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What an honour it is for me, as President, to chair the 2017 TUC Congress here in Brighton.
We are here to make TUC policy, and I expect this Congress to be full of well informed and passionate debate. This is our shop window on the world. Here we speak about the issues which are so incredibly important – about good work, about fair pay, about the kind of society that we want for ourselves and for our children.
The theme of this year’s conference, on the Congress badge, is ‘changing the world of work, for good’. And that is the core of everything we do.
Comrades, the government should be ashamed that in a country which is the fifth richest in the world, so many citizens are insecure. So many do not know what their wage packet will be from week to week. So many work all the hours God sends, but cannot make enough to make ends meet.
I know the effects of insecure work from a very personal basis. A young person I know very well found herself, after several years working abroad, returning home and looking for temporary work. She took a job in a café where she was paid just £8 an hour. And that was in central London.
But it was the working practices in this café that were even more shocking than the rock bottom wages. A camera permanently on so that the absent owners could see how busy the café was – and ring up to send employees home if business was slow – but not pay them for the hours they were expecting to work, were ready to work, but were required to sign off because business was too slow.
All employees required to be part of a WhatsApp group, constantly on call, bombarded with questions from the owners about why the takings for a morning were £1.54 pence out; or why the coffee machine had not been cleaned properly.
Conference, it was shocking. Exploitation taking place before my eyes to someone I love dearly. But that is how it is for hundreds of thousands of young workers who have borne the brunt of austerity and are now on the frontline of low-paid, insecure work which offers them no prospect of a decent life.
And my close knowledge of the experiences of one young worker has prompted me to take a special interest in the TUC’s young workers project.
Because there is no doubt, comrades, that we face a real challenge in organising young workers.
Less than one in ten of Britain’s young workers in the private sector are in a union. And in the public sector, where trade union density is higher, it is at its lowest for young workers.
And yet, these are the workers who most need to be in a union, so that they can organise to make their world of work better. So, why are they not union members?
Congress, the simple truth of the matter is this: many, many young workers do not know what a trade union is, never mind what the benefits of being a trade union member are.
The majority work in sectors like retail, hospitality and privatised social care where unions can be a very rare beast, hard to see in the forest of poverty and poor work which surrounds them.
And when the TUC asked hundreds of young workers about their experience of work, there is a strong perception – it comes through time and time again – that unions are for others, not for them: unions are for the public sector, for older people, for those in careers rather than jobs.
The TUC’s research reveals that young workers don’t identify as having problems at work. They have low expectations about what work can offer. They have a lack of trust. And they have a sense of futility, because when they’ve tried to change things in the past nothing happened.
That’s why the TUC’s new campaign plan has young workers as one of its top priorities. And why we’ve all got to get behind the TUC’s new young workers’ campaign – to rebuild our membership among the younger generation.
Not just delivering the justice, fairness and equality young workers deserve – but rebuilding our collective strength. The young deserve no less. They suffer the most from rampant inequality and injustice. And I know this to be true from my own professional experiences.
Congress, I have worked, all my life, in education. For many years as a teacher. I am passionate about the power of education to transform lives.
For the past 8 years I have been Chair of the unionlearn board. It’s a role which I hold with great pride.
Through unionlearn, unions have become one of the most successful providers of education to workers, and in particular the ones who need reskilling and retraining the most, but most often miss out.
Unionlearn recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. And in that time we’ve helped well over two million learners. An incredible achievement.
We should be immensely proud of unionlearn. This is a form of learning which engages the hardest to reach parts of the workforce – the low skilled, low paid workers who often have complex needs, including poor literacy, numeracy and IT skills.
As a teacher I know also, and from first-hand experience, the ways in which poverty impacts upon young people.
How is it that, now, in 2017, one quarter of the UK’s children live in severe poverty? Poverty which means that, by the time poor children start school, there is a huge gap in attainment between them and their more advantaged class mates.
Poverty which robs children and young people of their potential and blights their future lives. How is it that child poverty, on an industrial scale, is in any way acceptable today?
I am the seventh of eight children. My father was a head master (yes, he was a head master) of a primary school on one of the poorest council estates in Bolton. It is the school which I and all my brothers and sisters went to. And my father often said that it took a war, and rationing, to feed all children properly. And he said that this was a disgrace.
But I tell you now. Throughout the UK there are thousands of children who go to school hungry and who dread the school holidays because they won’t get a decent meal all day. They dread the boredom of the holidays – weeks stretching ahead with nothing to do and no money to do it with.
Being the 7th of 8 children is a bit of a challenge. There’s a lot of competition between siblings. But it was in my family that I learned, very early on, the importance of collective action. That when we worked together, towards a common goal, my brothers and sisters were an unstoppable force (well unstoppable until we met the combined might of my parents).
And it is this belief in the power of collectivism, of supporting one another, and of working together in the workplace, which powers all of the unions here today. We know that alone we can do something, but together we can do great things.
And, this year, unions have done great things. Momentous things to fight injustice and to make the world of work better. Just think of the Unison victory in the Supreme Court, which abolished tribunal fees.
And then there is Unite’s fight to secure the minimum wage for thousands of workers at Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse in Derbyshire, securing an estimated £1 million in back payments and humiliating the odious Mike Ashley into the bargain.
The NASUWT’s victory against the sixth form college association on what the Supreme Court judged to be the unlawful deduction of strike pay.
All of these legal actions show that unions are vital to defend legal protections on workers’ rights – and, let’s be clear, there were no other organisations waiting in the wings if unions had not stepped up to the mark.
But we are not only winning through the courts. Unions are finding new ways to mobilise members and to reach out to the wider public. Think back to the election campaign – school funding became one of the key issues, rivalling the NHS in voters’ list of concerns. This prominence was almost wholly down to the coalition of education unions, led by the NUT, highlighting the scale of the cuts facing schools, and the broad-based campaign, involving parents’ groups, which demonstrated to politicians of all parties that education matters.
We know from opinion polling that of the many voters who changed their minds during the campaign, one in ten gave the reason as school funding.
The school cuts video received 4.5 million views and 100,000 shares. The School Cuts website did something really rather brilliant – it translated the 3 billion real terms cuts in school funding and demonstrated just what that meant for every school in England. All school leaders and parents had to do was to type their school’s name into the search engine to discover the exact amount of money it would lose under Conservative funding proposals – or the gain under Labour plans.
Conference, I have been Gen Sec of ATL for the past 14 years. From 1st September I am now joint gen Sec with my friend Kevin Courtney of the National Education Union. I look forward to the changes a union with over 450,000 members – the largest education union in Europe – can make to an education sector which has been ground down, as has health, the prison service, the probation service and so much else, by ridiculous, ill thought through and badly delivered public service reform.
Conference, I want our 149th Congress to be a time where we discuss, debate and decide TUC policy. I also want it to be a Congress where, whatever differences there are between us, we always remember that there is far, far more that unites than divides us.
My parents, good Catholics, taught me that it is a mortal sin to vote Tory. It’s a moral imperative which I have never wavered from.
The General Election result brought Theresa May from hubris to humiliation. She thought that she could turn the UK into a one-party state. Now she is forced to rely on a right wing, homophobic, nasty party to stay in office. Truly Theresa May is caught between the Devil and the DUP.
But if we are going to overthrow this nasty Tory government we know that we have to organise.
Friends, the best way – the only way – to respond to the vicious Trade Union Act is to build back stronger.
By organising, by mobilising, by reaching out to those workers most in need of our solidarity.
Next year the TUC will be celebrating its 150th anniversary.
And what better way to mark that occasion than by showing that a movement forged in the industrial revolution can thrive amidst the information revolution?
I’m confident we can do it.
By fighting for great jobs and wages.
By speaking up for decent homes and services.
By remaining true to our trade union values and beliefs.
Together we can build a fairer economy.
Together we can nurture a more equal society.
Together we can win the justice that working people crave.
Let’s make this Congress the platform for our action in fighting for fairness, equality and justice at work and for all our citizens.
Thanks for listening.