Theresa May is promising action on workers’ rights – should trade unions take her at her word?

Union leaders can leverage the PM's play for Labour votes


Today, the prime minister will announce ‘the greatest extension of rights and protections for employees by any Conservative government in history’.

Her proposals include a statutory right for carers and bereaved parents to take a year’s unpaid leave, an annual increase in the so-called National Living Wage and an enhanced entitlement to take leave for training purposes.

May has also renewed pledge to achieve workers’ representation on company boards — a major pledge during her campaign for the Conservative Party leadership that has fallen by the wayside since.

Admittedly, being the most worker-friendly Tory prime minister in history is a low bar to jump — May’s claim that the Conservatives have always been the ‘true party’ of workers is laughable. But this play for traditional Labour voters should be taken seriously, both for the threat it poses to left-wing parties, and the opportunity it presents to campaigners on the left.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has consistently taken the view that trade unions should leverage May’s attempts to brand herself as a ‘PM for working people’.

She describes today’s proposals as ‘a promising set of commitments from the Conservatives, though it’s clear that much more detail is needed’.

“Before the election, the Conservatives must set out the protections they will offer gig economy workers, and confirm that workers will be able to speak for themselves on company boards. They should also clarify that they’re sticking to their 2020 target for the national living wage. Working people have a right to know these details before they cast their votes.”

This is a canny strategic play by the TUC chief, increasing the pressure on May to make good on these commitments, and reducing her capacity to accuse unions of obstinate militancy.

Although union leaders invariably believe that the most effective way to protect workers rights is the election of a Labour government, that doesn’t mean that they can simply down tools once Conservative governments take office. Working people face immense threats over the next five years, particularly in light of Brexit, and unions must be prepared to scrap for every possible victory.

Of course, May’s proposals are depressingly unambitious, and there is every chance that she’ll backtrack on them as soon as the election dust has settled.

But in the meantime, why not call her bluff?

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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