First there was Generation X, then Generation Y, but no Generation Z – instead what has emerged is a new generation of underpaid, dispossessed workers, barely surviving on the minimum wage and more likely than not on zero hour contracts that offer only hopelessness. This generation cuts across all ages. It could be dubbed Generation Zero, or #GenZero – and in the UK there are over 700,000 (some estimate 1.4 million) young and old who are part of this generation (many millions more when including mimimum waged, the unemployed and those on scams – see below). #GenZero has been spectacularly let down by the union and labour movement. Many of #GenZero are not even able to join a union anyway given the precariousness of their employment. In any case, unions are traditionally organised by trade, not industry or community, and so a different kind of union model is needed – based on a industrial-community, or syndicalist model. And if all the members of such a nationwide, anti-austerity, industrial-community union were to organise as one and go on strike to, say, demand a doubling of pay – as a starter! – it would only be a matter of days before the politicians would be forced to take this demand seriously. Let’s flesh this out…
[Note: for those readers who like statistics, see charts at end of this article; to see an excellent article on Zero hour contracts and Britain’s dispossessed by Channel 4’s Paul Mason, click here.]
What we are talking about here are the millions of care workers, fast-food workers, telesales workers, workers in supermarkets and shops generally, unskilled factory workers, farm labourers, etc, up and down the country. Not only do these workers not have a union to protect their interests, but they are made to work hard for their pathetic pay and are bullied or threatened with being laid off if they do not do as they’re told.
Nor are we talking here just about zero hour contracts, but a whole range of scams, including apprenticeships (that don’t guarantee any work after the apprenticeship on reduced pay has been completed), internships (again, on reduced pay and after the internship has ended the worker is ‘let go’), funding own training (again with no guarantee of full paid employment). And, of course, many of these schemes, including zero hour contracts, rarely offer paid sick leave or paid holiday leave or pensions or any other work-related benefits.
The two models mentioned in the introductory paragraph – the One Big Union, as exemplified by the IWW, and the syndicalist (or anarcho-syndicalist) union, as exemplified by the CNT – are both found in the UK via, respectively, the IWW – UK and the Solidarity Federation. Both the SolFed and the IWW-UK have been active for several decades. There are also many organisations that coalesce around what is known as the ‘anti-austerity movement’.
Today, not only is it clear that traditional unionism is incapable of supporting and protecting Generation Zero, but there is also much anger in the communities about current working conditions, about the lack of housing, about poverty generally and also about the way the wealthy are getting away with billions of pounds, untaxed. Many of these disillusioned workers will not vote in the forthcoming elections because they do not trust any of the politicians. In fact, over the years at each general election there have been more people eligible to vote who have not voted than there were who voted for the party that went on to form a government.
Those at the bottom of society should not be placated by miniscule rises in the minimum wage, or even promises of the so-called ‘living wage’. Instead, by substantially increasing low wages and getting rid altogether of zero-hour contracts and the other scams listed above, the poor will be able to live more than just on a day to day basis, will afford reasonable housing, will ensure their children are not malnourished, and may even have a surplus to spend, thus helping the wider economy to grow.
But if governments fail to respond to these demands, then not only will the wider economy stagnate and the poor remain poor, but the anger, Indignado-like, will escalate, as with the 15M of Spain and the anti-austerity movement of Greece and elsewhere.
When all hope is gone, people will rise.