When we look back, 2016 will be remembered as the year the establishment was shaken to its core. And yet the political turmoil has not benefitted working people – and few feel they have taken back much control over their working lives. Indeed, in some ways we have gone backwards – not least in the disgraceful return to the public sphere of race-baiting and prejudice.
So as we look to 2017, it’s clear that we need a new bargain between those at the top – enjoying soaring boardroom pay and insulated from economic change – and ordinary working people. Britain succeeds when working people succeed. And strong unions are the only way to make sure working people get their share in Britain’s success.
During the industrial revolution, workers came up with an innovation that shaped our society and paved the way for mass democracy. They realised that together, acting as one, workers could change how they were treated at work.
Employers needed labour — to run the factory, the mill or the shop. But if workers withdrew their labour, everything stopped – and that cost the employer money. The threat to withdraw labour evened up the power imbalance. It brought the bosses to the table and meant they had to negotiate with their workers.
And that negotiation, backed up by collective power formalised into trade unions, won working people better pay, cuts in working time, paid holidays, safer workplaces.
It was a revelation: working people acting together in a union had power that meant they didn’t have to put up with exploitation.
This is where the union movement came from. And in the union campaigns of 2016, you can see the same spirit – unions in the thick of the fight against the UK’s worst bosses, taking on Uber, Sports Direct, Asos, Amazon, JD Sports, cinema chains, BHS and hundreds of other employers who aren’t household names but still exploit their workers.
The union movement exists for the same reason it always did: to win great jobs for everyone. Some will always oppose that, and seek to hem us in with laws or challenge our right to stand up for our members. But what I want from 2017 is no more and no less than more working people in decent jobs, fairly paid.
Before anything else: it’s critical that government and employers get wages rising. Pay still hasn’t recovered since the financial crash nearly a decade ago – and with inflation on the up, a pay squeeze is coming in 2017. Our dedicated public servants are seeing real-terms pay cuts. In short, Britain still needs a pay rise.
And three things need to happen to make sure every job is a decent job.
First: I hope that 2017 is the year when more working people – especially younger workers and our most exploited workers – get the protection of banding together into a union.
One in ten of the UK workforce is now in precarious work. That’s 3.2 million workers in casual or agency work, on a zero-hours contract or in low-paid self-employment.
Just like last century’s dockers standing at the wharf gate hoping for a few hours’ work, the zero- hours contract worker waiting for a text from their boss needs a union. Because if all of those zero- hours contract workers acted together with the protection of a union, the bosses would have to listen – and then, things would change.
Think of the Sports Directs of this world forced to sit down and negotiate terms and conditions with their own workers. When that happens – and happen it will – we will see the end of bosses dodging the minimum wage, paying no sick pay, sacking people at will – and the end of outrages like a pregnant worker giving birth to her precious baby in a filthy toilet.
The union movement is often accused of not moving with the times. But we want what we have always wanted: a fair day’s pay for a hard day’s work. Safe places to work. A fair balance between work and life. Change managed with the consent and involvement of workers – not imposed on them.
So the challenge I have set myself, and set our whole union movement, is to make 2017 the year that we get back to our roots – and help more workers get a fair deal and have a real voice.
But we can’t do that with one hand tied behind our back. We need to have the legal right to go into any workplace to tell people about the benefits of getting together and starting a union. Getting unions into warehouses, factories, shops and call centres previously closed to us will mean there is no hiding place for bad bosses who treat their workers like animals.
Because the best way to enforce your rights – and win better than the legal minimum for you and your workmates – is still through a union, organised in your workplace, representing you to your employer.
Second: government needs to step up and make sure rights at work keep pace with how working lives are changing.
The Taylor Review must address the lack of rights, protection and power that blights so many working lives.
And as we prepare to leave the European Union, the government must retain all the protections that working people in Britain rely on. Bad bosses will lobby to water down rules they find inconvenient – like protections from working excessive hours or rights for agency workers. Unions stand ready to defend these rights – and to guard against Brexit Britain becoming an ever-more under-regulated sweatshop on the edge of Europe.
While negotiations about our future relationship with the EU are ongoing, we need to continue to mirror all the protections given to European workers here in the UK.
That’s my second hope for 2017: making sure that we retain all our hard-won protections at work, and win new rights so we keep pace with both the changing world of work and with our neighbours and competitors in the rest of Europe.
And finally, if we’re to make sure every job is a decent, we have to build an economy that creates better jobs in towns and cities where all that is now on offer is short-term contract after short-term contract.
Britain’s economy needs a new approach if we’re to thrive outside the EU. We need businesses working for long-term success, and British industry thriving and innovating through the expertise and effort of workers paid well and treated decently.
Unions have championed this approach for the last decade – defending our steel industry and public services, supporting infrastructure development, demanding active intervention to grow local economies outside London and pressing for investment in workforce skills and in research and development.
I hope that 2017 is the year when unions, business and government work together to bring more and better jobs to every town and city.
So, those are my four big hopes for 2017. For working people to get that long-overdue pay rise. To bring unions to more workplaces, winning for more workers. A renewed set of protections at work that reflect the workplace of today and which enjoy wide support. And a stronger economy that works for working people across the UK.
I recommit myself and our trade union movement to working for these goals in 2017.
And I wish you, your families, friends and workmates good health, happiness and success in the coming year and always.