Class, Collective Bargaining and Labour Rights

Bob Jeffery and Peter Thomas

The proportion of workers employed in a workplace where a recognised trade union has collective agreements (over matters such as pay and working conditions) in the UK is just 26%, a historic low. In the public sector a majority of workers still find themselves in this position whereas in the private sector this falls to fewer than one in six. The rate also varies vastly by industry: almost half of educational workplaces have collective agreements, but this is less than 4% in ‘accommodation and food services’. As Geneviève Coderre-LaPalme and Ian Greer have pointed out, even these figures are deceptive and whereas unions negotiate over pay in a slim majority of private sector workplaces where they are recognised, far fewer are engaged in bargaining over working time, holidays and pensions.


We won’t rehearse the story of how we got to where we are, though we would follow Charles Umney in noting that the supposed power of the trade unions was ‘dismantled surprisingly easily’ in the 1980s. This was achieved through a combination of the blunt force of legislation (restrictions on picketing, ‘cooling off’ periods, employer injunctions, restrictions on paid time off for trade union duties), the brute force of repression (Orgreave), and a preparedness of employers to take drastic steps to reduce the power of the trade unions (including privatisation and the proliferation of subcontracting).

What have been the consequences of the historic defeat of the trade union movement? Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have persuasively demonstrated the links between trade union membership, income inequality and the proportion of the national wealth going to the richest, while also linking the decline of the unions to privatisation, deregulation and the shift to ‘flexible’ labour markets. Such flexibility has been associated with rising levels of precarious and insecure work, including the proliferation of zero-hour contracts (upwards of 800,000). These, combined with forms of ‘bogus’ self-employment and short-term contracts comprise what has become known as the ‘gig’ economy. While accepting that precarity can affect a range of people, we would argue against Standing’s view that the Precariat constitutes a wholly new class. The reality is that the working classes are disproportionately exposed to precarity. Trade union strength and labour rights (or the absence of both) are therefore class matters.

In collaboration with Sheffield Trades Union Council (TUC) and colleagues at Staffordshire and Manchester Metropolitan Universities, we have been investigating the consequences of these patterns of employment locally. Needless to say, one of the greatest barriers to the exercise of employment rights is that, on a zero hours contract, lifting your head above the parapet may be enough to not be invited back for another shift. But it doesn’t stop there. From not enough hours and unpaid work, to having to buy your own uniform or safety equipment, the whole spectrum of shoddy employment practices is on display. One courier we spoke to estimates that after deductions (hire of company van, fuel, performance related fines) they earn around £1.40 per hour. Many of the young women we interviewed from the hospitality sector, mirroring findings on a national scale, had been exposed to sexual harassment from customers, co-workers or management.

Nonetheless, I want to end this blog on a somewhat happier note. There is evidence of ‘green shoots’ in the trade union movement. Unions such as the GMB are now taking on gig economy employers (e.g.  Amazon, Uber, Hermes) and are winning, while Unite have raised the profile of workers in Sports Direct and TGI Fridays. Finally, as a direct consequence of our research, Sheffield TUC have entered into a partnership agreement with the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union to hire a part-time organiser in order to bring their Fast Food Workers Rights campaign to Sheffield, a campaign that in September 2017 led to the first ever strikes in McDonalds UK history. This campaigning and those strikes were promptly followed by the offer from the employer of more secure contracts and a pay rise.

Dr Bob Jeffrey chaired a seminar on Wednesday 17th April on the subject of Austerity, Class & Precarity. Bob was joined on the panel by Charles Umney of University of Leeds, Professor David Whyte (University of Liverpool) and Dr Vickie Cooper (Open University).


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