Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby became only the third serving archbishop to address the TUC this year at its 150th anniversary on Wednesday (September 13).
In Welby’s stirring speech, he launched a withering attack on big corporations such as Amazon and on a government that he said is failing to stand up for the most vulnerable in society.
He hailed the TUC and the work it has done as he called it to a “gift” to speak at a “gathering that has been instrumental over a century and a half in reducing inequality, challenging injustice, and speaking up for the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed.”
The Archbishop paid tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the first trade unionists in the UK, who were “betrayed by the vicar” as he denounced the “Church of England’s scandalous hostility to unions” that began to change when his predecessor Archbishop Tait first addressed the TUC in 1879.
‘An ancient evil’
Welby railed against worker abuses that continue to this day.
“The gig economy, zero hours contracts, is nothing new, it is simply the reincarnation of an ancient evil,” he said. “And let us not delude ourselves into thinking that the gig economy is the only reincarnation of oppression of the vulnerable in employment.”
“Pensions are just one example of the profit motive leading to the weakest being given the most risk and the strongest the most protection,” Welby added. “In these areas, and in employment rights, and in many others, we see that where inequality and profound injustice seem entrenched, insurmountable, it leads to instability in our society.”
The Archbishop argued that so many of societal ills we face today are intertwined.
“Oppression of minorities, division, instability and economic injustice march together,” he said. “A few weeks ago, it was reported that households are now even more indebted than they were in 2008. That is the result of low pay, an economy that allocates rewards through power not for labour.”
Welby called on all parts of society to work together to end injustices, including the Church, trade unions, the government and others. He sharply criticised the roll out of Universal Credit, saying it left too many families worse off.
He also slammed Amazon and others like it that fail to pay their fair share of tax.
“Not paying taxes speaks of the absence of commitment to our shared humanity, to solidarity and justice. If you earn money from a community, you should pay your share of tax to that community. But when vast companies like Amazon, and other online traders, the new industries, can get away with paying almost nothing in tax, there is something wrong with the tax system.”
“They don’t pay a real living wage, so the taxpayer must support their workers with benefits,” Welby pointed out. “And having leached off the taxpayer once they don’t pay for our defence, for security, for stability, for justice, for health, for equality, for education.”
Welby called for the expansion of trade unions to battle inequality and injustice.
“There must be unions in the gig economy,” he said. “There must be unions in industries being automated, unions wherever workers are vulnerable. There must be a new unionisation or there will only be a new victimisation.”
The Archbishop said he dreamed of a future when “food banks close, the night shelters are empty, families and households are hopeful of better lives for themselves and their children, money is not a tyrant, and justice is seen.”
Following his speech at the TUC conference, which received a standing ovation, the Archbishop participated in a Q&A session with delegates. Unite delegate Suzanne Abachor asked Welby, “Will the Archbishop support and encourage clergy and church workers to join the trade union movement?”
He reiterated his belief that all workers, no matter which sector or job they are in, should be part of a trade union, to loud applause.
Unite’s Faith Workers’ Branch welcomed the Archbishop’s comments.
“Archbishop Welby set out a strong message that the Church of England welcomes members of the clergy joining their trade union,” a branch spokesperson said. “The Unite Faithworkers’ branch represents over 1500 faith workers — our helpline and workplace reps work tirelessly in supporting people of all faiths at work and particularly workers in the Church of England.
“Our branch is a welcoming and supportive environment and provides expert advice and representation to people working in all religious establishments. Your voice at work is important — join us!”
Unite national officer for the non-profit sector Siobhan Endean agreed.
“Archbishop Welby made a powerful speech where he encouraged faith workers in particular and all working people to join a trade union,” she said. “The values of social justice, equality, dignity, compassion and solidarity are shared across faiths and are central to the ethos of trade unions.”
“Unite represents workers who work in faith organisations, and also across the charity and social justice organisations,” she added. “It is important that when we work for organisations because we believe in the cause, that the organisations show mutual respect and value their workforce. The best way to achieve that mutual respect is through a strong organised trade union workforce.”
Welby’s speech yesterday (September 13) was not without controversy. Tory MPs criticised his intervention, saying they believed the Archbishop should stay out of politics.
Tory MP Ben Bradley tweeted, “Not clear to me when or how it can possibly appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be appearing at TUC conference on parroting Labour policy.”
Tory MP Charles Walker likewise criticised Welby’s speech, saying, “There are a diversity of views as to what is best for the economy, but [he] only seems interested in representing John McDonnell’s view.”
Welby pre-empted such criticisms in his speech – he noted that the Bible is “political from one end to the other” and that Jesus himself was “highly political”, who “told the rich that, they would face woes. He spoke harsh words to leaders of the nations when they were uncaring of the needy.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell defended Welby from Tory criticism, saying, “He is simply fulfilling responsibility as a religious leader, which is to tell it like it is. He is not taking party political sides. I welcome his impassioned plea for reform and hope his views and ideas will be addressed by all political parties.”
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey agreed, highlighting Welby’s criticism of government welfare reforms.
“From across society the chorus of voices telling the government to halt universal credit is getting louder,” he tweeted.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner likewise praised the Archbishop’s speech.
“It was a privilege to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury address the TUC this week,” he said. “He hit the nail right on the head – creating an economy that works for everyone; caring for those more vulnerable than us; holding the powerful to account and ensuring they pay their fair share – these are not party political goals; these are the goals of any decent society.
“When the leader of a Church that is certainly not known for its political interventions says Universal Credit has to be stopped and that tax codes need to be reformed so that big business contributes to the society that has made it a success – such an intervention should all give us pause,” Turner added. “The media paints our trade union ideals as ‘radical’ but they are in fact ideals that are shared by a large swathe of society – from ordinary workers to even a historically conservative institution like the Church.”
Find out more about Unite’s Faith Workers’ branch here.