The Labour Party has launched a new initiative, entitled “Workplace2020”, aimed at developing policies for workers’ and trade union rights.
The scheme is part consultation, part policy platform, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announcing that the approach would be “based on full employment, a high-skilled workforce with decent pay, rights of the self-employed and the employed, and a voice that works for a collective bargain.” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has welcomed the initiative, and says Unite will be encouraging its members to take part in the consultation.
“Workplace 2020” is a step in the right direction from Labour. In some ways it is Labour’s policy response to the Tories’ Trade Union Act, and as such moves the party away from merely criticising and opposing what the Tories do and towards developing its own positive programme and policies around which working-class people can be mobilised.
Indeed, the test for the initiative, in the first instance, will be less in the precise detail of the policies and more in whether it is used as a tool to mobilise action — including demonstrations, rallies, and other forms of direct action — rather than simply being an electoral artefact.
The details of the policies matter too, however. Labour is already committed to repealing the Trade Union Act in its first 100 days in government, but will “Workplace 2020” advocate a positive right to strike, the right to take solidarity action, the right to effectively picket, and the right to strike over political issues? All these things are essential for effective trade unionism, and if Labour is serious about helping rebuild trade union strength and confidence, it must loudly and unapologetically place the right to strike at the heart of its workplace policy agenda. It must embrace the labels the Tories throw at it as pejoratives: Labour must become the party of strikes.
“Workplace 2020”, if it is to be meaningful, must also be bold and radical in the reforms it advocates. A real living wage in Britain is almost certainly at least £10 per hour, and at least £12 in London, rather than the £8.25 figure promoted by the Living Wage Foundation. Learning from the “Fight for $15” movement in America, the Labour-affiliated Bakers, Food, and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has launched a campaign to organise fast food workers which includes the demand for a £10 per hour minimum wage. Will “Workplace 2020” follow the lead of the Labour-affiliated unions already at the forefront of some of the most radical campaigning on these issues, or stick with the more mainstream, but more conservative, living wage calculation?
When some Labour figures, including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, have spoken about collective bargaining and trade union voices in the workplace, their point of reference has appeared to be continental models of worker-participation where trade union representatives have seats on company boards. This would certainly be better than nothing, but the political wing of the industrial labour movement should aspire to something more: democratic workers’ control of industry, where, rather than workers collaborating with bosses to run the business, there are no bosses at all.
Certainly, this would terrify both the “business community”, and the right in the party itself. Good! Let them be terrified! Labour should be a party of class combat, not class collaboration.
It is perhaps too much to expect, given the still delicate balance of forces in Labour, despite Corbyn’s victory, and the political and organisational weakness of the wider labour movement, that “Workplace 2020” will be a manifesto for industrial warfare and workers’ control.
But even short of that far-off aspiration, there can still be a struggle to determine its character. It is unclear exactly how “Workplace 2020” will work as a consultation process, but if local Labour Parties and branches of affiliated unions are able to contribute in a meaningful and democratic way, as they should be, then there is every chance that the initiative could be shaped in a radical way.
Socialists in Labour and Labour-affiliated unions should use the launch of “Workplace 2020” as an opportunity to advocate for bold, radical, class-struggle policies inside the party.
If it develops in that direction, the initiative could play a serious role in rebuilding the confidence of workers to assert their interests and fight to extend their rights, rather than grimly defending a meagre status quo, or, worse, meekly accepting ceaseless attacks.