A growing backlash against a two-tier Covid-19 labour market offers the possibility for unions to rebuild their strength, according to the head of the TUC, Frances O’Grady.
In an interview before next week’s TUC conference, the trade union umbrella group’s general secretary said there was now a “chasm” between low-paid workers and the better-off.
Low-wage earners had borne the brunt of the pandemic, she said, with little or no option to work from home, no or low sick pay and reduced living standards, while better-off workers have enjoyed greater flexibility with work, financial stability and increased spending power.
“A Covid chasm has opened up between low paid and average paid workers and the better off. It feels like that divide is really sharp.
“Politicians need to start addressing how to close that chasm. That’s important not just for working families but for the economy. We hear a lot about levelling up but if it is not about workers’ rights, their bargaining power and their pay then what is it about?”
O’Grady said there was “simmering anger” at the unfairness caused by the pandemic and she was optimistic that unions could come out of the crisis with their bargaining rights enhanced.
Those who thought above-inflation pay awards in sectors affected by labour shortages meant a return to the 1970s were “away with the fairies”.
“There is something in the worker power argument,” she said. “But in the end bargaining power is built on numbers and the strength of organisation. I don’t want to be complacent about the job we have to do to strengthen workers’ bargaining power. There are no shortcuts.”
Despite four years of rising enrolment, trade union membership is only half the peak of 13.2 million reached in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power with a pledge to tame the power of organised labour.
In recent days, there have been threats of strike action by lorry drivers at the Booker distribution network, which is part of Tesco, and more than 200 drivers and engineers at Hanson, the cement producer, but O’Grady said it was nonsense to make comparisons with the 70s.
“People who compare where we are today with the 1970s are away with the fairies,” she said, adding that she found it amazing that there was such “moral panic” about groups of workers getting a decent pay rise after a decade of falling living standards.
O’Grady said that on current trends membership of trade unions would exceed the 7-million level by the middle of the decade, providing a significant boost for the self-confidence of the movement.
“Lots of workers have turned to unions through the pandemic. Our membership has grown. We must sustain it and not take it for granted. Young workers are sympathetic to our values and what we stand for.”
Fewer people working in manufacturing and the growth of a casualised service sector had made organising more difficult. Many workers had no experience of what it was like to be treated properly, the TUC general secretary said. “Expectations are low because they have never been treated well at work.
“The potential for renaissance is absolutely there. I am worried about unemployment but I am very optimistic that the tale of two pandemics is ingrained in people’s minds and that there can be no return to business as usual.”
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The TUC helped design the government’s furlough scheme and is now concerned about the impact of ending it later this month. “The furlough was a good trade union idea and it worked. It allowed companies to bounce back faster while protecting families and the skills base. Don’t let’s mess it up in the final mile.”
O’Grady said firms were “papering over the cracks” by paying new drivers sign-on bonuses of £1,000.
“There has been a wave of casualisation, which is not an accident but a deliberate strategy. Nobody has got a handle on skill shortages until recently. It’s not just about pay and conditions, it is about a business model and being able to train the next generation of lorry drivers. Existing workers are going to say: ‘Where’s my grand then?’ They are going to have to face the fact that bunging a few quid at people is not going to solve low pay and unequal bargaining power.”