We’re operating in new circumstances, DAVE WARD tells Ben Chacko, and it’s time the movement stepped up
LIKE so many of us, Communication Workers Union (CWU) general secretary Dave Ward has “never felt more enthused” than after seeing Labour’s spectacular advance at last month’s election.
The CWU was among the first unions to back Jeremy Corbyn’s bid to lead the party. “We did so because we wanted to see a different approach and we’ve got that: a transformative manifesto and progress towards a mass movement.
“It’s really encouraging and that’s part of what’s pushing me forward.”
“I’m genuinely angry when I reflect on the reality of the world of work today. I am angry at how much of it is characterised by insecure employment models and low pay.”
But Ward senses a new optimism and strength in the movement: “People are beginning to see how to reassert our values in today’s world.”
That brings him to a point he and colleagues have been working towards for months.
“Jeremy is delivering a new kind of politics. Our job is to step up now and deliver a new kind of trade unionism.”
The past week has seen the publication of the Taylor review into working practices in Britain, a mealy-mouthed document condemned by unions for failing to tackle the job insecurity, zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment and other problems that are rampant in the low-wage, low-productivity Britain created by decades of market-driven madness.
“The Taylor review falls well short of addressing those problems,” Ward agrees, “but what it does do is it brings to the fore a moment where we’ve got to move on from criticising things that other people say.
“The spotlight needs to shift onto us as a collective. What are we going to do about it?
“I acknowledge that the starting point for that is your own union, and our union has to do more to tackle insecure employment models, especially in the parcel sector and in call centres.
“But the gig economy is such a big issue.
“There needs to be a concerted campaign around tackling insecure employment models once and for all, not waiting for politicians to do it for us.”
This isn’t because Ward lacks faith in Corbyn’s Labour to deliver on progressive policies, but because he feels fundamental change will only happen if the labour movement is firing on all cylinders — with a left-wing programme for government advancing hand in hand with a trade union-led workplace struggle focused on improving the day-to-day lives of working people.
He believes the movement can begin with “some very simple things initially.
“First is a common bargaining agenda. That doesn’t take away the rights of unions to have their own agendas on issues they need to tackle specifically, but two or three things we can all agree on — using our strength in the workplace and our industrial relations procedures to take on employers in the workplace.”
That will give an impetus to a “race to the top,” Ward hopes, as opposed to the race to the bottom on pay and conditions that has driven real wages down in this country for years and seen ever greater numbers stripped of the rights — to holiday pay, sick pay, maternity or paternity leave, protection from unfair dismissal, a host of others — that it took working people decades to win.
“Second, publication of a trade union manifesto on what we mean by a new deal for workers. I could give you some examples of what I think should be on it, but the point is let’s work towards publishing such a manifesto and bringing in ideas from all unions.
“If we had that as an agreed campaigning document, set about communicating it more strongly than we ever have, saying: ‘This is the trade union manifesto for the next five, 10 years,’ we could set about delivering a new deal for workers rather than talking about it.”
Instead of adopting a defensive stance, Ward reckons unions must “get into the debate” and challenge companies who claim that the changing world of work means permanent contracts are a thing of the past.
A key area is pensions. Defined-benefit schemes are in trouble, and unions fighting to keep the prospect of a comfortable and dignified retirement for their members are all too often fighting a rearguard action.
“We should be saying: we’re not happy with these schemes. They’re not good enough,” Ward argues.
“But that entails changing the landscape of companies and the way they operate.
“It’s time to really attack the corporate governance structures that exist in this country.
“Attack the reality of private shareholder interest being prioritised over the workers. You should not be paying out dividends until you have settled issues around fair pay and fair pensions.
“We need to change the dynamics in the boardroom.”
By putting workers on company boards?
He doesn’t sound totally convinced.
“I’m supportive of that,” he says cautiously, “but not at the expense of trade union collective bargaining.
“If companies serve a range of interests those interests should be on the board.
“So if a company is there to provide a service, the interests of the service and the people who deliver it should get a voice as well as the people who are making money out of it.
“There should be a voice for unions in services — not through quangos and not through someone like me as a trade union leader being on a board.
“There can’t be a trade-off where you see the company management and the workers and the union as points of a triangle.
“We mean empowerment, workers having greater control over ownership of companies and we can explore what that means over time to revalue work.
“Why is it that the CEO of a company continues to get unbelievable increases in pay, while the workers’ pay isn’t going up and the businesses aren’t growing themselves, let alone anything else?
“I’ve said before businesses don’t seem to grow anything in Britain any more. They just break things up. Great business leaders who can’t point to any achievements that made anything better.”
Ward’s “starter for 10” on issues the unions can get together to fight on is pay.
“A living wage. How do we get it? Link our approaches to sectoral bargaining.
“Look not just at what rate we want and pressing for political action, but extend cross-union co-operation on sectoral bargaining and work together to drive up standards through direct dealing with employers.
“Co-ordinating activity in the areas where insecure employment is rife is essential.
“We need three things. The common bargaining agenda. The manifesto for a new deal. And the plan on how we work together to achieve it.”
Meaning industrial action?
“Yes. But I’m not saying: ‘Let’s all put our heads down and run at ’em.’
“You’ve had trade unionists, and good ones, arguing for a general strike, but however good that sentiment might be, there are absolute practical reasons why it is never delivered.
“So don’t start at that point. Because if you do, you end up doing nothing.
“But if you’re campaigning on a manifesto, on an agreed bargaining agenda, over a fairly lengthy period using all forms of media and regional demos and community activity, you might not change the world overnight, but as we’re seeing in Labour, you could change the world.
“You’d see a growing sense of activism, a growing sense of unions being able to ballot members for action even under current laws.
“Take the Trade Union Act. OK, you can say the best way to beat it is to get Labour into power and yes we have to do that.
“But rather than fighting over the Trade Union Act, fight over the manifesto: the new deal for workers. Show you’re fighting for the obvious improvements people need and relate to and you’ll have a better chance of success.
“It’s easier to get workers fighting for a proper contract than an issue of trade union law and winning the one helps to win the other.”
In previous Morning Star articles, Ward has made an analogous point over defeating the far right: that anti-racist mobilisation is important but must be combined with a fight for rights that deals with the insecurities that give rise to far-right politics: concern over jobs, services and a future for downtrodden communities.
“What I’m trying to do is pull all these things under an umbrella,” he explains. “Harness all the energies in a concerted campaign.
“We’re putting motions to the TUC around this, but you know how it is: motions from so many unions, things are composited and compromised on.
“So we will be promoting our motions in the lead-up, using our approaches in communications to get our key messages out there — all with the aim of building a new trade unionism to match the new politics Jeremy Corbyn is so ably delivering.
“A new trade unionism for a new world of work. This sort of campaigning will recruit members and start to turn the tide in the workplace and the economy.
“We want to push for the biggest ever consultation with workers. A radical project.
“In our disputes we’ve started hosting live Q&As on our social media platforms, sessions all our members can participate in and we answer their questions live, no script. It’s been fantastic. We can bring some of how we’ve been engaging to the table, and other unions have been doing fantastic work too, but there’s not enough sharing.”
Ward warns that “this is the moment.”
“We still have power. We have some excellent leadership across the movement. Trade unions that are not frightened of action, but we are operating in new circumstances and we need to step up.”
At Tolpuddle today Ward will be speaking about this agenda for change — one ambitious enough to match and reinforce the wave of enthusiasm for socialist politics that is sweeping this country.
Dave Ward is the general secretary of the CWU. Ben Chacko is the editor of the Morning Star.