Time to talk about “a better recovery”

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Time to talk about “a better recovery”

Frances O'Grady

The TUC hosted a mini-conference (on zoom) to launch its new report A Better Recovery this week. The report sets out a plan to getting Britain growing out of the crisis and preventing mass unemployment.

TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, was joined on the panel by Shadow Chancellor, Annalise Dodds, and Financial Times Economic Correspondent, Martin Sandhu.

Frances opened the conference reflecting that the pandemic had brought into stark relief the effects of a decade of austerity, public sector cuts and fragmentation through privatisation. It had also caused us to think really hard about the true value of labour. People could see now that the most important jobs in society – in the care sector, retail, transport, refuge collection, delivery – all the essential jobs that people had to keep on doing despite ‘lock-down’ – were paid the least. It caused us to revaluate how we saw this work and the people doing it.

Also we could see what it is possible to do if we really want – hospitals built almost overnight, redirection of resources and people working together to produce equipment and solutions. We had to question why, if we really want a fairer and greener future, we aren’t getting on with it in the same focussed way. It was up to us to work now to deliver this future, especially for the young who are more likely to be employed in those sectors that would be hardest hit and most changed by Covid-19 – the leisure and hospitality sectors.

The hard right was starting to worry about the public’s willingness to see changes and greater state intervention. We have learned, she said, that wisdom does not exist in Westminster or the Board Rooms and that there is support for the Union Voice.

Frances was followed by Shadow Chancellor Annalise Dodds, drawing an interesting parallel with the situation facing the Attlee Government after World War II. That government went forward with confidence and ambition. Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, launched a scathing attack on Churchill and his support for “unequal freedoms” – unequal because they favoured the well off and powerful but left the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged.

We must go forward with the same confidence and ambition or risk embedding low growth, long-term unemployment and all the social ills that go alongside.
The need for industrial coordination had been demonstrated by the rush to try to produce adequate PPE and testing during the pandemic. This shows up what could be done about environmental concerns and fighting climate change if we had a mind to. The best chance to weather the storms and keep jobs in the UK was an active government. It was not good enough to leave the unemployed to sink or swim, intervention was necessary. Also, those companies and businesses seeking government assistance should be required to sign up to a new social contract which would include pay, worker’s protections and environmental conditions.

Martin Sandhu from the Financial Times brought some interesting insights to the discussion. He agreed that the result of Covid-19 had been throw everything wide open. Highlighting the fractures in and polarisation of society. It was also, he said, a fertile moment, when there was mounting pressure for big social changes.
A recent article in the FT looking at the need for change and a new social contract had been the most widely read and commented on in the papers history. It was he said a mark of general acceptance of the need for change.

Another positive on the side of change was that a lot of disruption had already happened. In a perverse sense this was a good thing. Any change caused disruption, which people found unsettling, but if disruption had already occurred it was easier to accept. So the politics for rebuilding a ‘better way’ are in place he argued, but we need to agree about is what that ‘better’ is.

But, he cautioned we must be honest and up front about the disruption. People won’t be going back to the same old jobs. The price for higher wages he said was that people would be employed in a different way and whole sections of the economy, which currently function on low paid and insecure labour, will need a rethink. And we must take this on board and own up to what it might mean.

If we are to make this a 1945 Moment we need to broaden the conversation and look at the impact on the economy as a whole. Most important we must avoid a zero sum game.

We also need to think beyond fairness he argued. We need to look at training and skills upgrades. If the new social contract means lots of different jobs it will also mean equipping people to do them. And in macro-economic terms: both the public and the private sector will be facing huge debts. We know from past experience that this leads to inertia and an unwillingness for business to grow. But we also know that shrinking the economy and austerity does not work. If we want to build demand and to create a ‘high pressure economy’ we also need to face up to the awkward question ‘how do we pay for it’?

There was a short time for questions. Many of these were about how to build the movement. General Secretary, Ian Lawrence asked specifically what the TUC was doing to help with promoting unionisation and recruitment.

Frances O’Grady answered honestly that the current disruption was affecting the trade union movement as much as any other sector. We are focussing on immediate issues, health and safety and avoiding redundancies. However, the TUC had been aware for some time of the fact that most people now joined a union online and the new generation had different expectations from their union. They, and many different unions, were already looking at new ways of organising but now this had been forced on us. We will be taking our own big leap into the digital era she said and reported that the summer would see big (online) festival showcasing new models of organising. (More details to follow)

The TUC report A Better Recovery can be found here https://www.tuc.org.uk/ABetterRecovery

An investment for growth approach means taking action on six key areas:

  • Decent work and a new way of doing business: New business models based on fairer employment relationships. A fairer share for workers of the wealth they create, with a higher minimum wage and new collective bargaining rights.
  • Sustainable industry: Economic stimulus for a just transition to net zero carbon. Rebuilding the UK’s industrial capacity with modern tech and training in new skills.
  • A real safety net: Reforms to social security to provide help faster and prevent poverty. A job guarantee scheme so everyone can work and long-term unemployment does not take hold.
  • Rebuilding public services: Bringing our public services back to full strength, with decent pay for those who looked after us in the crisis, and a new focus on good jobs and direct employment in social care.
  • Equality at work: Specific actions to make sure women, disabled people and BME groups do not suffer disproportionately from the impact of the coronavirus recession.
  • Rebuilding internationalism: New international rules must prioritise decent jobs and public services for all.
    The TUC says “evidence from the post-war recovery is that this investment for growth recovery plan can pay for itself. Millions of working families with higher disposable income create the economic demand needed for strong growth and healthy public finances. Stronger public services and an effective safety net will support people to start and grow businesses, and will better protect against a future pandemic”.

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