Trade Unions Can’t Rely on the Labour Party Anymore

This week it’s #HeartUnions week and it would be very easy for me to get sentimental and wax lyrical about the trade union movement in Britain and the role its played in improving the lives of millions of working class people.

Since they were legalised almost 200 years ago, they’ve given us: the minimum wage, two-day weekends, limitations on working hours, maternity and paternity leave, holiday and sickness entitlements, health and safety at work, equality legislation and so much more.

I could talk about the challenges they’ve faced against successive Tory governments, from Margaret Thatcher and the miners strike, all the way up to the present day where they are fighting the Minimum Services Bill, the latest in a long line of anti-trade union laws.

Now, in 2023, our solidarity needs to go beyond a hashtag. Unions are under attack like never before and they need meaningful support.

But trade unions need to start being honest with themselves – they’re not going to get that from the Labour Party.

The very party that was founded by labour is now trying to shed that image at all costs to appease the right-wing press and reassure the corporate class.

The ‘party of working people’ is now anything but. You’re more likely to see the Labour leadership rubbing shoulders with the super-rich elite at business lunches than you are with striking workers on picket lines.

In fact, Sir Keir Starmer sacked minister Sam Tarry for standing on an RMT picket line in Euston, saying at the time: “The Labour Party in opposition needs to be the Labour Party in power and a government doesn’t go on picket lines.”

Earlier that year Andy McDonald resigned from the shadow cabinet saying Starmer’s office told him to ‘argue against a national minimum wage of £15 an hour and against statutory sick pay at the living wage’.

These are just two examples in a long line of the Labour leadership showing utter contempt for working people, and trade unions have started to vote with their feet. 

The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) took the step to disaffiliate from the Labour Party in September 2021. Aslef and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) both received motions to disaffiliate from the Labour, though these were rejected at their respective conferences.

These calls to disaffiliate will only intensify as Labour continues down this path, with the leaders of Unite and the CWU being openly critical of Starmer and his lack of support for workers. So don’t be surprised if other trade unions follow the BFAWU’s lead in the coming months.

As we’ve seen a resurgence in the trade union movement, the Labour leadership has repeatedly rejected union leader’s calls for a pay rise for public sector workers in line with inflation, a stance which is totally at odds with the voters they’re trying to win over. 

Despite the media onslaught, support for striking workers remains high. A survey last month found that more than 47% of Britons support public sector workers going on strike to secure pay rises in line with inflation, while half as many (23%) oppose this action. 

Perhaps the Labour Party has simply forgotten that millions of working people are also trade unionists?

After trade union membership declined steeply in the 1980s and 1990s, falling from 13 million in 1979 to below 6 million in 2012, the first time it was that low since the 1940s, it has risen year on year since 2016.

Latest figures say that 6.7 million people are now members of a trade union – that’s one in ten of the population. 

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) said online enquiries into trade union membership surged by 700% when Mick Lynch and the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) employees launched strikes over pay, jobs and conditions last summer, while Google searches for “join union” increased by 184% in that week.

This interest in trade unions has lasted into the winter. A fortnight ago we saw the largest coordinated strike action in modern history, as 500,000 civil servants, railway workers, teachers and university staff came together to demand better pay and working conditions.

The trade union movement has momentum, and striking workers are leading the opposition to Tory misrule and the cost-of-living crisis. 

Now we need a real alternative at the ballot box too. 

Workers will face monumental challenges in the 21st century, and with that, we need to provide long-lasting solutions, not just sticking plaster politics.

We need to be bold. We need to be radical. And we need to give workers a fair deal.

2022 was the worst year for wage growth since current records began. Average wages are down by 3.4% in real terms, with public sector pay even worse with a 5.9% decline.

With this in mind, it’s baffling that Labour’s current minimum wage offering of £10 an hour will be less than the Conservative’s offering of £10.42 by April 2023.

We need to go so much further than this. That means introducing a £16 minimum wage, not just for over 25’s, but for anyone who works, scrapping the age pay gap.

But it isn’t just about pay, it should be about working conditions too. 

We need to ban the scourge of exploitative work, such as ‘fire and rehire’ practices, zero-hour contracts and unpaid internships.

Trade unions fought hard for maternity and paternity pay, as well as sick pay, but it still goes nowhere near far enough.

The UK is the third worst ranking country in Europe in terms of both paid parental leave and for sick pay. We can do so much better than this.

That’s why we need to give parents 52 weeks of parental leave to be shared between them, at 100% of wages and legislate for sick pay to be provided at 100% of wages for average hours worked.

It also isn’t enough to just repeal any anti-trade union laws this new far-right Tory government brings in, we need to repeal all anti-trade union laws going back to the days of Margaret Thatcher.

As well as that, we need to enshrine in law the right of all workers to organise and the right of trade unions to take industrial action, including secondary action.

Workers won the right to an eight-hour day in the 19th century, a two-day weekend in the 20th and now, in the 21st, it’s time to take the next step and win a four-day week with fair pay for all.

But our solidarity extends beyond policy. Breakthrough members up and down the country have been on picket lines throughout the strike wave.

We raised £2,500 for the RMT for their strike fund over the Christmas period and we are now running a similar fundraiser for university workers in the UCU (you can donate to that strike fund here).

And as we push into 2023 and beyond, we plan to build closer ties with trade unions, especially at a more local and regional level.

While we do all this, the Labour Party will no doubt continue down the path of being the party for bosses.

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves recently proclaimed Labour is ‘pro-worker and pro-business’ after the party received the backing of the former head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and a high-profile Tory donor and businessman who switched to Labour after 40 years in the Conservative Party.

But you can’t be both on the side of the exploited and the exploiter. You need to pick a side, and it looks like Labour has already chosen theirs.

So, if you want my honest advice: if you are a worker and not already in a trade union, join one. If you are a member of the Labour Party, leave it and join a party that truly supports working people.