complex. He states “It needs to be said that not a single person declined to join the union on the grounds that the union bureaucracy was holding back the struggle.”
Some people may suspect that the prophets of left groups are merely jumping on the latest media issue to publicise themselves. Some people are understandably cynical after YFJ and RtW got themselves into the media despite other benefit campaigns being far more consistent in opposing workfare.
The left gives the impression that those not in, or not able to join a trade union, are not so important to their work. Most workers are not entitled to attend their local Trades Councils as they’re not in a union. With severe limitations on resources, the focus has understandably been the public sector unions. But what do we say to the non-unionised majority who are in the private sector, never mind those right at “the bottom”. The notion of the “precariat” has mainly been debated outside of the left’s journals. It is groups like Solfed who have consistently raised issues like precarious workers, zero hours contracts and organising resistance amongst these workers, for many years.
So what should we be doing?
I’m afraid I don’t have any simple answers.
I do think we need to be careful not to dismiss the chances of resistance in the most unlikely places.( Who would have thought that McDonalds workers in the US could be so inspiring. ) I do think we need serious discussion and debate on the modern working class, which does seem to be happining. And of course I think that the response to issues like zero hours contracts needs to see the Left uniting with those who have campaigned for years over such issues, with a bit of humility and willingness to learn. Otherwise it can make itself look foolish, as with the pop-up union at Sussex University.
The only thing I know for sure is that any party calling itself a party of the left, a party of the working class, has got to make itself welcoming to all workers, not just those in trade unions. It has got to have something to say to all workers. Its meetings need to be a place where all workplace issues are regularly discussed, not just those involving strikes in public sector unions. And all those attracted to the left need to feel that they have somewhere to go to discuss any workplace issue, from which union to join, how to use the internet to recruit to a union discreetly, whether to take a branch secretary’s position, or what to do about a bullying manager in Witherspoons.
The left should have a feel for all sizeable workplaces are like in their local areas, whether unionised or not, and be able to put people who work in them in touch with each other. Anybody the left attracts to itself should be encouraged and helped to organise where they work, however difficult.
There is a crying need in this country for trade unions to be rebuilt from the bottom up, outside of the public sector in particular. The degree to which socialists take part in and learn from that rebuilding will be a factor in deciding whether they are fit to lead bigger struggles in the future. If we still believe that it is the working class acting for itself as a class that is essential to bringing about a socialist society, getting this right must be a priority.