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We March and Strike When Policy Suggestions Aren’t Enough

This Saturday thousands of people will take to the streets of London to demand a new deal for working people. And not a moment too soon. Ten years on from the financial crisis, average real weekly wages remain lower than their pre-crisis peak. Agency work has risen by 30 per cent since 2011, almost 900,000 people are employed on zero-hour contracts and millions of workers live in poverty.

Obviously, the labour market is a far cry from a one-size fits all box of doom and gloom. Black and Asian groups are more likely than white groups to be in insecure forms of employment, they’re more likely to be in junior roles and, ultimately, more likely to be paid less. Pay gaps are not just limited to ethnicity but are found across gender, class and disability. Importantly, these inequalities intersect, compounding disadvantage and structurally denying opportunities to members of these groups.

It is increasingly clear then that the current narrative of record employment woefully glosses over the lived reality of the UK economy. Back in 2003, people who thought young adults would go on to have better living standards than their parents outnumbered those who didn’t by four-to-one. Today, we are a nation of Eeyores. Pessimists outnumber optimists by two-to-one.

Granted, the current state of affairs does look quite bleak. Our own research at CLASS has found that almost half of all workers deem the economy a threat to the future employment. Yet, fatalism deters action. Bad policy is at the heart of today’s workers’ woes and so good policy can alleviate them. The Trade Unions Congress have called for the national minimum wage to be raised as quickly as possible to £10 an hour, reducing pressure on the millions of workers currently earning under this rate.

While this raise may concern for small businesses with less revenue, government can provide support to enable this transition. At a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation event, the finance director of Lush detailed how the company was able to become a certified living wage employer during very testing times after the financial crash.

There are plenty of other options. Cancelling 1 per cent of planned corporation tax cuts would raise £2.9 billion by 2022, enabling investment in a ‘Better Jobs Deal’ that tackles worker insecurity, low productivity and lack of opportunity for career progression. Yet, crucially, the recurring theme underlying the rise of precarious work, insecurity and employer-sided flexibility is a transfer of risk from employers onto employees. What is needed, therefore, is a re-instatement of power on behalf of workers.

Allowing trade unions access to workplaces through repealing the Trade Union Act 2016 would be a good place to start. At an individual level, unionised workers are better paid and have more job security. There are numerous examples of unions winning invaluable rights for workers. Just ask workers at the BBC, agency staff at Bentley, local government employees, gig economy workers at The Doctors Laboratory, cleaners at the Daily Mail. Moreover, at a collective level, stronger trade unions can offset spiralling levels of inequality. IMF research suggests that levels of inequality in the UK are already high enough to be damaging economic growth.

So why march? There is already a seeming avalanche of policies ready to be implemented that would improve the living standards of millions of workers in the UK. Why waste a perfectly good Saturday afternoon to traipse around London? Because strikes and marches highlight injustices, they incentivise reform and shift norm perceptions.

Without collective action, there is an implicit acceptance of the status quo. ‘Maybe there is nothing wrong with the world of work in the UK after all.’ We may internalise critique, believe change to be impossible and lock ourselves in to a system that rewards wealth, and not work. Seeing widespread resistance helps foster a belief that the current set-up is not fit for purpose.

In this context, thousands of people march through the streets of London in the hope for a new deal for workers. As precarious work and insecurity envelopes ever greater numbers of the working population, the struggle for better working conditions is no longer merely confined to those at the lower end of the income distribution. It is only through solidarity that the ambition for a more just system goes from possible to plausible.