The Tories want to present anti-migrant policies and the labour shortages caused by those by policies, by Brexit and by poor wages and conditions in key industries like road haulage and social care as a boon for workers.
That was the pitch of Boris Johnson’s speech to Conservative Party conference, promising a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy” in place of “the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills, and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration.”
The Tories are being aided in this misdirection by the lack of serious demands or fight from the Labour Party, and the continued sluggishness of most trade unions.
If the government really wanted to raise wages, it would start by accepting the demands being made by two groups of workers it hypocritically lauded during the pandemic — NHS and care workers. NHS workers are fighting for a 15% or £3,000 increase, to make up ground after a decade of real-terms pay cuts. Care workers are calling for a £15 minimum wage to begin to tackle chronically low pay in the sector (the median is just above the legal minimum, about £9 per hour).
If the labour movement is serious about raising wages, it must take up and fight for these demands.
We must confront the Tories’ false picture of reality. Rather than giving NHS and other public-sector workers a solid increase, or taking action to raise wages in social care, the government is holding down public-sector pay, trying to force millions of public-sector workers to accept a real-terms pay cut.
Wages more broadly are rising, but after a long-sustained real-terms decline — and prices are rising too. In the spring workers will be hit by the government’s National Insurance increase. And right now — on the same day as Johnson’s speech, in fact — the government is implementing the biggest single cut in the history of welfare benefits by slashing £1,040 a year off Universal Credit.
TheEconomist forecasts that, contrary to the government’s claims, real household incomes after tax will fall in both 2022 and 2023 (see graphic). That’s on average. The prospect is worse for worse-off households.
The UK economy is characterised by low wages and insecurity because of out-of-control bosses, weak unions, and unjust laws, not because of immigration. Norway took in more Eastern European migrants (proportionately) than the UK after 2004, but the impact was different because it has stronger unions and better labour laws.
Ever-tightening restrictions on migrants are exacerbating the shortage of workers the UK faces; damage human rights and boost racism; and are designed to undermine the unity the working class needs to stand up for itself. They must be fought and reversed.
More immigration is not by itself the answer to low wages and poor conditions any more than less immigration is. Unity of migrant and British-born workers to build stronger working-class organisations and struggles, and win legal changes that bolster that fight, is the answer.
The labour movement needs to mobilise in workplaces, on the streets and in politics for clear policies to drive up wages and living standards:
• Labour conference demanded a £15 minimum wage: but the party leadership opposes this. The labour movement should launch a real “Fight for 15”, to impose the policy on Labour and build campaigning for it in the world. Labour conference also made the vital demand of sick pay at a living-wage level for all workers.
• Mobilise for NHS and care workers’ demands, and for increases across the public sector. Rally round initiatives like NHS Workers Say No, which is fighting to get strikes over NHS pay off the ground; Care and Support Workers Organise; and the renewed strikes over pay, sick pay, holidays and union recognition by Sage care workers in North London. Demand all our unions and the Labour Party champion these struggles.
• Fight to transform the benefits system so it provides generous support to all who need it. We need demands which go far beyond reversing the £20 a week cut to Universal Credit (and the Labour leadership is not even committing to that).
• To raise public-sector pay while restoring services, and to transform the welfare system, requires the mobilisation of major resources and a major redistribution of wealth out of the hands of the rich. The government is raising taxes on workers. The labour movement must campaign for heavy taxation of the rich — through a wealth tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax and taxes on high incomes.
• To increase pay across the board, particularly in the private sector, requires strengthening our trade unions. We must push unions to break out of their quiescence and start to fight, while demanding legal changes to remove anti-union restrictions and strengthen workers’ ability to fight.
Shadow secretary of state for employment rights Andy McDonald, who resigned at Labour conference after being told to oppose a £15 minimum wage and living-wage-level sick pay, had just published a “New Deal for Working People” Green Paper as radical as anything the party put forward under Jeremy Corbyn.
Alongside many measures to strengthen individual workers’ rights, the Green Paper focuses on expanding collective bargaining between unions and employers to drive up wages and conditions.
These proposals need campaigning for — and, in the first instance, publicising.
The other demand Labour conference made, again, was for repeal of all the anti-union laws, which impose numerous restrictions on strikes and industrial action. Expanding collective bargaining is important. But at the moment collective bargaining is declining and under attack. Moreover, without the right to strike collective bargaining is reduced to collective begging.
The reluctance of many union leaders to fight the anti-union laws is of a piece with their reticence about strikes. It is part of a culture which pervades the whole labour movement and even the left.
We need an end to apologetic narratives which says strikes are regrettable, a last resort and so on.
Without a major revival of strikes we will not turn things around. Many more and more determined and energetic strikes are necessary, to win changes and for workers to become more organised, conscious and confident as a class.
To seriously raise wages and living standards, we need a labour movement which energetically advocates, launches and rallies around strikes; which campaigns vocally for demands like a 15% increase in the NHS, a £15 minimum wage and living sick pay for all; and which defies and fights to abolish the anti-union laws.