I am immensely proud that the Scottish Socialist Party conference passed another pioneering new policy which could transform the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Scottish workers. We agreed to campaign within the trade union movement for the idea of a guaranteed minimum working week of 16 hours, to tackle the criminal insecurity and poverty that blights vast armies of workers on zero-hours and short-hours contracts.
Crazy capitalist contradictions
As I pointed out in proposing this new addition to the SSP's comprehensive package of workplace and trade union policies, capitalism curses working class people with the crazy contradiction of mass unemployment, mass underemployment and masses of overworked people on long, unhealthy hours of work.
For instance, 260,000 workers in Scotland last year toiled for more than 48 hours a week. That's nearly one in eight of all those in work. And 54,000 worked a mind-boggling 60 hours or more each week! That's a threat to health, adding to the mountain of stress and mental health problems already all too common, a threat to workplace health and safety, and undermines family and social life.
And although we all know the one greedy bandit in our workplace who treats overtime as an incurable drug addiction, grabbing every hour on offer, the fundamental reason people put themselves through this prolonged drudgery isn't greed, it's dire necessity: rotten hourly rates of pay. In fact a survey showed that 57% of these long-hours workers wanted to cut their hours at work.
Cut Hours - not Pay or Jobs
So the longstanding SSP policy of a guaranteed living minimum wage set at two-thirds male median earnings - £10-an-hour now in 2016 - is crucial alongside our campaign for a shorter working week, but with no loss of earnings. For cutting hours, not pay or jobs; for an immediate maximum working week of 35 hours across the board, rapidly moving to a 4-day week, and soon far lesser hours of work - harnessing the potential of new technology to slash the hours taken to produce life's necessities and thereby give workers time to live, not just work.
Famine of Guaranteed Work
That's one side of the battle to be fought. But at the other end of the nightmare contradictions in capitalism stands a vast army of workers stressed out by a famine of guaranteed hours of work - those on zero hours contracts and 4, 8, or 12-hours a week contracts.
Not everyone wants a full time job - not even the 35-hour week maximum we advocate, let alone the current average 42.7 hours worked in this country. But hordes of part-time workers want more work than they can get under the present system of insecure, casualised labour. For example, surveys show 1.4 million part-timers want more hours of work but can't get them.
Why? Because employers prefer workers to be at their beck and call, according to 'business needs', hiring them on very low contracted hours - zero, 4,8,12, etc - and then dragging them in for extra hours during peak periods, of course with no premium payments for overtime. This also makes it cheaper for the employers in terms of sick pay, National Insurance Contributions, and (at least until recent rulings) holiday pay.
16 Hours Guarantee
So the demand for a guaranteed minimum weekly contract of 16 hours would tackle some of these problems head on. As well as abolishing all zero hours contracts, it would eradicate the terrible insecurity and absolute poverty of only being guaranteed a handful of hours a week, with the stress and upheaval of trying to claim benefits some weeks, not the others when the employer needs extra hours worked.
Opt-out - With Union Protection
But what if someone wants less than 16 hours a week? The policy statement carried at SSP conference deals with that.
We want the unions to crusade for government legislation that obliges all employers to offer nothing less than 16 hours a week. We want the unions to negotiate for that demand where they are already recognized, and use this and associated policies to help recruit new members to win union recognition in new areas.
But we also agreed the rider that if a worker wants less than 16, they should be entitled to negotiate lesser hours with the help of their union, with guarantees against bullying into such an arrangement by management. In other words, the right to opt out of a guaranteed 16-hour minimum working week, strictly on the proviso they have union representation when doing so.
This new proposal - which I first raised in my book Break the Chains - not only tries to eradicate the cruel poverty of pay and job insecurity that blights millions of workers in Scotland and the UK, but also seeks to give an element of workers' control to working life, a challenge to the dictatorship by senior management on behalf of the owners that is the norm in 21st century capitalism. It runs in tandem with the fight for powerful, free and campaigning trade unions.
We will now proceed to organize to win support for this pioneering policy in our trade unions, as part of the SSP's ongoing struggle for a society founded on human need not capitalist greed, where the fabulous wealth and inventions available are used to liberate workers from poverty, insecurity and drudgery.