TThe UK is a low strike society and a low wage economy is no strange coincidence. Poverty on the job is at record lows in large part because working days lost due to strikes are at record lows. When unions were shattered by a mixture of legislation, defeats, and mass unemployment in the 1980s, we lost our most effective means of ensuring that workers got a fair share of the pie they were making.
That is why Boris Johnson’s declaration that work is the best way out of poverty is poaching the nation from the pulpit of the premiership. Most people who live in poverty work. He may brag about healthy employment numbers, but the fact that they are accompanied by an unprecedented crisis in living standards exposes the inequality that has been built into our economic model because people’s wages cannot meet rising price inflation.
Millions of workers are deprived of comfortable living in large part because organizing for better wages and conditions has become deliberately difficult. The Conservative Party plotting to further disrupt an already battered labor movement must be understood as yet another attack on workers’ living standards.
In response to the National Rail, Marine and Transportation Union’s vote for its members to support industrial action, ministers threatened to legislate to make effective strikes illegal. The motive behind the proposed action is very clear: a wage freeze – or given inflation has surged to a four-decade high at 9%, wage cuts in real terms – and the loss of 2,500 jobs.
Those opposing the measure highlight the supposedly exorbitant salaries of train drivers, which range from £20,000 to £65,000. They’re the same people, of course, who would lament about the “politics of envy” if the millionaire’s rising salaries are called into question. But train drivers’ wages are advertising to hit and not against. By taking industrial action – rather than giving in to their power – drivers have succeeded in increasing their salaries.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, has called on workers to practice “wage restriction”: an easier requirement to do when your paycheck is half a million each year, rather than say a care worker earning £17,000, nearly 30 times. However, the price hike was not caused by rising wages, but by supply chain problems in China, rising energy costs, and companies reaping huge profits.
Workers’ response to a crisis imposed on them should not be a rigid acceptance of their lot. We’ve had, unfortunately, too much of that. According to the Center for Higher Pay, the median CEO earns 111 times more than the lowest-paid worker. We spend tens of billions of pounds annually on business benefits and personal debt is ballooning to unprecedented levels.
Unionized workers benefit from a so-called “wage premium” of between 10% and 15%, while unions also push the salaries of non-union workers higher. The government doesn’t lack the tools to solve the cost-of-living crisis, like raising the minimum wage and Social Security benefits, but strengthening unions is a no-brainer. After all, does anyone really believe that countries like Sweden – where nearly nine out of 10 workers are covered by collective bargaining agreement, and where living standards are much higher than ours – are economic disasters?
Expect an escalating media attack against the unions. Ours is one in which the working class is demonized for being too weak – supposedly impoverished by a lack of ambition; And because they are too strong to dare to fight for a fair share of the wealth they create through graft.
Yes, strikes are uncomfortable, but is a day of turmoil a more painful intrusion into the lives of millions than leaving workers without enough money to pay their bills or feed their families?
If we are to give an example to Britain’s train drivers, they must inspire workers to respond. Low wages are a scandal and a national emergency, and they can be addressed if workers have the power to claim what is rightfully theirs. If train drivers have the courage to reject the wage collapse, then, surely, it must be a workforce that has succumbed to stagnation and decline for far too long.
Owen Jones is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper