There has recently been much debate as to whether or not Labour is backtracking on its commitment to its New Deal for Working People. These questions have been mainly prompted by events at the NPF, a leak to the Financial Times (understood to have been an unauthorised briefing by a low-ranking staffer trying to be impressive), and Starmer’s well practised capacity to u-turn. Nearly all of this debate has centred around the accusation that Labour is rowing back on its support for a single category of worker. There are many justifiable reasons to criticise this. The UK’s four categories of employment are often artificial differences that work against most workers by robbing them of rights that are natural and should be unalienable. Though it should be recognised that UK labour and employment law is not exactly in a great place anyway, and that’s before the flawed manner in which workers’ rights are enforced is considered.
The lacuna in many of these criticisms is what, push come to shove, most trade unions would value more, rights for individual workers or rights for collective organisation; it tends to be the latter. A focus solely on the individual rights of workers robs trade unions of agency as active organisers and bargainers by ignoring their potential to organise above the floor of minimum standards, most of which, such as statutory sick pay, are pitiful. This is not to say that individual rights for workers do not benefit trade unions, that would be silly.
Day-one employment rights applying to all workers would mean that unions would be able to offer more immediate benefits to members in precarious employment, and would have more secure foundations on which to organise. The gig economy would become a more hospitable environment, and employers’ capability to put pressure on each other in a race to the bottom, as has happened with Royal Mail, would be limited. However, these are probably not as appealing as a right of access to workplaces, a simplification of the recognition process for trade unions, and sectoral bargaining.
The implementation of these reforms will not be straightforward to implement or tension free. It is still not clear what simpler recognition would like in practice, and sectoral bargaining is contested in that it is not clear if it will only be rolled out in the care sector first, and that’s before the issue of it being a metaphorical pool cue for Unite, UNISON, and GMB to fight over is considered.
In spite of this, sectoral bargaining and easier recognition along with a right of access, would fundamentally transform current industrial relations. For instance, GMB’s recent efforts at Amazon would have much more chance of success. With more access to a given workforce unions can convince workers to join, unearth shop-floor activists (while giving them the necessary support), and then drive up employment standards in a given workplace and sector (e.g. Unite’s top 10 employers strategy) without having to rely on possibly poorly enforced changes to individual rights and expand their membership; for expand the trade union movement must.
Overall trade union membership has fallen for two years in a row, despite an increase in industrial action not seen for decades (much of which can be presented as a qualified success). It is very possible that the figures for the (currently slight) net decline in membership masks the true number of workers leaving trade unions. Industrial action provides unions with a good opportunity to increase membership figures (for instance the BMA now has nearly 200,000 members, before its industrial action it had less than 150,000), though given the recent membership figures it is evidently no panacea. Therefore, the number of workers being recruited to unions in industrial action hotspots are probably compensating for other areas where, due to the current economic climate, they are haemorrhaging members.
Historically, the peak of trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage in 1979 came when, along with a vibrant shop-floor activist culture, there was a friendlier legislative environment for trade unions to organise in on account of Labour’s reforms as part of the Social Contract: i.e. making closed shops easier to implement.
Alongside this, unions were also more influential because they could exert more strength via industrial action, and while it is unlikely that Labour will bring back secondary action and secondary picketing in the first hundred days of the first Labour government in over a decade, repealing the minimum service legislation and the 2016 Trade Union Act will make industrial action easier. Without the arbitrary 50% turnout thresholds, there would have been a national strike by the RCM (who got a 48% turnout), and truly national action (instead of the disaggregated action that took place) from UNISON and the RCN. In short, trade unions would be substantially empowered as collective organisations, even without better rights being legally bestowed on individual workers.
Enough of the relevant decision makers in enough of the Labour affiliated unions are aware of this. Thus, even if the proposal for the single status of worker is definitively dropped, it is unlikely that – beyond some strongly worded statements on social media – the relevant unions will protest too much. What would cause a significant falling-out would be if Labour were to walk back on its commitment to access, recognition, repealing the recent minimum service legislation and the 2016 Trade Union Act, and scrapping the prospect of sectoral bargaining. Currently, most unions, but not all, do not see these pledges as being in immediate danger.
This does not mean that most trade unions are currently relaxed about the New Deal. Labour still needs to win an election and implement it, until this happens there will always be trepidation, particularly as there are some parts of the Labour Party that think the proposed legislation goes too far. Furthermore, there are also questions over the capability of organised labour to seize the opportunities of a more supportive legislative environment.
At the current TUC Congress, Justin Madders, shadow employment minister, will be questioned by general secretaries of Equity, NEU, BFAWU, POA and NUJ as to how loyal to the deal Labour will be (though none of them are affiliated to Labour, which is a missed opportunity to exert greater influence). However, there is also an effort from Labour to prove its commitment to the rest of the New Deal as Angela Rayner will be speaking at Congress on Monday to reiterate Labour’s commitment to enacting the legislation in its first hundred days of government.
What actually happens remains to be seen. Ultimately, Labour could well ditch the single status of worker, but that is a price that most unions will be willing to pay if collective rights remain largely intact.