This week, the Welsh Trades Union Congress met in Llandudno.

The TUC, an umbrella organisation that represents 48 trade unions and their approximately 400,000 members here in Wales, holds these conferences annually to decide on its policies and priorities.

With the rate of inflation - a measurement of living costs - at a 40-year high, and the energy price cap set to reach an eyewatering £2,800 later this year, the future of organised labor is more important than ever.

The National spoke to Shavanah Taj, General Secretary of the Wales TUC, and Frances O'Grady, outgoing chief of the TUC's UK body, to discuss.

The cost of living and UK Government clampdowns

"[The cost of living crisis] has been a massive discussion over the last couple of days already in our conferencing," Shavanah Taj said on Wednesday.

"People are really clear that workers are not going to be made to pay for the cost of living crisis.

"We've had a decade of austerity, then we've had Covid - and we were promised an economic recovery.

"We were promised levelling up, and this looks absolutely nothing like levelling up."

The UK has seen a wave of industrial action over the past year, largely over pay - with annual pay rises almost always below the rate of inflation - pensions, and insecure (e.g. temporary or zero-hours) work contracts.

The National Wales: Cardiff school teachers strike over pension cuts earlier this year. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Cardiff school teachers strike over pension cuts earlier this year. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

Here in Wales, at least six strikes - involving school teachers, post office staff and factory workers, amongst others - have taken place.

This week bin workers in Rhondda Cynon Taf voted 95 percent in favour of their own strike action, with a similar situation in Cardiff narrowly avoided last month.

Train services in Scotland and England, meanwhile, could see significant disruption, after 40,000 workers in the RMT Union voted to walk out this summer over pay, redundancies and safety concerns.

"I think most people understand that it's really important that workers have that internationally recognized human right to withdraw their labour - nobody takes strike action easily or lightly," Frances O' Grady said.

"When the boss won't listen or won't compromise, it's important that people have that fundamental right."

Ms Taj agreed.

"It is very much gonna be by any means necessary to protect people's livelihoods, because the cost of living crisis is hitting that many people so hard at the moment," she said.

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In response, the UK Government has announced new legislation that would limit the ability of transport workers to conduct strikes.

Meanwhile the Policing Act, passed a little over two weeks ago after months of protest, is expected to curb the ability of striking staff to picket outside their workplace.

O'Grady suggests the moves are an effort to distract from Westminster's reluctance to address rising prices and stagnating wages.

The TUC chief, due to step down soon after nine years in post, said: "Is the government seriously saying that it hasn't got time to introduce an Employment Bill, one that would deal with the outrageous behavior of the likes of P&O Ferries, ban zero hours contracts, give people a right to guaranteed hours or time off to look after people they care for?

The National Wales: First Minister Mark Drakeford (centre) spoke at the TUC this week. (Picture: Gavin Pearce)First Minister Mark Drakeford (centre) spoke at the TUC this week. (Picture: Gavin Pearce)

"Are they really saying they haven't got time for that, but they have got time to attack working people's last line of defense when they're faced with injustice at work?"

As a continuing flow of restrictive UK legislation rolls in, some campaigners have called on the Welsh Government to rebel, refusing to enact measures they believe are "authoritarian" - and as representatives of workers in dozens of sectors, they've asked trade unions to play their part in this too. 

Asked what she made of this, Ms Taj was careful with her words.

"As trade unionists, we will always stand in solidarity with every single worker, whether that is locally, whether that is a UK level, whether that is internationally - solidarity is what our movement is built on," she said.

"It means a great deal for us.

"But the the fact of the matter is, we can do that by demonstrating the appalling and, you know, very clearly disproportionate impact of some of these Acts, and how that's going to affect people - whether that's curbing legitimate democratic protest, or subjecting vulnerable people seeking asylum here to humiliation and deprivation."

READ MORE: Many young people back at work but in insecure jobs

Emphasising  that the Welsh Government has been "doing things differently", with policies including its free public transport scheme for asylum seekers, Mj Taj added: "We will do everything within our power to push the Welsh Government, so that when they make statements - like Wales being a Nation of Sanctuary, and Wales becoming a Fair Work Nation - those aren't just aspirations.

"That is something that we are demanding, and we're holding them to account on that as well - it's not just a slogan."

The TUC has organised a "We Demand Better" rally in London on June 18, with transport arranged for people who want to travel from Wales.

"We are demonstrating that we will do everything within our power, at every single turn, to protect workers across the whole of this country - until the end," Taj said.

The National Wales: Welsh nursing staff protest over below-inflation pay rises, September 2021. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)Welsh nursing staff protest over below-inflation pay rises, September 2021. (Picture: Huw Evans Agency)

 

Gig work, GMB and Deliveroo 

Some of those expected to be hit hardest by rising living costs are gig workers.

Gig workers are increasingly employed through app-based platforms - think Uber, Deliveroo, TaskRabbit - with the number of people doing so-called "platform work" estimated to have more than doubled since 2016.

People doing platform work almost always have no guaranteed hours, are often paid at a rate below minimum wage, and, as they're usually classed as "independent contractors", they are not entitled to benefits like paid holidays or sick leave.

Though notionally meant to offer people low-commitment, flexible work, it's thought that gig economy work has contributed to the rising trend of UK in-work poverty.

Are TUC doing enough to reach people in these situations? 

"In Wales alone, the new [union members] that are coming through, a lot of them are actually self-employed, they've joined to TUC affiliated unions," Ms Taj said.

"The unions themselves have been quite surprised that people who are self employed, particularly taxi drivers, have chosen to be unionized.

"For them, the issue hasn't necessarily been specifically about pay, but it's been about health and safety - it's been about the green agenda, it's about electrification of vehicles."

Referencing the TUC's dialogue with the Welsh Government through its Social Partnership policy, she added: "We are organized in a way that we can demand better for all workers in Wales."

In spite of this partnership, though, Welsh NHS staff still received a below-inflation payrise last year - a long way off their ask of 12-15 percent.

 

 

Union membership in Wales is up, Ms Taj added, and "more diverse people are coming forward to become trades union reps and to become activists."

There has recently, however, been tension between unions on the subject of platform work.

GMB, a union represented by the TUC, has entered into an official partnership with Deliveroo.

GMB will be the go-to union for negotiations on pay, benefits, and will be permitted to represent riders in dispute with the food delivery company.

READ MORE: Cynon Valley: 'Heart-breaking' impact of cost of living crisis shown in report

Deliveroo - which has been sued in courts across the world for issues from underpayment to unfair dismissals and breaches of rights - said it was "delighted" to partner with the GMB, pledging to pay a living wage rate, though only when riders are actively making deliveries.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain - a grassroots union formed by a group of Latin American cleaners in 2012, and which has a specialised wing for delivery riders - has claimed this the deal is an attempt to undermine its own efforts to represent Deliveroo riders, branding it "a PR move" ahead of the company's shareholders meeting.

The National Wales: Deliveroo riders with the IWGB union strike over pay and working conditions, 2021. (Picture: PA Wire)Deliveroo riders with the IWGB union strike over pay and working conditions, 2021. (Picture: PA Wire)

The IWGB has been embroiled in a high-profile court case with the company for some time, attempting to have riders classed as employees rather than as self-employed contractors, therefore entitling them to standard workers' rights.

"Now, as we appeal our collective bargaining case to the Supreme Court, Deliveroo has cynically made this backroom deal with the GMB, which has no record of organising couriers and presents no threat to their exploitative business practices, to protect itself," it said in a statement.

A particular sore point is that the GMB agreement recognises Deliveroo riders as self-employed contractors.

Both TUC chiefs pushed back on the IWGB's claims, however.

"We've seen some really big breakthroughs from TUC unions," O'Grady said.

"I'm really proud of that.

"They're not always perfect, but sometimes you have to get your foot in the door, to work with workers to organize themselves, to stand up for their rights. 

"GMB has been organizing for years too, and of course we'll stick up for them - because they're absolutely committed to seeing justice for working people, and we all are.

"That's what it's all about - we've got to keep our eyes on that prize."

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