Originally published: https://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/article/f/challenges-facing-welsh-labour-movement

Wales TUC general secretary SHAVANAH TAJ reflects on the workers winning in Wales through collective action, the social partnership model and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill

27 March 2023 | Morning Star

The last few months have seen headlines dominated by collective action winning for workers.

The stories might focus on the strikes, the ballot results and the pay talks, but ultimately it’s all about one outcome — getting a fairer deal for workers.

Unions have to work through a raft of legislation to run a ballot for industrial action. The ballots have to be run by post, they need up-to-date details of their members in each workplace and they have to meet high turnout thresholds.

Despite these obstacles, workers have managed to win a mandate for strike action in large public-sector employers.

This has happened in both schools and the NHS — with five unions in the latter meeting the threshold for strike action in at least part of the NHS.

And this mandate was used; workers have taken strike action in both the NHS and schools — both of which have pay determined by the devolved Welsh government.

Yet that same government has also been taking legislation through the Senedd to strengthen social partnership.

The Social Partnership and Public Procurement Bill passed its final stage a fortnight ago.

It’s the next step in social partnership working, building on unions’ ambition to see this way of working applied more consistently across Welsh government and within public bodies.

The new law will give organised workers more of a say over policy matters in Wales than we have ever had before by requiring public bodies to agree their well-being objectives (as defined by the Well-being of Future Generates Act, which includes economic and social outcomes) with them and it will create a national social partnership council to guide this.

It will also result in greater social value — including in relation to labour issues — from procurement spend.

Partnership working and unions’ power

Social partnership is often misrepresented as unions, employers and government striving for consensus at all costs.

This is not the objective of any partner, and has been a long-running (albeit inaccurate) criticism of social partnership.

John Morris, as secretary of state for Wales in the 1970s, said on the nature of partnership working: “[w]e will discuss, we will argue; we will agree and we will differ.” The idea that partnership working is simply about compromise is incorrect.

The reality is that discussion may not end in compromise at all. But putting in place mechanisms for dialogue reduces the likelihood of dispute. This benefits workers and their employers.

One union officer summed this up nicely in relation to the recent RMT action, contrasting the dialogue-based approach to change taken in Wales compared to the confrontational style of the UK government.

Social partnership is about creating this forum for dialogue and fostering better industrial relations, but it certainly doesn’t determine their outcomes or mean that union representatives are seeking any less for workers.

Trade unions are not giving away their industrial power by committing to social partnership working. They are no less able to challenge an employer, lodge a dispute or take any other form of industrial action because of social partnership.

It wouldn’t make any sense for a union to give away their power like this is. Our core role is to organise and represent the collective interests of workers, and to do so we must retain our independence from both the employer and the state.

Anti-union attacks

Looking ahead, unions are clearly in a different place. A whole cohort of staff and reps now have first-hand experience of running statutory ballots and taking industrial action, including strike action. They also know what it means to negotiate with that mandate.

This will shape industrial relations for years to come, and clearly the UK government recognises this.

The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is an effort to further restrict workers’ right to withdraw their labour.

The legislation is unnecessary, unethical and an affront to Wales’s democracy — it seeks to give UK ministers new powers in relation to devolved areas.

We will oppose it at every turn, and our relationships with government and employers put us in the best place to manage its impact in Wales.