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Tackling the scourge of precarious work

WAGE inequality in Britain is equal to the worst in Europe and this has worsened, hand in hand with precariousness and deunionisation, both driven by neoliberalism.

Precarious work is not new, capitalism has seen all this before. It has existed since the industrial revolution. Marx referred to an “industrial reserve army of labour,” able to be coerced into filling in gaps as employment patterns changed.

According to author Jonathan White, in his article “Precarious work and contemporary capitalism” published on the Trade Union Futures website, Marx argued that “capitalism constantly creates a surplus population amongst the working class who live in a state of precariousness and poverty.” 

Marx argued that precariousness is a defining and common feature of working life under capitalism. 

The issue is global and the EU gives primacy to the “freedom” of unrestricted movement of capital and labour, reinforced by rulings of the legal arm of the EU, the European Court of Justice. 

The “free” movement of labour — or rather the “economically coerced mass movement of people in search of work” — has resulted in an employers’ drive to the bottom on wages in sectors where workers are not well organised in unions. Precarious work is often the end result.

We have a major challenge, but it’s no greater than that which faced early trade unionists. If today’s young workers and the generations ahead are to prosper, then the balance of class forces must be upset, and to achieve this trade unions will need to reinvent themselves in many sectors of the economy where change, such as zero-hours contracting, is fast and dramatic.

For many the recent norm of an annual negotiation on a salary increase of around RPI, an hour off the working week and maybe an extra day’s leave can only be dreamt about.  

We have the first generation in decades where the young see a future of less hope of work, housing, health and education than their parents looked forward to.

However, there are recent examples of new forms of organising and militant solidarity beyond traditional methods, and victories are being won. 

We must quickly move on from being merely defensive to planning our wins, using company supply chains, combinations of trade unions and solidarity actions by other workers and non-workers.  

In September 2017 the first McStrike since McDonald’s opened in Britain 44 years ago involved 30 workers in two stores. It was just the start.  

In May 2018 five stores, organised by BFAWU as part of an international effort, went on strike and they have had widespread support from other unions and the public with union membership growing as staff see they can win.  

The struggle continues, with demands for a real living wage of £10 per hour for all, the option of fixed-hour contracts instead of zero-hours, an end to McDonald’s culture of fear and a union in the workplace.

There are many more such struggles, often applying new ways of organising, such as flash mobs involving non-employees and other trade unionists via trades councils and Unite Community (for example, Mixed Fleet flight crew). 

Others in the fast-food and retail sectors include TGI Friday’s workers — inspired by the McStrikers — in actions over “tip theft” and a Unite organised boycott of Premier Inns. Young trade unionists are leading the way. 

UCU successfully enlisted the support of students in the strike campaign to protect pensions. The NEU had a major impact in engaging parents during the last general election, over education funding.

Short-term work makes continuation of trade union membership difficult, so the movement must find ways to address this, possibly using a flexible across-trade union app or card.

New “hubs” for precarious workers to meet and organise could be developed, as in Glasgow as part of the Better than Zero campaign.

Along with the immediate struggles, political demands must be made, including repeal of anti-trade union laws, effective sectoral collective bargaining and reinstatement of good-quality apprenticeships.

A new Labour government should set up a ministry of labour to help plan the economy and shift the balance from the unregulated market. Backed by a mass movement outside Parliament, it would be in a position to challenge companies and clamp down on precarious employment. 

We need a government that breaks up the giant monopolies and in the wake of Brexit seeks controls over the movement of capital in order to build a modern, efficient, socially advanced and collective economy.
 
Andy Bain is Communist Party trade union organiser. We Want REAL jobs is an output from the CPB trade union school in May 2018 and aims to play a part in the necessary shift in class forces to bring about progress for the vast majority, who work for a living or are available to do so, in a socialist Britain. This CPB pamphlet will be launched at a public meeting on Monday September 10, at 6pm in Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount Street M2 5NS.

 

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