The first Covid lockdown inspired an outpouring of gratitude towards the key workers who kept the show on the road, while the rest of us remained indoors. But the weekly applause on doorsteps gradually faded away, as the nation found itself digging in for the long haul. The economic balance of power that had led to low levels of pay for people doing highly valued jobs remained fundamentally unchanged.
Well over a year later, the delivery drivers, food production workers and other employees vital to Britain’s supply chains are back in the headlines. As parliament prepares to return from recess next week, a combination of the pandemic and the effects of Brexit has made labour shortages in these sectors one of the central stories of the summer. And for the first time in decades, it seems the politics of work and the balance of power in the labour market may be changing. Lo scorso mese, the Unite union won a higher pay rise for beer delivery drivers after threatening strike action. Online shopping deliveries from companies such as Asos and Argos may be delayed if DHL workers vote to reject a 1% pay rise and take industrial action. Nel frattempo, an array of bonuses, incentives and inducements is being offered by businesses in an attempt to persuade people to work for them.
It seems possible that these are merely frontline episodes in a developing battle over the future of work, the power of trade unions and the status of employment in sectors where precarity and poor pay have become endemic. A pre-pandemic TUC report calculated that the share of economic output going to wages declined from an average of 57% in the three decades after the second world war to 49% nel 2018. The crash of 2008 led to the poorest decade for average wage increases since the 19th century. But the emergence of a tighter labour market in less well-paid jobs – and a Covid hiatus which has caused many people to reflect on their working lives – may prove the catalyst for a recalibration. Collective bargaining, as exemplified in a successful recent campagna by Dutch hauliers for better working conditions, is coming back into fashion. The union recognition deal struck in May between the GMB and Uber, covering 70,000 drivers, was one sign of the times. Sharon Graham, the new general secretary of Unite, has made it a priority to establish a union presence within Amazon warehouses.
Boris Johnson, alive to the need to cater for less well-off leave voters who went Tory in 2019, is unlikely to adopt a confrontational Thatcherite approach to these new developments. That we live in interesting times was indicated by a recent tub-thumping intervention by Sir John Redwood in favour of better pay and conditions for hauliers. For Labour though, this emerging battleground represents an opportunity to repair its broken electoral coalition: a new politics of work promoting fair pay, dignity and security for employees can appeal to the leave-voting lorry driver, the poorly paid social worker and the young urban graduate working in the gig economy. On issues such as corporate governance, industrial strategy and transformative investment in skills and apprenticeships, Labour can tread with conviction on territory which the Conservative party has only entered opportunistically. Seismic events are combining to change the terms of debate in sections of the labour market. Between now and the next election, Britain’s key workers will rightly remain centre stage.