The Job Support Scheme, announced by Rishi Sunak as the successor to the furlough scheme, reflects growing fears of economic turmoil and mass unemployment. Under the scheme, the government will part subsidise the wages of employees working reduced hours because of the pandemic.
The declared intention is to save “viable” jobs and firms from the impacts of the pandemic on the economy. But, for workers, the risk is that it merely extends the period before their jobs are finally axed, giving business another avenue to increase profits before inevitable redundancy. It’s difficult to see this as anything other than a way for the Tories to save face and postpone reckoning with the crisis.
However, critical analysis has been muted, and the scheme has even been rubber stamped by the TUC – the official voice of British workers. By all appearances, they are endorsing a plan that could spell mass unemployment; in the process, they risk propping up an increasingly shaky Tory Government.
To many union officials, the mere act of pointing to the confused optics count as “ultra-leftist”. After all, they argue, does anyone really claim that the TUC should abstain from negotiations with government? O’Grady should thus use any avenue of power it has access to in order to protect the jobs of workers in the UK.
However, “negotiating” does not necessitate agreeing – far less endorsing – plans which give workers a raw deal. No one expected the TUC to declare a general strike, nor even to hold the government to account in any meaningful way. But the least the TUC could have done is use its prominent position to give a more vigorous account of the plan’s failure to properly support workers. It’s hard to see the value of the TUC’s enthusiasm: it merely serves to give Tory plans left-wing cover.
The TUC, not just content to buy into the government plans, have even begun to echo the government rhetoric of “viable” jobs. This effectively accepts Sunak’s logic that some jobs will just have to go in a process of creative destruction.
Today, some will applaud pragmatic deference to the “national interest”. But longer term this poses a massive risk for the TUC’s standing as the leadership of the British labour movement. By striking a bargain with the Tories, they could implicate themselves in the destruction of many lives through joblessness and the attendant social consequences. Today’s “national interest” can quickly become tomorrow’s national disgrace. If and when things go badly wrong, it makes little sense to have blurred the lines between the official working class leadership and the establishment.
Such actions are a grave mistake in moments like this where the working class are looking for an alternative. This economic situation is not merely a blip in the otherwise normal functioning of capitalism: it is structural, meaning there is limited chance of a return to normal even in the best case scenario, such as the availability of an effective vaccination.
If the TUC are not bold enough to understand this dynamic, then who are we to look to in this time of crisis? The answer is workers themselves. They will need to fight to counteract the passivity of their own union leaderships and the TUC in order to fight effectively to save jobs, pay and working conditions. They must become the “unofficial” leaders of their own workplaces and communities. They need to develop new leadership that is up to the challenges of the coming period. This process must necessarily involve bold and combative political leadership if small fires are to generalise to a wider blaze.