In many ways 2000 was a good year for people at work in Britain and their unions. The economy was strong. Employment continued to grow. Full employment is now a realistic demand, not wishful thinking. The minimum wage did more to help narrow the pay gap between men and women than any other initiative in recent years.
New rights at work have brought real benefits to many. The law giving unions recognition rights has led to record numbers of voluntary agreements. Parents can look forward to a better work/life balance if the proposals in the government’s Green Paper become law after the election. The government’s Labour Force Survey showed union membership rising by 100,000. The New Deal and the Working Families Tax Credit continued to be flagship policies for the government.
But there were also major difficulties, and my main concern is that the worrying trends of 2000 will intensify through 2001. Top of the concerns must be job losses in manufacturing. The shock announcement at Luton came at the end of a bad year for manufacturing. Week in, week out jobs were lost in a range of manufacturing sectors. Textiles and clothing, engineering, ship building, printing and paper have all been hit. In the new year there are highly publicised threats to steel and car industry jobs and more if less publicised bad news for jobs in other industries.
Just as worrying, though less likely to hit the headlines, are all the investment decisions that have been deferred or cancelled. The trends suggest that we can expect to lose 10,000 manufacturing jobs a month through 2001, unless there is an unexpected recovery in manufacturing fortunes. Some sectors, such as telecoms and aerospace, continue to do well. But 2001 must be a year when we finally realise the importance of a solid manufacturing base for the future of the country. This will require action on a range of fronts.
The government needs a manufacturing strategy to cope with the short term problems made worse by an overvalued pound against the euro. The DTI needs more resources, a bolder interventionist approach and needs to be ready to tide key British firms through difficult periods like now.
There are long term and deep-seated problems to do with productivity and skills. Of course, we very much welcome the Chancellor’s challenge to unions and employers to join with the government in examining how best to deal with these.
But there are also more recent problems. The exchange rate continues to hit any company relying on exports. Our continuing exclusion from the euro fails to offer the stable framework for long term planning that companies need. The real danger is that during 2001 the global marketplace decides that the question about Britain joining the euro changes from a matter of ‘when we join’ to ‘whether we join’. That is the moment we will really start to pay an even higher price for continuing to stay outside the euro. We are paying a price now in lost jobs which the eurosceptics can no longer ignore.
The government will need to move fast after the election to start the process of joining the euro. The alternative is that we pay a heavy price for staying outside, and then pay a heavy price for having to join far too late to have any real say in shaping the euro’s future.
But it is not just manufacturing jobs at risk. The media has rightly given high priority to the news from Luton. But even more jobs are threatened by the possible takeover of Abbey National by Lloyds TSB. As many as 30,000 jobs could go. Perhaps there is less interest because most of the job losses will be among women, or perhaps it is because banks are thought to be full of people on big salaries and huge bonuses. But the kind of jobs likely to go are tellers earning between £11,000 and £13,000 a year.
One factor links both job losses through takeover and the problems that beset manufacturing. This is the continuing opposition of employer groups to the introduction of civilised rules of behaviour. They denounce measures to make companies inform and consult their workforce as red tape. The rest of us might see this as common courtesy. As all the evidence shows that companies that can win the loyalty and trust of their workforce perform better, it is hard to explain the government’s continuing opposition to rules that have not stopped other European countries becoming more prosperous and productive than the UK.
There is real and widespread anger about the government’s inexplicable blocking of the European directive on information and consultation. Given the unacceptable conduct of General Motors, Coats Viyella and BMW, this issue is now long overdue for government action.
Employers are already lining up to gun down the Green Paper proposals, particularly any suggestion that new mothers should have the right to return to work part-time for a limited period. Unions will need to campaign hard throughout 2001 to make this a reality.
Yet while we will have our differences with employers over the next year, Britain’s unions will continue to pursue the path of partnership. Industrial relations has been transformed in Britain. While we stand ready to tackle unfair treatment and bad bosses, we want to build high trust relationships with employers as that offers real gains to both. This is why the launch of the TUC’s Partnership Institute early in 2001 will be an early highlight of the TUC year.