WORKING HARD FOR LEEDS CENTRAL
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Speech to Unions 21
December 14th, 2006
Tomorrow’s Trade Unions
It’s a pleasure to hear how Unions 21 has prospered since I was closely involved. Unions 21 has always been unique in providing a space where we can debate the future of a really important part of our society – the trade union movement.We are now at a particular moment in the history of both the trade union movement and the Labour Party. We both face the challenge of renewal.
Because the world is changing fast. Trade, travel, technology, economic growth, climate change, globalisation – all are moulding our world into a new shape.
Let’s be honest about it: sometimes how fast things are changing can make us all feel worried. Globalisation, for all its benefits, does bring greater insecurity.
And yet change is what unions are made for. It’s the same for Labour. Because at our best, we help people make the most of change.
If nothing ever altered, if there were no job losses, if people didn’t need to upgrade their skills to a modern economy, if our standards of health and safety weren’t always improving, if other countries couldn’t start to compete with our industries, then trade union and Labour politics would be less relevant.
But in the changing world we live in today, Labour and trade unions have an unprecedented opportunity.
Because trade unions are crucial to meeting the challenges of improving skills, improving work-life balance, reforming our public services and ensuring our pensions system is fair and fit for the 21st century.
In the DfES, in my first job in Government, I worked with David Blunkett on the initial ideas for the Union Learning Fund.
And I am enormously proud to see the difference that union learning reps now make every day in Britain. They now help more than 100,000 people a year to get the skills they need to get on in life and make the most of themselves.
For too long, people have been saying that trade unions are in decline. I disagree. I think that trade unions may be about to experience a resurgence.
LSE research shows that last year there were 2.8 million people in Britain not in a union or covered by collective bargaining, who said they wanted union representation or said they would be very likely to join a union if one were available. And there were 3.3 million people covered by a collective bargaining agreement who were not members of a union.
That’s a lot of potential members.
And it’s not hostility, or legislation, or lack or legislation that’s stopping them joining. It’s not being asked and persuaded to do so.
In 2007, Labour and the Trade Unions need to show that we have the right answers to the tough new challenges facing our country. Staying competitive in a global economy. Learning to live with one another. Dealing with behaviour that hurts others.
We need the right answers to the tough new challenges facing the world. Climate change. The threat of terrorism. Fragile states.
But we also need to be the bearers of optimism. Of hope. Of aspiration.
What does this mean in practice? I think we should together focus on four things: global justice, fair treatment, quality of life and shared power.
I’ll start with global justice.
I was speaking at the London Labour Party conference a couple of weeks ago. And a delegate before me said “well, international development is all very worthy isn’t it. But I want to debate what really matters?.
I don’t need to tell you that global justice is far from “worthy". It’s the moral cause of our age. For every person in Britain today, 17 live on less than a dollar a day in the rest of the world.
In fact, I think global justice comes pretty naturally to trade unions. Just look at our history.
The first trade unions started in small villages, protecting workers from exploitation and using solidarity to improve everyone’s lives.
And as transport became easier, as more unscrupulous employers had the chance to recruit workers from other towns and villages, unions had to get bigger and broader. They had to be regional.
And as companies became national, so too unions had to become national.
In the world we are now facing, a world where corporations are multinational, where migrants move across the world, where trade between countries is in billions of dollars a day, where what happens in one country impacts more quickly and more profoundly on other countries than ever before, unions need to be international.
So I’m really pleased that the new International TUC was launched in November. I think this will make a real difference.
Because protecting workers rights here depends in the end on ensuring better rights for workers in the developing world.
And because helping countries develop successfully – creating new markets for our manufacturing and service exports – depends on better governance, stronger accountability and more direct representation in developing countries.
All things that trade unions and other organisations in the developing world help provide.
This is why DFID recently signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the TUC, worth more than £750,000 over four years, to help unions in Britain raise awareness about development, build links with Southern unions and help in our development work overseas. And it’s why we hold a DFID / TUC forum every three months to ensure that we’re working closely together.
This has been such a success that we are about to launch the new Governance and Transparency Fund. A £100 million initiative that will help build the capacity of civil society - including unions - in developing countries, to hold their governments to account.
Why do we need this?
Well, a couple of months ago I met some ship breakers from India. They were hired and paid by the day to do hard dangerous work. Many of the ships they work on are full of asbestos.
I asked them about health and safety. And they told me that the safety equipment they had been given by their employers – amounted to just one pair of washing up gloves. One worker said he had bought himself some glasses to protect his eyes. Not much use against breathing asbestos in.
These workers need unions. One reason I met them was to talk about how we could help them unionise. But this is just one example of why unions in developing countries are so vital.
And we can see that unions make a real difference in developing countries.
In India, the National Alliance of Street Vendors has successfully defended the rights of its members at national, state and local levels. And in Ahmedabad, union representation has resulted in the municipality setting aside 10 million rupees to improve street vendors’ lives, by building small markets, issuing licenses and demarcating specific sales areas.
In Nigeria, the national Labour Congress, working with DFID and TUCAid is building the capacity of trade unions to reflect the concerns of women workers, improving working conditions for women through more equal pay, non-discrimination and better maternity provision.
So: Global justice should be one priority.
A second should be a renewed focus on fair treatment. What do I mean by this?
It’s about how we are treated at work, by public services and in our communities. It’s about dignity and respect. Because in the end, we don’t just care about how much we are paid or what we end up with – we care about how we are treated.
And I think that a concern for fair treatment is becoming more and more important to people in Britain today.
I think people are voting for the BNP because they feel – whatever the truth of the matter – that the system treats them unfairly. Or that they believe that someone else is getting something else that they are not.
That’s not racism. It’s a much more profound anxiety. It’s about a very British concern for fair play.
So what does putting fair treatment at the heart of our thinking mean in practice? For Government, it must mean making sure that policy is transparent, fair and clear. That people can see how decisions are made. The points-based migration system we are introducing is a really good example of this.
Another example of fair treatment is our recent pension reform, which gives people, especially women, a fair reward for caring work.
For unions, the growing importance of fair treatment is an enormous opportunity. Because in the end, fair treatment is what unions are all about.
The T&G’s consistent campaigning against inequality – such as the current living wage campaign, Amicus’ fighting for British manufacturing, the tireless work of USDAW, UCATT, UNISON, the GMB and Community – we can see clearly the difference this makes to people in Britain in so many ways.
To take just one example: LSE research shows that if there were no unions, the race pay gap would be 1.4 per cent bigger and the gender pay gap 2.6 per cent wider. In fact, unions make more difference to reducing the gender pay gap than even the minimum wage.
The challenge is to get out there and make it real for people.
I know that unions are, for the most part, doing a great job of recruiting. But let’s all talk about the benefits unions can bring more often, in more practical ways, and with more pride.
I think a third shift in people’s expectations and aspirations has to do with quality of life. In 1997, the really big political challenges were about the economy, unemployment, poverty, crime and underinvestment in public services.
In 2006, these issues still matter. But people increasingly look to government for other things too.
Work/life balance, the state of the local environment in our neighbourhoods and communities, the values we share or the way that we raise our children, how content or otherwise we are with our lives are all much more important than they were even five years ago.
You don’t need me to tell you about the opportunity this provides for trade unions. In fighting for more flexible working, for better terms and conditions.
Workplaces with unions are more likely to have equal opportunity and family friendly policies.
And this leads me to my final challenge: shared power and democratic renewal.
I think that in the future it will be even more important to share power with people. In the Labour Party, in society, and in the country. Because power is something people lend politicians, it’s not something politicians own.
Some people say that British people are turning away from politics. It is true that fewer vote in elections. But it’s not that simple.
People want a more direct say. They want more power, on their own terms.
We all have to respond to these shifts. And this means finding new ways to share power directly with people. Because that’s how to close the gap between politics and people’s everyday lives.
For politicians like me it’s about listening more. Trying harder to communicate and explain decisions.
For trade unions, people’s growing desire for shared power is another profound opportunity. Because that’s what trade unions do: they represent views directly and, through solidarity, get things done – at the local level, the national level and, increasingly, the international level too. Trade unions are about practical politics in everyday life.
And this is what I want to finish on. The political role of trade unions over the next decade.
If I am right about the way that British people’s expectations and aspirations are changing, and the changing problems facing the country, in the future Labour’s success in government will depend more on a constructive partnership with trade unions.
I have always supported the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions and will continue to do so.
The Tories are now committed to scrapping the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions, by legislation, regardless of the findings of the Hayden Philips inquiry. Such an assault on a Party’s membership structures would be an outrage. I will continue to support Labour’s historic link with the unions.
But let’s be really honest about this too: the trade unions’ success depends a lot on Labour’s success in government.
Yet there are some in the movement who aren’t as positive as they might be about the gains, and just complain about things we haven’t done.
But there are others who at the moment are looking at the recent “work choices? reforms in Australia, looking at the connections between the government there and David Cameron here, and making links in their heads.
Under “work choices?, if employers have less than 100 people, unfair dismissal law or job security law simply doesn’t apply. And minimum wages are set by a body concerned only with economic economy is competitive – not with balancing the dual needs of a strong economy and wage fairness.
Cameron may be trying to change the face of the Tory party. But I know a lot of people are looking at Tory pressure groups like the Campaign for Enterprise and thinking that the Tories aren’t going to change.
Here’s what the Campaign for Enterprise, for those of you who haven’t read its manifesto, is currently recommending.
I quote: “Repeal Statutory Dismissal and Grievance Procedures in their entirety … Increase the qualifying period for Unfair Dismissal from one year to two years … Reduce the maximum compensatory award from £55,000 to £25,000 … [and] End compulsory Trade Union recognition?.
They even go so far as to say (and again I quote): “Discrimination is not a dirty word?.
Here’s what Alan Duncan MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Trade, Industry and Energy, said about the Campaign for Enterprise at its launch: “This is an exciting initiative that promises to provide real insight … I know that the Campaign will be challenging us to develop the kind of policies which create a benign business environment that allows entrepreneurship to flourish.��?
Well, for me, discrimination is a dirty word. And employment rights are fundamental to a fair society.
So let’s work together to ensure that Britain remains on the progressive path.
Yes, trade unions need to be responsible political forces. But you have overwhelmingly demonstrated your capacity to do this over the past ten years.
Yes, trade unions need to look beyond the workplace to embrace new opportunities. The best unions are already doing this and forums like Unions 21 are a really important way pooling ideas and experiences.
And yes, the Government needs to encourage trade unions as true social partners. I recognise we have more to on the current Warwick agreement. And I’m looking forward to a closer partnership with the unions in future.
For me the crucial thing about Warwick was that it put unions at the heart of our positive vision of the future of the country - not simply because it improved internal Party relations or the unions’ structural link with the Labour Party.
I believe Warwick is very much a template for our relations in the future – partly because of our history and our structures, but much more because the trade union movement is key to our country meeting the challenges of the future.
Because as we look to the future, as we seize the new opportunities this changing world is providing, we are going to need the union movement as much as we have ever done, and we’re going to need unions and government to work harder and more constructively together than ever before.
That’s, after all, what we’re about.
I’m looking forward to it.