Choose solidarity, not fear

"A triumph of democracy over fear,' declared Spain's new prime minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero, after Spanish voters defied conservative predictions that the Madrid bombings would drive them to support the government.

April 1, 2004
4 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

The remarkable social solidarity of the Spanish people overcame the fear that motivates people to surrender their rights in favour of what presents itself as firm leadership. They exercised their democratic rights both to condemn violence and to kick out the government that exacerbated the threat of terror by allying with Bush and Blair.

There is one group of people living in Britain today who will find it especially easy to appreciate the value of solidarity in a climate of fear: people working in the underground economy; people like the developing world nurses who have come to Britain to work for a pittance in our hospitals and care homes (see “Modern heroes, modern slaves‘); people like the cocklers at Morecambe Bay; people like the unskilled labourers working unsupervised on construction sites around the country (see “Contractor killers“). Their fear is not whipped up by government: it is based on the reality that government has denied them any rights through which they could protect themselves.

What these people have to deal with is now routine in Bush’s America, where society depends on the poverty-level lifestyles of millions of insecure workers lacking all rights to organise, and where the minimum wage is a bad joke.

Surely, the same can’t be happening in Britain, too? After all, the minimum wage is one of the few reasons for remaining loyal for many people at the end of their tether with New Labour.

But the truth is the government’s asylum and immigration policies are making the minimum wage meaningless. They are creating a secondary labour market of workers with no rights, who cannot stand up to the gang-masters and agencies that prey on them.

The minimum wage depends on individual complaints, its inspectorate is scandalously under-resourced and it is not backed up by a framework of law that requires inspections of the other rights – holiday entitlements, working hours, and so on – on which meaningful employment contracts depend.

The other government policy that works to undermine protection at work is privatisation, including the Private Finance Initiative. In theory, public bodies, be they local councils or the Health and Safety Executive, still have some powers to enforce social clauses in their contracts with the private sector. But they don’t have either the political will, resources or know-how to police the chain of sub-contractors involved in any major contract. The cowboys get away with it.

Another reason that the cowboys all too often go unpoliced is that the trade unions are too slow to respond to threats to workers’ wages and conditions. In the case of migrant nurses and particularly vulnerable groups like the Morecambe Bay cocklers, support has been mainly provided by community and faith organisations. The trade unions are now being dragged in the wake of these groups.

But the unions can play a vital role, not only by providing organising resources on the ground, but also by speaking out against the government’s immigration and asylum policies and the divisions they create. Unions have a vested interest in doing this: in the US the growth of a secondary illegal or insecure labour force has brought down the wage level of workers across the economy.

Similarly, along the sub-contracting chain it has not been the unions that have fought for health and safety, proper training and decent wages, but isolated groups of rank-and-file workers. In the face of employers who refuse to recognise normal procedures of trade-union bargaining, and a government that is treating migrants as a source of disposable labour rather than as welcome citizens, new tactics are needed. In the US the Service Employees International Union has shown the way: it targets individual companies and uses community organising and high-profile publicity to name and shame. This approach has secured some real successes. Similar tactics have paid off in east London’s Docklands for the community-union organisation Telco.

If democracy is to triumph over fear in the workplace, as well as in politics, it will involve all of us taking responsibility for standing up for workers presently denied their rights in law.


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’