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How Labour’s ‘Plan to Make Work Pay’ Could Mark a Turning Point for the UK Trade Union Movements

The question for workers and bosses alike is not whether change is coming, but how far-reaching and transformative it will be

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Persimmon Homes development in York on June 20. Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during a visit to Persimmon Homes development in York on June 20. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

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They’re not exactly shouting it from the rooftops, but the Labour Party‘s manifesto promises a significant shift in the balance of power between workers and bosses in Britain.

Central to this pledge is the ‘Plan to Make Work Pay’, a major package of reforms that aims to empower unions, protect workers, and reverse years of erosion in labour rights – but for some, the initiatives don’t go far enough.

It’s been branded a watered-down version of Angela Rayner’s New Deal for Workers in 2021 with reports suggesting Labour rowed back on workers’ rights to combat Conservative “anti-business” claims. Unite told LabourList in May that the document had turned “what was a real new deal for workers into a charter for bad bosses” and labelled it a “betrayal”, with reforms being “unrecognisable” from plans originally produced with unions.

But, even half of the pledges are implemented as promised, a lot will change, and that’s one reason why – bar the odd spat – unity between Labour and the trade unions has been a quietly defining feature of this campaign.

“Exemplary,” is how Tony Burke, co-chair of the campaign for trade union freedom defined the working relationship so far, telling Byline Times, “Nobody has broken ranks. Even [RMT chief] Mick Lynch, who is not even affiliated with the Labour Party, has been on the sofa in the mornings and evenings doing positive interviews about the New Deal for Workers.”

Mick Lynch, Secretary-general of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

This solidarity is not just a show of strength, it reflects a genuine expectation that Labour will deliver on its manifesto promises. Burke puts it bluntly, Labour has “made the commitment; they’ve got no choice but to implement it”.

The proposed reforms are wide-ranging and ambitious and include banning zero-hours contracts and fire and rehire practices, granting employment rights from day one, and repealing anti-union laws like the recent Minimum Service Levels legislation. The aim appears to be a partial restoration of trade union power undermined over the past decade – and indeed the last 40 years of deindustrialisation, privatisation and anti-union attacks. 

Implementing the changes is unlikely to run smoothly. The civil service is expected to start preparing the groundwork, but they will listen to employers’ organisations like the CBI, the Institute of Directors, and the Federation of Small Businesses, and, Burke notes “lobbying will come from the likes of Amazon, McDonald’s, Deliveroo – the big users of precarious labour”.

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One of the more straightforward changes is likely to be the repeal of Minimum Service Levels (MSL) legislation. Introduced by the Conservative government, MSLs have proven ineffective and unpopular, even among employers. “Nobody wants it. Every time they tried it, it just fell apart, as we said it would,” Burke notes.

The fight for union recognition, is more complex. In the 1990s, unions like the graphical paper media union lobbied hard for the right to guaranteed recognition if workers wanted it, as employers increasingly refused to engage. 

The Blair government eventually introduced a cumbersome process with exemptions for companies under 21 employees, making widespread union recognition difficult. Labour will need to learn from these past experiences to create a more effective system.

The introduction of employment rights like protection from unfair dismissal, statutory sick pay from day one is another area of potential debate. A probation or trial period seems likely before full rights are granted – as reports in August 2023 – but Burke believes a compromise is possible.

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Another significant change could be the move to online balloting for industrial action, something unions have long campaigned for, arguing that it would bring unions into line with what the Conservative Party allows for its internal elections. 

The Conservative Party has long opposed allowing online union strike ballots, a hypocrisy is not lost on union leaders: “The Tories continue to oppose it without any real logic because, of course, it’s used even by the Tory party for elections,” Burke states.

The repeal of the Trade Union Act 2016 will remove even more barriers to industrial action. The Act introduced minimum thresholds for strike ballots, with an even higher threshold in some public services like health, which unions argue are unfair and restrictive. Burke doesn’t believe that removing thresholds will necessarily lead to a surge in strikes, but employers will be nervous regardless. 

Perhaps the most ambitious proposal is the introduction of sectoral collective bargaining in the care sector. The idea would require the involvement of employers’ bodies that may not currently exist or have the necessary negotiating skills to broker collective agreements for pay and conditions.

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Burke sees this as a significant challenge, but draws inspiration from New Zealand’s experience under former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. “Sectoral collective bargaining is going to be a mega issue for care homes” – and Labour may have to face down tough employer lobbying against it, he explained.

Despite the challenges, there is a sense of cautious optimism and determination among some union figures to see the changes through. Labour’s victory will be viewed as a turning point and a chance to reverse decades of decline in union power and worker protections. 

The potential for a revival in union membership is real, as workers see the tangible benefits of labour market reforms like scrapping (most) zero hours contracts. 

But success will require more than just legislation. It will need a strong, determined Secretary of State willing to push through changes in the face of employer opposition and unions to seize the moment to organise and recruit in new ways, harnessing the power of online engagement and workplace activism.

Big employers are just going to have to realise that they just can’t keep saying no to things, when it looks like at this stage, the country is overwhelmingly in favour of change

Tony Burke,  co-chair of the campaign for trade union freedom

Unions know they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rewrite the rules of the workplace and given Labour’s poll leads, the question for workers and bosses alike is not whether change is coming, but how far-reaching and transformative it will be. 

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