Labour and Industry

rts17dqJeremy Corbyn’s recent speech to engineering and manufacturing employers has ( as is generally the case!) been misrepresented. Launching Labour’s Build it in Britain, Corbyn has been accused of wanting to establish a ‘protectionist’ blanket around UK manufacturing and by implication being ‘pro-Brexit’ even though it’s questionable whether there’s anything in EU legislation that would prevent this.

Yet, in arguing that all state contracts should be awarded to UK companies, Corbyn was restating Labour’s commitment to rebuilding the manufacturing sector and by implication, halting the drift to low-paid, insecure and zero hours work, by creating thousands of skilled jobs.

Likewise, Labour’s proposals for channelling £250 billion worth of funds through a National Investment Bank, linked to regional investment plans, creating a more accountable financial sector and upping expenditure for education and skills are in sharp contrast to anything offered by Theresa May.

Beyond this however, Labour must do some broader thinking – accepting that the damage done by the Tories in recent years has intensified but not caused the decline in UK manufacturing and recognising that because of changes in consumer demand, all the world’s major economies are to varying degrees effectively becoming service economies. With the likelihood that most of manufacturing will be automated by the middle of the twenty first century, then hoping the sector will restore employment opportunities is unrealistic. Work could start on developing a post-industrial strategy. The aim would be to ensure that the only alternative to deindustrialisation is not the polarisation of income and the unfettered expansion of ‘precariat’ work.

For a party built on the back of an industrial working class and its trade unions however, this is easier said than done. Through expanding industry, Labour like other social democratic parties has sought to grow the economic cake so there will be more to go around. Instead it means accepting a flatter cake and focussing on redistribution issues. All European social democratic parties face this dilemma.


Wanted: a POST INDUSTRIAL strategy

After last week’s budget, we now get  the government’s Theresa+May+Chancellor+Leaves+Downing+Street+iPElQT64J6Wlequally uninspiring ‘industrial strategy’. Based on proposals published in January of this year, the 250 page Building a Britain fit for the future  claims to provide ‘a new approach to how government and business can work together’.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s more about the continued endorsement of free market economics and the success of ‘flexible’ labour – the reason why industrial strategies were no longer considered necessary.  This is combined with a few proposals to bump up investment in ‘cutting edge’ industries which already do relatively well, in areas  already prosperous –  for example, the Oxford/Cambridge/Milton Keynes triangle.

While paying lip service to the importance of a few Northern ‘core cities’, the White Paper ignores  most of the areas  that are in terminal decline, because of historical neglect and lack of investment. It offers little to the millions of people in insecure and poorly paid employment at the lower end of the service sector.

In promising a ‘world class’ technical education, the White Paper is reaffirming existing commitments to introducing Tech-level qualifications as alternatives to A-levels – but these are as unlikely to be anymore successful than previous similar initiatives because they are not linked to an employment plan for young people.

May’s proposals are far removed from the approach of the economies they hopes to emulate – Germany and some of the Pacific Rim countries which have pursued much higher levels of state intervention and spent far greater sums of money (and in the case of Germany, enjoy much greater degrees of collaboration between state, employers and trade unions).

Labour’s alternative proposals for a National Investment Bank, increased borrowing for investment in manufacturing and nationalising parts of the infrastructure are much better, yet rather than pretending that after years of decline, industry can be restored; and then trying to copy the uncopiable,  surely time could be better spent developing  a POST-INDUSTRIAL strategy with at least some of the following objectives?

1)A much larger role for the state in running the economy – combined with decentralised regional strategies, accountable to local people. A planned introduction of automation.

2)Ditching fiscal orthodoxy – introducing the ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’, originally promoted by Labour, where new money is directed to socially useful projects rather than into the banking system.

3)Massive public expenditure on housing, social care and energy conservation.

4)Education for self-development and social responsibility, rather than just ‘skills’.

5)Ending dependency on low-paid service sector employment. Bringing in a Universal Basic Income in addition to existing benefits, not instead of them.

Capital’s ‘reserve army’ (part 2)

UK unemployment continues to fall, it’s now at 4.4%, downloaddown from 4.9 % a year ago. Yet much more significant is the greater increase in the size of the workforce. For example, the most recent monthly ONS data shows a fall in unemployment of just under 160,000 over the year, but a 340 000 increase in those working.  The increased availability of part-time work with irregular hours continues to attract some of those previously ‘economically inactive’ – not in work, but not looking for it, the ONS figures show a 90 000 fall of people in this category, but the data also shows a 126, 000 increases in non-UK nationals from the EU working in the UK (bringing the total to 2.37 million). So, while unemployment may be the lowest since 1975, the UK labour market isn’t ‘tightening’ – a recent survey shows employers received an average of 24 applicants for unskilled vacancies and 19 for medium skilled. 

Karl Marx used the term ‘reserve army’ to describe the pool of semi-employed or unemployed workers who were the consequence of ‘overproduction’ and the rising organic composition of capital (the replacement of labour by machines).  Even if the concept might be a useful one, the nature of this modern reserve is now rather different. Rather than being part of Marx’s impoverished ‘lumpen’ workforce for example, research shows that migrant workers are likely to be overqualified (compared with UK nationals, a greater proportion have degrees) for the jobs they are recruited.

With new jobs as likely to be low-skilled as highly skilled (around 5 million people in total, reporting they are ‘over qualified’ for the jobs they currently hold) then the existence of large reserve army will severely limit increases in wages – as inflation rises, ‘real wages’ are now starting to fall again and predicted to fall further. Wages are also being dragged down by changes in employment status. The ONS data shows nearly 900,000 people on zero-hours contracts, despite a growing campaign against them, with 15% of people now declaring themselves ‘self-employed’ a category synonymous with low-pay.  



Brexit and skills shortages

Alarm bells continue to ring about the implications of (a hard) Brexit 0E29785B00000578-0-More_than_a_third_318_000_of_the_872_000_Eastern_Europeans_worki-m-5_1432072882386for UK skill levels, future growth and prosperity.  By the end of 2016 there were 2.2 million working EU migrants -7% of the labour force.  Most recently there’s been specific concern about the effect of Brexit on an already understaffed NHS. EU immigrants make up about 5% of NHS staff (10% of registered doctors and 4% of registered nurses).

Migrants from the original 14 EU member states are more likely to be in better-paid employment, requiring higher skill levels – such as the business and finance sectors. By comparison, despite significant representation in professional and managerial categories, later Eastern European migrants provide a regular supply of semi and unskilled labour. In the ‘hotels, restaurants, and accommodation’ sector they make up I in 8 of the workforce and in construction over 7%.  According to one survey, (CIPD, Facing the future 2017) 40% of EU migrants could be considered ‘over-educated’ for the work they do, compared to 15% of UK nationals (evidence shows that, overall, EU migrants tend to be more highly qualified than UK workers).

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has given Brexit a socialist tweak, telling the BBC (23/07) that the “wholesale importation” of workers from Eastern and Central Europe has been used to undermine pay and working conditions particularly in industries like construction. CIPD report that one in seven employers consider EU nationals have lower expectations about pay and conditions, but they also regarded them as more productive.

It isn’t clear however, whether wages would rise if EU migration was curtailed. According to the CIPD study, a quarter of employers reported difficulties in recruiting UK born candidates for semi-skilled and unskilled posts.  To ease shortages, employers could recruit from ‘underutilised’ groups like young people. Unemployment rates for young people are still double that generally – 1 in 8  of all 19-24 years olds are still NEET, but many UK employers have been reluctant to offer proper apprenticeships.

With new ‘flexible’ working arrangements in the 24/7 service sector, employers will also continue to recruit from groups  not wanting to work on ‘standard’ contracts because of family and caring responsibilities (over 4 million part-time women workers, don’t want or can’t do full-time employment for example) and almost a million full time students currently work part time. It’s clear that this pool of labour is not yet exhausted.

Employers could also automate. While it is difficult to replace workers with machines in many low skilled ‘non-routine’ jobs like serving in restaurants or in-home care, many other jobs could be, however the CIPD survey found little concrete evidence of any plans to do this.  Uncertainty about the post Brexit economic climate may be a factor, but the UK’s historically low rate of capital investment (compared with other countries) is probably more significant.  In other words, for key sections of UK business a low-skilled, low-pay business model is the most preferred and a hard Brexit would result in a labour shortage, as much as a skills problem. Without a migrant ‘reserve army’ many employers may not be prepared to keep businesses running at all.

As Matthew Taylor publishes his report, its automation that’s the elephant in the room

Election discussion about the economy, employment, and skills, largely avoided any reference to the9780861043644-us-300 (4) debate about automation and its consequences for work. Even if it’s accepted that technological progress will eliminate jobs (though there are major differences of opinion about how many) it’s also generally argued  that low-paid unskilled work will be replaced by new,  more rewarding types of employment and that people should continue to be up-skilled to take advantage of these.

It’s certainly the case that previous periods of technological upheaval have not resulted in prolonged periods of mass unemployment, yet there has been a stream of accounts – admittedly mostly from the more liberal fringes of Silicon Valley – about the future implications of robotics and artificial intelligence for social cohesion, rising social inequality and much higher levels of unemployment.

The Queen’s speech  reaffirmed  government priorities “My ministers will work to ensure people have the skills they need for the high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future”  but Labour has also continued to have an equally optimistic view –albeit emphasising the importance of reviving investment levels and replacing free-market forces with much greater degrees of state planning, better infrastructure, improved technical education and free university attendance.

Thirty-five years since Andre Gorz’s essay on the potential benefits of automation in the creation of ‘post-industrial’ socialism, which prioritises self-autonomous leisure rather than imposed work, Labour’s policies (whatever their other merits) continue to be based around  the importance of full (time) employment, with the ‘bad’ jobs of the Tories being replaced by Labour’s better ones. In a week that  sees the publication of Matthew Taylor’s report on employment practices, Gorz, still vilified by most of the traditional left, is at least worth  revisiting. 

The Gig is Up? TUC conference on insecure work

With growing concerns about the dramatic increase of insecure employment and the abuses of the ‘gig economy’, this week’s TUC conference was a welcome intervention.  According to the TUC, 1 in 10 workers are now affected by casualization and job insecurity, which invariably combine with low pay.   Increasing numbers are also ‘self-employed’ often against their wishes. The TUC  estimates that there are 1.7 million low paid self-employed.

Protecting this increasingly diverse and fragmented group of workers is a herculean task. The Tory government has commission the RSA’s Matthew Taylor to report on the current employment practices – this is expected very shortly, but as the conference understood, it’s only by electing a (more left wing) Labour government that employment laws could be changed and trade union rights restored. Labour’s plans for infrastructure spending and greater investment would, its argued,  lead to increased productivity through better jobs.  

Many of those attending the conference also had some excellent ideas about how new technology can be used to develop new ways for organising self-employed and agency workers, but short-term, front line, more immediate initiatives need to be combined with a greater awareness of the implications of major shifts in production and distribution. These developments, if more apparent in economies like the UK and the US are also universal developments, requiring new types of understanding and new strategies.

Mass trade unionism (UK membership reached its 13 million plus peak in the late 1970s) was associated with labour intensive/production line manufacturing, where it was often in the interests of employers to reach collective agreements and to standardise pay and working conditions. These types of arrangements – now referred to as ‘Fordism’, also predominated in other sectors of society. As a result, workers were provided with permanent and regular jobs, developing more collective occupational identities.  

As the twenty first century unfolds, developments in technology have resulted in the extensive automation of manufacturing and a much smaller ‘core’ workfare producing a greater output. Yet growing productivity and efficiency in manufacturing has not resulted in the expansion of highly skilled professional service sector employment, at least not to the extent that business theory had suggested –on the contrary, significant areas of this employment has been broken down into ‘para-professional’ work.

It’s no accident that as the size of the ‘core’ workforce has contracted, then so has the strength of the trade union movement – some estimate this will fall from the current 6 million to 3 million within a generation. Huge numbers of people who have become ‘surplus to production’ now depend on rather different types of work, providing ‘services’ for those more fully employed – like staffing bars, hotels, and restaurants, cleaning  houses, delivering  take away meals and dropping off on-line shopping products. Because of continued outsourcing and sub-contracting, many are no longer ‘employees’ in the traditional sense, sometimes not knowing who they are really working for, even who they are working with.

Yet, the TUC argues that ‘work is still the most important route out of poverty and to a better standard of living’ even though for many people, its own statistics show this is no longer the case. Now, rather than state benefits being associated with periods of unemployment, a new ‘working poor’ depends on state benefits to supplement full-time work. Despite the support for a universal basic, or ‘citizens’ income  increasing, this continues to by-pass the TUC (and the Labour Party).

Accepting the argument, that for many, work will no longer pay, will also enable a fuller discussion about the advantages of automating many jobs and reducing hours (as well as stress). It might be true that while some types of work can never be completely automated, as technology continues to race ahead, there are few jobs where automation cannot be extended. But while labour is so cheap and so plentiful however and paid work seen as the only route to salvation, this debate is less likely to happen.


Download the TUC’s  The gig is up

1 in 4 trade union members now work in education

thAlmost 1 in 4 of trade union members are employed in education. According to the ONS 1.47 million of a total union membership of 6.2 million are now drawn from this sector. With almost half (47.7%) of all employees belonging to a trade union, the education has probably become the most organised. (In manufacturing, union density is now below 1 in 5 and in construction, only 1 in 8)

The ONS provides interesting –but in many cases, slightly alarming data, about the current state of the UK trade union movement, which is now less than half the size of its 13 million 1979 peak. The level of membership  decreased by 275 000 between 2015/16 alone, the largest overall fall since records begun.

In addition:

  • Just 32.5% of workers are trade union members (13.4% in the private sector ,  52.7% of public)
  • 4 out of 10 trade union members are over 50, but only 1 in 20 are between 18-24
  • 4 out of 10 members can be classified as ‘professional’ workers. 43% have degrees
  • Trade union density amongst female employees is now greater than it is for males
  • Over a third of ‘middle earners’ (£500 – £999 a week) and 1 in 6 of employees earning over £1000 a week are in unions. Only I in 8 of those earning less than £250 a week are TU members

Trade union can’t and won’t ignore these changes, but at the same time they will recognise these are as much the result of longer-term structural trends across labour markets as they are the consequences of draconian anti- trade union legislation or government policies and develop new strategies accordingly.

school-office-staff1That education workers now play a key role in the labour movement, provides both further impetus for greater organisational unity  (despite the NUT/ATL merger at least 10 different unions operate in the sector, often in competition with each other),   but also for creating more effective ways of working with student and parental bodies.