The Socialist 9 October 2019 |
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Corbyn promises 'power in the hands of workers' - how can Labour do it?
Glenn Kelly, Socialist Party industrial organiser
While the government and the employers are busy gloating at the 'record numbers' of workers in employment, the figures hide a harsh reality for millions. The truth is that many of the new jobs are low-paid, precarious jobs, leaving workers worried where the next hour's work is coming from.
A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics showed that workers are more worried about losing their jobs today than at any time in the last five years. New research by the Trade Union Congress (TUC), representing all Britain's unions, shows insecure work is now endemic in the UK economy. "Insecure work" now accounts for 10% of all jobs in every nation and region of the UK.
The state's own minimum wage advisory body, the Low Pay Commission, itself produced a report on "one-sided flexibility." This showed that 40% of UK workers said their hours can vary from week to week, and 17% are given no more than a day's notice when shifts are cancelled.
It's far from just being jobs in the so-called gig economy. The TUC survey showed that 20% of the insecure jobs were in roles such as kitchen assistants and security, 17% were in caring and leisure - and even 19% were in skilled trades.
Not surprising, then, that union delegates cheered Jeremy Corbyn at this year's recent TUC conference when he said Labour would "put power in the hands of workers" and not the "born-to-rule establishment." He announced that under a Labour government there would be a ministry of employment rights and a workers' protection agency.
No sooner had he spoken than the Tory press and the bosses' union, the Confederation of British Industry, were foaming at the mouth. They warned employers would be trampled on by 'bully boy' unions, and it was back to the 'bad old days' of the 1970s.
Corbyn and John McDonnell's 20-point charter for workers' rights in 2017 (see 'Jeremy Corbyn's workers' charter' at socialistparty.org.uk) was another step in the right direction. Labour has also pledged to raise the minimum wage to £10 next year - including for 16-year-olds, abolishing the youth exemption.
All this would be a welcome relief from the brutal reality of the workplace after a decade of the Tories, and previous New Labour governments.
However, it poses a question. Are a ministry of employment, improved legal rights, workers on boards of directors, and workers' shares in private companies really enough to deliver us from the evils of the "born-to-rule" brigade?
After all, the minimum wage has been a legal right since 1999. But this didn't stop employers illegally paying under the minimum wage to 440,000 workers in April this year alone. While firms remain under capitalist control, only democratic, combative trade unions can force employers to comply with minimum rates - and go beyond them to real living wages.
Corbyn's workers' charter would go a long way to helping achieve this, including by scrapping anti-union laws. But workers also need fighting rank-and-file union leaderships, which the Socialist Party campaigns for.
And Corbyn's pledge to introduce sectoral collective bargaining will be much welcomed too. Currently, just 15% of the private sector and 59% of the public sector have workers' pay and conditions negotiated by trade unions. Labour promises councils of worker and employer representatives to negotiate agreements, with minimum terms, conditions and standards for the whole of a particular sector.
However, none of this is a guarantee of improving workers' lot, let alone putting workers in control.
There are collective bargaining rights in the car industry, for instance. But it didn't stop the likes of Ford after the 2007-08 crash demanding the unions and workers agree to pay cuts, 'short-term working' and even lay-offs, or else they would shut the plants and move elsewhere.
In local government nearly two million workers are covered by collective agreements. But this has not stopped the employers driving down the living standards of council workers to the point where wages have fallen by 20%. It hasn't stopped nearly a million jobs being cut. Nor has it stopped large-scale privatisation of services.
I recall well when I was a Unison union rep at Bromley Council how happy the chief executive was to 'talk' to the unions about how we could 'work together' to 'manage' the budget and 'save' £13 million. I had to remind him it was like asking turkeys how they would like to be dispatched at Christmas!
The union leaders must take the responsibility for failing to lead a fight against all these attacks. But in the case of local government, a Labour administration would also need to restore the £7 billion stolen from councils since 2010, outlaw privatisation of public services, and bring all privatised services back in-house.
Corbyn and McDonnell have made good statements pointing in this direction. They must get all this in the manifesto and mobilise workers and unions to fight for it, or we could end up back in the same place we are now.
Having a worker on the board of directors, or up to 10% of company shares with a maximum of £500 in dividends, wouldn't put control of industry in the hands of those that work in it. Firms would still be owned by the capitalists, and controlled by a majority pro-capitalist board.
In Germany and Sweden such schemes already exist. In fact, the employers use them to tie workers and unions closer to the 'company interests' - maximising profits - and so partially neutralise them. This is also the case in companies like John Lewis.
Truly putting "power in the hands of workers" means taking companies off the capitalists into public ownership, and removing all the old executives and bureaucrats to be replaced wholesale by elected representatives of the workforce, service users, and a socialist government. It also requires genuinely independent trade unions.
Corbyn and McDonnell's solutions to tackle the "born-to-rule establishment" give the impression that the problems with capitalism are not systemic, but a result of a few rogue bosses gone wrong, who with a bit of regulation and balance can be tamed to act in the interest of workers and society as a whole.
This was reinforced when the Sunday Times asked McDonnell this July if he wanted to end capitalism. He answered: "It's evolving anyway, it's a system I think will evolve out of existence."
This is dangerously naïve. The boss class controls enormous financial resources and unaccountable power in the state. They will not simply allow their profits and privilege to be gradually taken from them.
It is good that Labour has committed to expanding public ownership in rail and utilities. But to leave it there - McDonnell told the Sunday Times that "this is the limit of our ambition when it comes to nationalisation" - is wrong.
Labour should be talking about bringing the commanding heights of the economy into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management. Then the economy could be democratically planned and run to meet the needs of all people, rather than simply what will generate the most profit for a few.