A new era for the Institute of Employment Rights

By Ben Sellers

I started a new job on 15th November, as Director of the Institute of Employment Rights (IER). Obviously, I’m still very much finding my feet, but it’s a brilliant role, heading up a hugely respected organisation in the labour movement. For 32 years, this job has been done superbly by Cad Jones. Cad is one of the main reasons why the IER has become so respected, so it’s a real privilege to step into her shoes.

When you replace someone who has been doing the job for that long, and doing it so well, it’s always going to be a challenge. I keep saying it’s like replacing an Alex Ferguson or an Arsene Wenger. But despite being a bit daunted, I’m really excited because it gives me the chance to work with people like John Hendy (Chair of the IER) and Keith Ewing (President), as well as a raft of immensely committed and talented academics and labour lawyers who make up the IER’s network.

In many ways, I’m really aiming to continue Cad’s work, so there will hopefully be an awful lot of continuity. The IER is a think tank for the labour movement, and what it does best is to provide a space for debate around trade union rights and labour law by providing information, critical analysis, and policy ideas through that network of academics, researchers, and lawyers.

I’m aware that despite the incredible work that the IER does, it may not be well known to many in the labour movement, especially those newer to it. The organisation was formed in 1989, as a response to Thatcherite anti-union laws. Since its inception, it has become a forum for ideas and practical resources to challenge the industrial relations framework that Margaret Thatcher and those around her established and New Labour failed to challenge.

For three decades, the IER network has put on seminars, conferences, fringe events, produced briefings, pamphlets, books, and online resources for trade unionists on the front line of industrial relations. The Institute, as it is known to its friends, works unequivocally for the trade union movement and it has maintained that focus throughout its history. I don’t want to change any of that.

The Institute contributed massively to the last Labour manifesto, and was instrumental to what was, in my opinion, the most ground-breaking part of it: the proposals for a Ministry of Employment Rights under Laura Pidcock – sectoral collective bargaining and the replacement of decades of anti-trade union legislation with the most comprehensive Industrial Relations Bill this country has ever seen. It would have entailed a seismic shift in the relations between worker and boss and would have revolutionised our economy.

However, everyone involved in the IER is fully aware of the need to build and renew itself, and so it is again, post-Corbyn. Many of the elements of that employment rights section of the manifesto are still contained in the New Deal for Workers developed by Andy McDonald as Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights. It remains to be seen whether, in the wake of Andy’s resignation, the new Labour leadership are still committed to its principles. It would be all too predictable for this transformative agenda to fade from view.

But we can’t wait around for the Labour Party. Workers across the UK are facing multiple crises, attacks on their living standards and a new world of work that is often hostile to trade unionism. It’s been said so many times, but younger workers have weaker ties to trade unions and lower awareness of the benefits of organising together, in a union. A more outward-facing IER can play a bigger role in speaking to those workers and furnishing them with the information and resources to win important battles in the workplace.

The rise of precarious work, not confined to young workers, presents similar challenges. The erosion of workplace rights, increasing casualisation, zero hours contracts and the lack of a consistent union presence in the so-called gig economy – despite the sterling efforts of a range of unions, big and small –  are all urgent issues. John Hendy’s Status of Workers Bill, currently going through the Lords, is a fine example of how legislation could tackle these issues, but it’s also about organising on the ground, backed by an increasing awareness of rights and remedies.

In a similar vein, the challenges of climate change and the transition of our economy to net zero, are urgent issues for workers and the trade unions. Apart from the issue of a just transition, which is crucial, there’s a perception that climate jobs will naturally be worker-friendly. But in the trade union movement, we know that not to be true. Terms, conditions and pay will need to be fought for in this emerging sector, and our political representatives should be consistent in supporting, not just green jobs, but good, secure, well-paid green jobs.

So, one of my priorities will be to raise the profile of the Institute, not for the sake of it, but in order to employ the brilliant expertise we have in these new areas and demographics. The IER has done such valuable work for the three decades of its existence, and that has been down to the accumulated knowledge of its people. And that, ultimately, is what it’s about: the people involved are its biggest resource.

A big aim for me and the IER team, over the next few years, will be to expand that resource – bringing in a new generation of researchers and lawyers and tapping into the skills of the trade union movement to help younger trade unionists find their voice. That, combined with the wealth of accumulated knowledge we have, will be dynamite and help the IER build on the incredible foundations laid by people like Cad, John, and Keith.

If you want to know more about the work of the IER, please visit the website, where there’s a wealth of resources, videos and articles: https://www.ier.org.uk/ To access the IER’s superb library of books and resources, you can subscribe, here: https://www.ier.org.uk/register/ . And if you’re not ready for that yet, but would like regular updates, you can join our mailing list, here: https://www.ier.org.uk/free-subscription-sign/

Ben Sellers is the Director of the Institute of Employment Rights.