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.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

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

#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

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