At this year’s Trades Union Congress (TUC), unions supported a statement that moving to a four day working week was an achievable goal “this century.” This comes as more and more research supports shortening the working week and allowing workers more leisure time in response to automation and digitalisation – whilst employers are trying to make us work longer and in worse conditions so they can make do with less of us.
The Modernising Employment Provisions deal offered in Ministry of Justice, which sought to increase pay by trading off terms and conditions, is just the latest such deal to come from the bosses. A deal that most unions in the NHS accepted has now been revealed to be worth less than originally claimed. Asda increased pay in exchange for changes to working patterns and the removal of in social premiums in a deal accepted by GMB. Sainsbury’s are now looking at a similar deal, but unlike Asda are threatening to dismiss anyone who doesn’t accept the terms rather than allowing an opt out. Returning to the civil service, HMRC are watching the response to the MoJ offer very closely as they want to do similar things to terms and conditions.
There is a definite trend here, where deals that are accepted in one workplace give the bosses confidence to push further in the next. The DWP Employee Deal is not the same as the MoJ MEP offer, but just as the acceptance of the Asda deal was followed by the more vindictive Sainsbury’s deal, there is a clear chain reaction – one explicitly supported in the case of civil service employers by the Cabinet Office pay remit. Getting workers to surrender hard won terms gets you more money in the pot.
This only underlines that the bosses will make concessions only so long as that is less disruptive to them than the benefit of not doing so. The advance of the gig economy and the widespread of outsourcing are both defended as these sectors are largely unorganised, and even where unions have a presence – including strongholds of the public sector – the bosses feel confident enough to go on the offensive.
In this context, a cynic might say that the TUC appears over ambitious calling for a reduction of the working week even within a 100-year timeframe. But in reality the confidence of the bosses comes back to the decades-long retreat of the unions and a lack of ambition. After all, the TUC is far from the head of the pack in making their call. The radical IWW union was first to take up the call, but even the likes of the Green Party came to this conclusion ahead of the TUC.
What unions need to do now is, rather than waiting to resist or (more likely) moderate the decline of terms and conditions is to regroup and go on the offensive. Demand a shorter full time working week with no loss in pay, and more – every worker will be able to point to other rights lacking in their workplace, or even for one group of workers in that workplace since multi-tier workforces are the norm now.
It’s easy to say that this is a pipe dream, that it is unrealistic or unworkable. Many workers may even think it themselves. This should not be a reason to avoid the fight.
The CWU’s “four pillars” victory in the Royal Mail put the union on the path to a shorter working week and to an improved pension scheme for all workers that ended the previous two-tier scheme. This was despite the employer’s initial intent, as elsewhere, to make terms and conditions worse on the back of privatisation. The turnaround happened because they organised, because they put forward ambitious demands and, most importantly, because they engaged with members on the question of what could improve and what would be necessary to win that. This led to an impressive ballot result that got them what they wanted without having to take a single day of strike action.
There’s no point having aspirations for something that might happen within a century. We need to organise now, not just to slow the decline but to win real improvements. From the CWU winning their four pillars to small, independent unions beating zero hours contracts and the gig economy, we know it can be done.
We just have to be realistic, and demand the impossible.