Frances O’Grady delivers annual Jimmy Reid Foundation Memorial lecture, 27 Sept 2018

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The Lecture can be viewed via YouTube.

Report of Proceedings and Text of Lecture

The Lecture began with Frances O’Grady introduced to the audience by Lynn Henderson, the vice-chair of the project board of the Foundation. Lynn is also this year’s STUC President and a longstanding national officer of the PCS union. Lynn was preceded by a welcome from the Lord Provost of Glasgow, Eva Bolander.

Jimmy Reid Foundation wishes to thank Glasgow City Council for facilitating the lecture in the Banqueting Hall in the City Chambers and to the numerous unions,  trade union solicitors and other progressive organisations for sponsoring the published programme of the lecture.

“A future after Brexit? Unions and the Scandinavian model of social democracy”

Lynn, Lord Provost, friends . . . comrades.

The phrase “working-class hero” has become something of a cliché. Used and, sometimes, abused.

But tonight, we remember someone worthy of the title.

Jimmy Reid was certainly working-class. He was born in Glasgow and left school at 14.

His father was in and out of work.

One of seven children, three of his siblings died in infancy.

And, as was the way for many of his generation, he was self-educated.

Once, when a somewhat pompous academic asked him which university he’d studied at, quick as a flash, Jimmy replied: “Govan library”.

And for millions of people, Jimmy was also a hero. Not least for the shipyard workers, whose livelihoods and communities he did so much to save.

An engineer by trade, Jimmy was a union organiser by vocation.

And his cause was human dignity: standing up for people facing everyday humiliations and petty tyrannies; borne of an economy rigged in favour of the few.

He was from the school of trades unionism that spoke the language of morality.

And he had faith in working people’s ability to shape our own future.

You could say that Jimmy was the trade union movement’s Steve Biko.

Raising consciousness. Instilling class pride. Building self belief.

 

For Jimmy, class struggle wasn’t just a matter for theoretical debate. It was about how we live our lives.

Fighting for our rights, yes. But also encouraging each other. Looking after each other. Friendship, love and compassion.

As a French socialist once said: the brain works on both sides of the body. But the heart – the heart –  beats only on the left.

The work-in was a case in point.

A magnificent rebuke to the bosses’ age-old tactic of a lock-out.

And an industrial tactic of immense intelligence and imagination, for which, of course, Jimmy Airlie deserves great credit too.

But it was also about an appeal to fellow human feeling.

Solidarity.

And the world was watching.

During the dispute, the situation became so serious that Ted Heath’s press secretary urged him to abandon his yacht race and return to number ten, as he said, “at great inconvenience”.

In fact, he urged the Prime Minister to do so, and I quote, at great “demonstrable” inconvenience. An early example of political spin.

But the public was unimpressed by the grandiose sailor’s sacrifice.

On the contrary, the work-in inspired support for the shipyard workers, far and wide.

And from all walks of life.

At one point, a cheque for £5,000 arrived simply signed “Lennon”. One shop steward remarked: “It canna be Lenin – Vladimir’s dead”.

It was, of course, from John Lennon.

In the trade union movement, Jimmy’s life and times still inspire us.

And that’s why it’s a such huge honour to be here in George Square, in the presence of Jimmy’s family, to deliver this lecture.

And doubly so in a year when the TUC celebrates its 150th birthday.

So I’d like to thank the Jimmy Reid Foundation, for inviting me.

The City Council, for kindly hosting this event.

And all of you, for coming along tonight.

I’m hoping that, in Jimmy’s words, they’ll be no hooliganism or vandalism.

But perhaps, later on, we’ll enjoy some bevvying.

 

Tonight I want to talk about how we can draw on Jimmy’s spirit and insights to win justice for working people.

But I should warn you that this won’t be an exercise in nostalgia.

I believe that would be a disservice to the memory of a man who was so far sighted.

And to the new generation of workers who need unions to solve the problems of today, not yesterday.

Including, those brave strikers at McDonalds and TGI Fridays;

Those leading the brilliant Better than Zero campaign here in Scotland;

And the hundreds of low-paid young workers, helping the TUC to test out new digital models of organising across the UK.

 

Because, of course, capitalism has changed from the model of forty years ago; When huge swathes of the workforce were employed in heavy industries.

That means we must change too.

Just a decade ago, the Lehman Brothers crash exposed the neglect of the real economy and the consequences of the financialisation of capital.

But now it’s changed again.

Today, corporate wealth lists are dominated by tech giants like Amazon and Apple.

Multinational companies that respect no borders and salute no flags.

Accelerating the speed of globalisation.

Combining corporate, social and digital power on an unprecedented scale.

And heralding a period of major disruption – industrially, politically and at work.

 

Jimmy famously spoke of how we are not rats.

Perhaps today we need to assert that we are not robots.

Except that, in my experience as a trade unionist, robots get much better care and maintenance than many workers do.

So let’s say, we refuse to be slaves to an app.

Like Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders.

Or Amazon’s mechanical turks.

Not just alienated but atomised.

The ultimate flexible workforce.

Working tiny bits of time for tiny bits of pay.

….And, our challenge, brothers and sisters, is to organise them.

 

So, I want to focus on prospects for the new working class and the future of work.

 

But first I need to say something about the B- word. Brexit.

Because just over 180 days from now, Britain is due to leave the EU.

The greatest peacetime challenge we have ever faced.

And it’s one almighty mess.

 

While the TUC campaigned hard for a Remain vote, we respect the referendum result to leave the EU.

As always, now our task is to unite workers. And that’s true, whichever way they voted.

So the TUC has argued for a Brexit deal that puts working people first.

That secures the trade, investment and growth on which livelihoods depend.

That guarantees a level playing field on rights at work with our friends in Europe.

And one that safeguards peace and the Good Friday Agreement, that trade unionists on both sides of the Water, worked hard for together.

 

The TUC has looked at all the options and we believe that workers’ interests would be best served by what some call Norway plus the Customs Union.

Because, if we trade from outside, expensive red tape and tariffs will: hike prices, hit pay and hurt jobs.

Because it would avoid the current contortions over the border in Ireland.

And because, the safety net of rights we fought for, from consultation rights to holiday pay, can’t be unpicked by any Tory government, as long as we have to stick by single market rules.

If anyone’s got a better idea, then we’re open to ideas.

But, so far, we haven’t heard any.

And we reject the Hobson’s choice of a bad deal or no deal. If Mrs May’s proposals would hit working people hard; Boris Johnson’s no deal nonsense could break us.

And even if Brussels agreed Mrs May’s withdrawal proposals, it’s unclear whether Westminster will.

As we all know,  the governing party in Westminster is at war with itself.

Many Conservatives seem more interested in who’s going to get their own top job, than saving anyone else’s.

So it seems a little unfair for Mrs May to accuse Brussels of showing her no respect, when her own colleagues have made no secret of the fact that they’re busy collecting signatures to dump her.

Meanwhile, many people are watching this spectacle with dismay. They’re worried about their own livelihoods, and in particular, job prospects for their kids.

It’s little comfort that the Prime Minister finally understands what it’s like to be on a zero hours contract.

 

The hard Brexiteers on the back benches are ready to pounce.

The likes of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg.

I confess that, in the past, I’ve likened them to Lord Snooty and his pals from The Beano.

But they are not just harmless English eccentrics.

 

What the hard Brexiteers really want is a low-tax, low-regulation, free-for all.

Carving up our NHS and weakening workers’ rights.

A dose of capitalist creative destruction.

Shock and awe.

All under the guise of shaking up an Establishment, of which they are the top brass.

 

These are dangerous times.

And the rise of right wing nationalism should worry all democrats.

Inspired by Trump in the West and Putin in the East, across Europe, the new far right is gaining traction.

President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon has set up office in Brussels.

And the far right’s campaign strategies are getting more sophisticated.

Their anti-immigration, anti-Muslim message mobilises thousands on the streets, but millions more online.

They have big money and are globally networked.

Grooming right-wing politicians in mainstream political parties.

Targeting blue collar workers who are rightly angry about an economic system that is failing them.

And using Brexit as an opportunity to destabilise a model that, while far from perfect, has kept the peace in Europe for nearly seventy years.

 

So as we count down to March next year, the stakes could not be higher.

Not least here in Scotland, where nearly two-thirds of voters wanted to remain in the EU.

And where communities that are already struggling will pay the highest price.

Like the TUC, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon has rightly called for an extension to Article 50.

To give us a chance to negotiate a deal on new terms. A deal that protects jobs, rights and peace in Ireland.

But the truth is most people don’t trust the Westminster government to get that deal.

And we’re running out of road.

So I have been taking the same message to all politicians.

This is not the time to keep your head down.

We need to hear more voices speaking up for working people, wherever they live.

I hope that Nicola Sturgeon will join me in putting the Prime Minister on notice.

And warn Mrs May that if we don’t get the terms working people need, we will mobilise for a popular vote on the final deal.

People deserve the final say.

After all, trade unionists are required to put the outcome of a negotiation to a ballot of members.

Why shouldn’t the Conservative government have to put the terms of their deal to the vote too.

 

But whatever happens with Brexit, we must all get to grips with the way he world of work is changing.

A capitalism which is more global, more mobile and more ruthless than ever before.

But also more digital too, reshaping power, politics and work in profound ways.

In the late twentieth century, finance capital called the shots.

Markets were deregulated. Banks began to gamble. Private equity, hedge funds and shadow banking became more powerful.

Trillions of pounds could be moved at the flick of a switch. Financial investments began to crowd out productive investment. And exotic new derivatives products were invented.

As workers’ bargaining power was attacked, cheap debt took the place of wages as a driver of growth. And the inevitable result was the meltdown of 2008.

But today’s capitalism is different.

The new masters of the universe make their money from information.

Data is the new oil.

And, by the way those companies are taking much of that data from us, for free.

The tech giants’ ambition is not just to drive down wages and drive up profits, but to redefine work itself.

As adept at sidestepping labour standards as they are at avoiding tax, they are uprooting the lives of millions of workers.

Reducing employment to a digital platform. Replacing jobs with gigs. And in the process, stripping out even our most basic rights.

Uber is a transport firm but owns no vehicles and employs no drivers.

Amazon likes to call its warehouses ‘fulfilment centres’. But it tags staff like cattle. To time and track workers too afraid to take sick leave, or even a toilet break.

And Deliveroo has ordained that its digital army of riders are self employed. So there’s no right to the minimum wage, no right to holiday pay and no right to be accompanied by a union rep.

Workers without a workplace. Hired and fired by smart phone. No boss to negotiate with. On the go for twelve hour shifts. Relying on food banks to feed their children and loan sharks to get through the week.

Britain today.

But we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Artificial intelligence, automation and algorithms will transform work.

The Bank of England tells us that 15 million jobs could be vulnerable to new technology.

Not just the likes of cooking, cleaning and driving.

But white collar and professional jobs too.

And the Westminster government’s message?

Be grateful for having a job. Any job.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

We can choose to do things differently.

And forge a fair transition from the old world to the new.

Jimmy Reid famously challenged “the right of any man or any group of men, in business or in government, to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable”.

And that must be our guiding principle now.

Of course, there are threats ahead.

Some jobs will go. Some will be created. Many more will change.

The idea that steel workers will move seamlessly into jobs as software engineers won’t wash.

But we could set ourselves a positive goal.

To replace mind numbing, monotonous, soul destroying work.

With better paid, more skilled, more satisfying jobs.

There is plenty of good work that society needs to be done, involving skills that can’t be replaced by tech.

Creativity and care are just two examples.

That’s why the TUC has argued for a commission on future of work, bringing governments, employers and unions to the table, to plan a fair transition.

Scotland could lead the way.

Looking at how to invest in and deploy the new technologies, so we upgrade firms and skills.

And, when it comes to the predicted multi-billion pound productivity gains: to figure out how workers – and our public services – get fair shares.

 

I contend that the promised gains from technological change should mean more time for ourselves and our families .

Something that feels all the more important in a week when we’ve learned that nearly a quarter of  young girls are harming themselves.

And that, every year, the same proportion of adults suffer from a mental health problem.

No doubt the causes are complex.

But the twenty-first century sickness of anxiety, stress and low self-esteem is spreading.

Families need more time together,

But with the cost of childcare rising three times faster than wages, many parents only manage by working back to back shifts.

When they get home, they’re exhausted.

Job intensity, impossible workloads, and the lack of any sense of a voice, or control over our working lives are all taking their toll.

At our 150th Congress, I said that if the big victory of the last century had been a two day weekend, then surely this century we should lift our sights to a four day week.

As Jimmy Reid argued (and I quote):

“If automation and technology is accompanied as it must be with full employment, then the leisure time available to man will be enormously increased. If that is so, then our whole concept of education must change. The whole object must be to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession”.

How the tech revolution pans out in the future is all about the choices we make now.

We’ve got nothing to fear if it’s matched with a revolution in skills, workplace rights and social protections.

If we revitalise and spread collective bargaining, so the gains are not just grabbed by the greedy.

If we make sure that tech poor towns and communities are included.

If we agree to prioritise the common good.

Instead of enslavement, tech could be a force for liberation.

For better work and richer lives.

 

And this takes me onto our third priority.

And an alternative vision for the future.

The digital capitalists have got theirs.

The right-wing populists have got theirs.

It’s about time we spoke up for ours.

Now when I was invited to deliver this lecture, I was asked to talk about unions and Scandinavian social democracy.

And at a time when the hard Brexiteers want to drive us towards aping Trump’s America, there’s a compelling case for instead looking across the North Sea.

If the only choice we faced was between Trump-style populism or Nordic social democracy, then there’d be no contest.

 

It’s easy to see the attraction of Scandinavian social democracy.

In its different manifestations, it’s been more resilient than other models.

Sweden’s welfare state shows that with fair taxation you can deliver world-class childcare and social care.

 

Denmark guarantees a high minimum wage and more generous unemployment benefit, providing security for the low-paid and those without work.

And Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, built up from North Sea reserves, has become the world’s richest pension fund.

 

Contrast that with how Margaret Thatcher squandered our North Sea windfall paying for mass unemployment and tax cuts for the rich.

Not surprisingly, the Nordics are still near the top of the world rankings for happiness, openness, education and gender equality.

I remember many years ago when I was pregnant campaigning for the UK to sign up to the EU directive on better paid maternity leave.

I wore a badge carrying the slogan ‘I’d rather have a baby in Norway’.

Because women were granted nearly twelve months of paid maternity leave.

And whole cities were designed and planned around the needs of children.

Moreover, it was taken for granted that a good society needed active citizens.

And, that the great majority of working people should be protected by collective bargaining.

So yes, post-Brexit Britain could do a lot worse than go Scandinavian.

 

But we must recognise that the world has changed: and social democracy – even Scandinavian style – is under pressure.

Since the crash, many social democratic parties have tanked at the ballot box.

In France, the Socialists attracted just 6 per cent of voters in last year’s Presidential elections.

In Germany, the latest polls show the SPD is only one point behind the neo fascist AFD.

And in Denmark, it pains me to say that, on immigration, the social democrats’ rhetoric seems to be trying to outflank that of the right.

Blaming the victims of poverty for so-called ghettoes. Scapegoating migrants for society’s ills.

 

But as the Labour Party has shown, there is an alternative.

For all its difficulties, Labour has reinvented itself by moving decisively to the left.

Yes, didn’t win the 2017 general election. And yes, it has its work cut out to inspire the same confidence and hope in blue collar heartlands, that it has inspired among the young.

But having started the campaign with 27% support, by Election Day four in ten people cast their vote for a party with a red-blooded popular programme.

Can Labour get over the 45% line by appealing to blue collar aspirations, as well as middle-class insecurity? It won’t be easy but it can be done.

 

Now Jimmy Reid was a supporter of Scottish independence, and it’s not my intention to use this platform to wade into that debate. Nor is it my place.

Scotland’s future is a matter for the Scottish people.

Likewise the question about whether the SNP is a genuinely social democratic party.

And the broader issue of whether, whatever it’s political hue, a coalition based on nationalism can hold.

 

But I am a trade unionist.

And I still hold with Mick McGahey’s view that workers here in Scotland will always have more in common with workers in London, Durham or Sheffield, than with ‘Scottish barons or traitor landlords’.

Capitalism knows no borders, and neither should organised labour.

We need a new socialist politics, strong enough to reverse the obscene shift of wealth and power into ever fewer hands.

After all, workers create the wealth. And they deserve a fair share of it.

Economic justice is the only way to build a strong society.

More equal, more welcoming, more humane.

Investing in schools and hospitals, building council homes, strengthening pride in our communities.

Taking strategically important industries like our railways and the post back where they belong, into public ownership.

And making the rich and big corporations pay their fair share of tax.

(And, I might add, certainly not giving the likes of Amazon tax breaks, when they rip off workers and refuse to recognise a union.)

 

As Jimmy Reid rightly identified, alienation – “the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making” – remains one of our biggest challenges.

As he saw it, the untapped resources of the North Sea were nothing, compared to the untapped resources of people.

For Jimmy, political democracy had to be matched with industrial democracy. He argued that: “Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision making by the people for the people.”

And he was right.

 

In my view, democracy should not stop at the workplace door.

Every worker should have the right to a collective voice through a union.

Employers should have an obligation to collectively bargain with us.

And our voice should be heard at every level, up to and including the boardroom.

 

For inspiration, we should be guided by what drove Jimmy Reid throughout his life: human dignity.

The dignity of doing a good job, fairly rewarded. Of being respected at work and in society. Of having somewhere decent to live.

And of knowing that from cradle to grave, good public services will be there when you need them.

That’s the dignity that inspired Jimmy Reid, that inspires me, that continues to inspire millions of trade unionists today.

 

Jimmy’s political affiliations may have changed – from Communist Party to Labour to the SNP. But his values stayed true.

As the former Labour MP Brian Wilson wrote: “Few individuals in the political or trade union arena over the past century have raised so many spirits, challenged so many assumptions or offered more vivid glimpses of a different social order”.

The best way we can honour Jimmy’s memory is to fight for the future.

As the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in showed, we can achieve great things together.

 

It’s no coincidence that UCS came to stand for “unity creates strength.”

And whether it’s the rise of the right or the rise of the robots, we need that same sense of solidarity now.

A new class politics. A new shared identity. A new humane socialism.

 

Frances’ lecture was covered in the Morning Star the following day: see here.

 

 

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