In one sense we welcome the TUC’s new pamphlet Does Work Work for you? A Young Worker’s Guide to their Rights and Trade Union Membership. A key factor in favour of capitalists over workers is the fact that each new generation of workers often has the relearn the lessons of its ancestors, and as such each new worker generally enters the work place feeling isolated and overwhelmed. The employer can get away with a great deal that has already been made illegal as a result of previous worker’s struggles, without many workers realising. Therefore this pamphlet could be very useful, in that it explains the rights of workers in areas such as the minimum wage, working hours and breaks and agency work.
All workers’ gains are a result of struggle, and there is no suggestion that this pamphlet is part of any serious campaign to recruit and educate young workers and struggle to end injustice. If this pamphlet is not distributed effectively, and if the rights it publicises are not actively struggled for, then these rights will simply be ignored or rolled back by the employers.
Indeed, the spirit of the pamphlet seems more of compromise and passivity toward the employers than the fighting and self-sacrifice that were necessary to gain these rights in the first place. It correctly states that the minimum wage must go higher, but then supports 16-17 year olds getting a smaller minimum wage for the same work. The trouble is, there is not any mention whatsoever of how the minimum was brought in in the first place, and what happened in the past under a Tory government. Nor is there any mention of the imminent danger that if we do not campaign now to strengthen and extend the minimum wage, then the capitalist system will exploit this passivity to constantly strive to undermine the already insufficient minimum.
According to the TUC’s own report, more than 1.5 million workers are being "cheated" out of the national minimum wage by dishonest employers already. Therefore what is needed is an active campaign to unite workers against these abuses, and to protect them from the inevitable recession-induced pressure to scrap the minimum. This is especially likely if the Tories get in. Such an explanation could give young workers enough understanding and perspective to join in such a campaign; unfortunately a simple stating of the minimum wage’s existence won’t do that.
Again, the pamphlet’s description of young workers rights in relation to working hours is helpful but uninspiring. There is no criticism of instances where it is legal to make workers work long hours, or any perspective on how to change this. It speaks of the right to ‘voluntarily’ work longer hours, without pointing out the complete power imbalance between the employer and the propertyless, isolated and inexperienced young worker. The only way to eliminate this imbalance is to campaign for full unionisation and union negotiated working hours. The pamphlet also misses a great opportunity, when describing the right of young workers to a once weekly 48 hour rest, to explain that without trade unions we wouldn’t have weekends! It is presented as if such rights were bequeathed to us in an amicable agreement with the bosses!
The section on agency workers – a key issue for young workers and a likely source of radicalisation in the future, and an issue whose neglect by the Trade Union leaders has been criminal – is particularly weak. There is no attempt to explain the advantages of agency work for capitalists, and its disadvantages for workers and society as a whole. Its degrading effect on working conditions and, crucially, unionisation, is completely ignored. The pamphlet should explain that the most precious quality of the working class is its unity, and it is this quality that is precisely what unions are there to develop.
The usefulness in using agency work to divide the workers is clear in the recent sacking of all the agency workers at the BMW Mini factory in Oxford. If all the workers had been united in the same conditions and agreements through one union, this tragedy would not have happened. And it is largely young workers that are suffering through this. There is a brief passage saying the TUC campaigns for equal terms for agency workers – but there is no explanation as to how this will be achieved, how we should fight further contracting out, and absolutely no encouragement to get involved in this campaign.
Any attempt to give young workers a grounding in their basic rights and an introduction to trade unionism is welcome. But the TUC seems not to be asking itself why young workers are not signing up. They are not signing up because the TUC leadership is not leading, but is tail-ending the class struggle.