First 100 Days - Restoring Power to Working People
Prof Nicole Busby
Nicole Busby is Professor of Labour Law at the Strathclyde Law School. Her work focuses on the effect of legal interventions on working lives in the domestic and EU contexts.
In order to fully restore the power of working people, a future progressive government would need to reconstruct the social contract which has been incrementally dismantled by successive governments over the past 40 years. The incoming government would need to set down clear priorities within the first 100 days of taking office which could rebalance power relations between working people and their employers.
The shift in power away from workers in favour of business cannot be solely attributed to the Coalition government, but the position of labour has undoubtedly been weakened by its unbending commitment to austerity.
To reverse the completely avoidable hardship imposed on millions of working people over the past five years, a progressive government would have to start by reframing the political context in which labour relations are currently situated. Much of the rhetoric on which the austerity agenda depends is grounded in a politics of separation which unhelpfully pits employers against workers and workers against each other. Those characterised as ‘hard working taxpayers’ are portrayed, alongside employers, as the good guys, the ‘strivers’. Those who assert their employment rights having lost their jobs or those claiming their entitlements to social security are the baddies, the ‘skivers’. Of course it doesn’t take much to cross the dividing line from good worker to bad – a few short steps taken as a result of events outside of an individual’s control. The demonisation of those who find themselves in dire straits is endemic within a system in which increasing numbers have little or no control over their own working lives and who find their right to reply is rapidly being swept away.
Alongside the ‘skivers’ are those workers who come together to collectively challenge threats to job security and working conditions, the ‘troublemakers’. The first priority of a progressive government would be to acknowledge the collective strength of trade unions as a critical force for good aimed at redressing the long-recognised power imbalance in labour relations. The current restrictions on unions’ activities should be removed as a means of strengthening their members’ ability to take action. Collective bargaining would be accorded the respect and status it deserves as the most important democratic means by which workers’ voices can be heard.
By strengthening unions’ capacity to work with, not against, employers through a process of social partnership, the government could restore workers’ power as a countervailing force to balance the otherwise unending march of capital which benefits only the very rich.
Recognition and facilitation of the power of organised labour by a progressive government is, however, not the only necessary response to the current situation. Globalisation and the slicing up of the labour market mean that the networks that determine labour relations and regulation have both expanded and contracted. Increased competition has been used as a rationale for suppressing wages, yet divided working arrangements alongside an increase in local bargaining and individual negotiation have prevented national and international networks’ from mounting an effective response.
The individualisation and effective privatisation of the employment relationship marks the most prominent and pernicious shift in labour market regulation over the last 40 years.
While enhancing collective rights will help to reverse this trend in some sectors, those sectors where the problems caused and reinforced by isolated working practices are most acute will remain out of reach unless a progressive government takes decisive action.
Care workers and others on zero-hours contracts with little job security often provide crucial services to the most vulnerable members of our society. As its second priority, a progressive government should extend individual employment rights by providing and protecting a living – not a minimum – wage for all workers and by banning the use of restrictive contracts which bind workers to employers without guaranteed income or employment protection. The conditions by which a growing class of working poor has emerged in one of the world’s richest economies must be addressed by a full and urgent investigation into the use of ‘in-work’ benefits which subject workers and their families to subsistence incomes whilst subsidising the profits of rich multinational companies.
The deficit, seen as the priority by all of the main Westminster parties in the lead up to the election, has been used to justify the removal of access to justice for many workers. The Coalition government increased the threshold for unfair dismissal claims from one year to two, and introduced fees of up to £1200 for those seeking to assert their rights at an Employment Tribunal. These actions have disempowered workers and placed even more power in the hands of employers. Under the new scheme, recourse to the law for what are often blatant abuses of employers’ power is determined by an individual’s ability to pay. Bad employment practices simply go unpunished. The third priority of a progressive government would be to resurrect workers’ access to justice by removing the unfair dismissal threshold completely, abolishing fees for employment tribunal claims and providing publicly-funded legal advice and representation for those – on both sides of an employment dispute – who are unable to pay for it.
There are other important actions that a progressive government would take beyond its first 100 days to complete the restoration of power to working people. This would include full implementation and enforcement of the Equality Act and increased state-provision of good quality, affordable childcare alongside enhanced rights for working carers based on need rather than on outdated and gendered notions of ‘the family’ and associated social arrangements. However, in order to put a suitable framework in place within which its prioritised actions will engender real and sustainable change, the government’s fourth priority should be a renewed commitment to human rights. It is only through recognition of our international obligations and realisation of the important values enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights that fundamental social and economic rights will be upheld and extended in the longer term – improving the lives of all working people in this country and beyond.