Britain - The battle for jobs - not on the TUC's agenda!

Oct/Dec 2009

This year's annual Trade Union Congress conference, from 14-17 September, has taken place in the context of one of the most severe offensives against the working class seen in decades.

600,000 jobs have been lost officially in just 12 months, there have been unprecedented lay-offs and wage cuts, pension schemes, already under attack, have been scrapped altogether and benefits slashed - and this is just the tip of an iceberg being sent crashing through workers' living and working conditions by the bosses and their government, to ensure that it is the working class which bears the main cost of the current crisis.

Was this conference therefore given over to an emergency summit to discuss what the unions can and should do about this? That would have been the obvious and appropriate response from the country's official working class organisations. But of course most workers know better than to expect TUC leaders to respond appropriately!

So perhaps it was no real surprise that this year it was bureaucrats' business as usual. Even if a few salvos of hot air were fired off by the main union leaders on the eve of the conference against cuts affecting the public sector. But these were directed mainly at the prime minister, Gordon Brown, in the form of threats that he would injure the electoral prospects of the Labour Party by hitting public spending, which, as Paul Kenny of the GMB union hyped - would mean he would be "finished as a human being"!

More seriously (or not?), TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, was quoted by the Financial Times as warning of "riots in the streets"if the government proposed "slash and burn economics"

This would, he said, provoke a "double dip recession"and. "Prolonged mass unemployment would not just do economic damage, but have terrible social effects. I don't think Britain is broken, but this would be one way to break it."claimed Mr Barber.

It was in keeping with such warnings that this year's conference took place on Liverpool's waterfront, only half-a-mile from where the Toxteth riots broke out in 1981, at a time when unemployment was almost 3 million. Parallels were inevitably drawn, even if the 1981 Toxteth riots were partly down to a copycat phenomenon after riots in Brixton had been sparked by so-called "saturation policing" being used against mostly unemployed black youth.

The latest figure for unemployment today is around 2.47m, including almost 1m young people under 25 years old - close enough to 3m and derived by a very different methodology which totally underestimates true unemployment anyway. As Barber went on: "I make no prediction that this[rioting] would happen again, but I do know that prolonged mass unemployment will have terrible effects on social cohesion, family break-up and the nation's health."In fact the TUC had released a report before the conference arguing that dole queues could increase by 40% in cities like Liverpool and Middlesborough if public sector jobs were cut by 10% - which is one of the possible scenarios which had been "leaked". Given that the public sector employs as much as 7m workers, such a cut - 700,000 jobs - would equate to 2.9% of the workforce, pushing unemployment above 3m or even up to 4m. The report went on the draw the consequences: government workers would have less to spend; the state would spend less and so the private sector would also be hit, impacting on the economy as a whole and cutting GDP by at least 1%! A conclusion which was obviously aimed at convincing Brown by appealing to his concern for private profit!

Public sector union leaders Dave Prentis of Unison and Mark Serwotka of the PCS both made vague threats of industrial action ballots and joint union action "if our members are facing job cuts and compulsory redundancies."But why is it that "voluntary" redundancies do not qualify as job cuts which need to be fought, in these union leaders' book, even though the jobs they represent are cut, just as surely as those cut compulsorily are cut? In both cases the "capital of jobs" for future workers is permanently reduced. Anyway, the all too usual means by which "voluntary" redundancies are achieved - by making the job intolerable - renders the word "voluntary" meaningless. Those left behind inevitably have to cover more work - so a refusal to fight "voluntary" redundancies also means a tacit acceptance of a higher rate of exploitation.

It never seems to occur to the union leaders to refuse to accept anyjob cuts on the grounds that the working class just cannot afford it. Or to argue that most workers work too hard and too long as it is - and if there is less work to be done - as is the case during a recession, then this is the golden opportunity to cut the burden of work for all workers and share the work between them, and even cut the length of the working day. Of course that would require a fight - all the more so, because such a proposition is conditional on all workers receiving a living wage, no matter how short the working day might be.

Anyway, it is hardly a question of fighting "future" public sector job cuts, made on a compulsory basis. Already, (public sector!) postal workers are striking in an attempt to defend their jobs and conditions against an unprecedented assault, including a huge programme of job cuts via "voluntary" redundancies, which are making the job impossible to do for the workers who remain!

Scolding naughty Mr Brown

However - and regardless of union leaders hot air to the media - the real business between Brown and the main union leaders had already been done, behind the scenes, two days before the TUC met. They had been invited to a private curry dinner at Brown's country residence, Chequers. And it was here that they all came to agree on how to "manage" the "public relations" exercise at TUC conference which would be required to pacify at least some of the delegates.

Given Brown's unpopularity among the union membership and the working class in general, the TUC had also, for the sake of its own fragile credibility, to appear to be taking Brown to task. Not that it could really be accused of "rocking the boat" by its condemnation of the government's support for the bankers and the City! But it is far less fashionable to expose the severe detriment this has caused to the working class, as TUC leaders also did. Of course, that detriment affects the TUC itself: the 600,000 jobs lost in the economy in the last 12 months have not just been a catastrophe for the working class, but the TUC has seen a drop in union membership of 300,000 over 12 months - going down from 6.5m to 6.2m members (around 5% less).

So what happened on the day of the prime minister's address? Brown duly appeared on the TUC podium, but first to present the TUC's "good service" awards, just as if he was headmaster at a school prize-giving. Having thus established that there would be no booing or slow handclaps, he started his speech with a clumsy crowd-pleaser - a tribute to deceased transport union leader and former Liverpudlian, Jack Jones - and then reminded delegates of his own heroic, much more recent past: "saving" the economy by his bank bail-out, counterposing today's "first steps to recovery" to the terrible recession of the 1930s, which Jack Jones, had he still been here, would remember...

It was only three-quarters of the way through his long speech that he came to what he called the "tough truth", explaining that, "Labour will cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets. But when our plans are published in the coming months people will see that Labour will not support cuts in the vital frontline services upon which people depend."In the context of what is happening in every single public service - vital frontline and vital "backline" for that matter, where cuts have already been made and are being made all the while, this was blatant lying and everyone in that conference room knew it. But that did not prevent a good number of delegates from giving Brown a standing ovation when he finished. Nor did it prevent a series of obsequious questions during a supposedly spontaneous Q&A session immediately afterwards - which in fact was heavily stage-managed - so as not to upset what was, in fact, the first speech in Brown's campaign for re-election as PM, and the launch of the Labour party's election campaign.

Of course, nobody should be too surprised by the TUC's servility nor its loyalty to Brown and his government by providing the opportunity for this "launch". The TUC's main characteristic throughout the period of Labour's office has been its refusal to rock the boat, since the union leaders partake of the benefits of this office no matter how meagre they may be.

Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson of Unite, the TUC's biggest union, both gave Brown and Labour their stamp of approval. Said Woodley: "We heard today that the new Labour law that 'the market rules ok' is being rewritten to 'intervention rules ok.' That intervention is vital if we are to undo the damage caused by the spivs and speculators who brought our economy to the brink of collapse, putting the jobs and homes of millions at risk. And it is intervention that will stop jobs being lost and a generation of young people stuck on the dole. We must remember that in the 1980s, only yards from where the prime minister spoke today, people were rioting to end the scourge of unemployment. We cannot go back to those days and Gordon Brown made it clear today that this would not happen on his watch."These words came from the mouth of the very same Woodley who presided over the sell-out of the MG Rover Longbridge workers to the now discredited "spivs" known as the Phoenix Four, in the name of the "market", precisely!

Well as everyone also knows, words cost nothing and such hot air commits neither Brown, nor the union leaders to anything at all. Paul Kenny of the GMB, who claimed to have given Brown a piece of his mind at Chequers' curry dinner, and told him he'd be "finished" if public spending cuts were on the agenda, now went even further than Woodley in his obsequiousness: according to him, "The Prime Minister guaranteed that he would protect front line public service and made clear this was not the time to make cuts that would stall the recovery from the recession. This is in stark contrast to what the Tories are saying. A clear choice is now emerging for the British people." This says it in a nutshell of course. Even though Labour has a record which matches - and is even worse in some respects than past Tory governments - he feels obliged to come out with this crass argument to protect his own backside.

Fine words from the hot air factory

It may well be the case that the situation for the working class today is not quite like the 1930s. Certainly in Britain (unlike the USA) there are even fewer and more distant parallels to the Great Depression, thanks precisely to what remains of the "public sector", despite the fact that it has been under attack for several decades already.

But in the context of over half a million jobs lost officiallyin just 12 months - and how many more lost unofficially - it is really incredible that this TUC conference managed to limit itself to empty phrase-mongering and to offer nothing even approaching a concrete proposal on how to fight the impact of the recession. All proposals are, in fact, meant merely as "suggestions" for lobbying the government and nothing more.

For instance, this is what the TUC leaders resolved with regard to the impact of the recession on workers: they got through conference a so-called "composite" on the "recession and redundancy rights". By doing so they made their position abundantly clear. They have no intention of mounting a defence of jobs, they just want workers to be paid a pittance to give them up!

Their resolution began by referring to the high number of redundancies over the past 12 months, giving the 30,000 jobs lost at Woolworths as an example - over which there was no fight proposed at the time. It demands that the rate of statutory redundancy pay (SRP) is increased beyond the limit of £380/week - so this would actually only improve the situation of higher earners! It asks that workers should become entitled to SRP from day one, rather that only after 2 years. Which is not asking much, since the initial rate is one week's pay for every year employed!! It further asks that more help is given to both workers and bosses through temporary schemes to subsidise short-time working! Any suggestion that shareholders and companies should be made to compensate workers out of their stock of capital and accumulated profits and that they should be made to pay redundant workers an income they can live on until they find another job - that was nowhere to be seen or heard! The TUC takes it for granted that the state - i.e., the taxpayer, must subsidise job losses. Impinging on the wealth of the capitalist class is certainly not on the TUC agenda!

So what would the bosses have to fear?

There were other resolutions. Like the one which railworkers might like to know about, but surely do not, which was submitted by the train drivers' union, ASLEF. It asks the government to retain the East Coast Mainline as a public company and asks that it should not be re-let to the private sector. It also argues that plans for the further electrification of the railway and high speed rail plans should not be dropped as a result of the "financial shortfall". But an amendment from the rival rail union, the RMT, asking Congress to support full renationalisation of the railways and the London and Newcastle undergrounds, as well as Eurostar, lost the vote! "Markets not ok" Oh yes they are, for the majority of TUC delegates!

Engineering construction workers on the scaffold

Because of the reality of the recession however, it is inevitable that several sections of workers have already been on strike over the past 12 months - despite the union leadership's timid servility towards bosses and government. Unofficial strike action has been taken by oil refinery and construction workers, by Visteon workers who occupied their plants, and now there is the official rolling strike and threatened national strike by postal workers. Far be it, however, from the TUC to utilise the occasion to highlight these disputes or draw any lessons from them. Quite the contrary. As far as the TUC leadership is concerned the less said about such embarrassments, the better!

So the battle of the Lindsay Oil Refinery workers, whose wildcat spread throughout the industry to other refineries and to power plant engineering construction sectors, earlier this year, was reduced to a resolution on the "posted workers' directive" - asking the TUC General Council to "investigate ways of reforming UK employment law and practice ..."and to "lobby the government to amend the directive", "seek urgent revision of the EU posted workers directive"etc., etc., so that there will be "a level playing field for all contractors" which in this case, would be policed by the union officials, most probably in full-time posts paid by the engineering employers as has happened in an agreement with the Unite and GMB unions at Lindsay!

In fact there was a national ballot for strike action among engineering construction workers, over the issue of pay and conditions in June, including the issue of equalising of conditions and pay of foreign workers, which would in theory remove any advantage for bosses employing non-British workers. All along during this dispute - which began with the ominous "British jobs for British workers" slogan, conveniently adopted from one of Brown's demagogic speeches - the union officials have maintained that what the dispute was really about, was ensuring that foreign workers were not unfairly exploited, which is bending the truth somewhat. Now, however the context has supposedly changed, in that new construction projects are supposed to be on the horizon and there should be far less competition for jobs and less unemployment of skilled workers - but of course this remains to be seen.

On the 17 September, a new version of the industry's so-called "blue book" agreement, which includes a 2% pay rise for 2010 (arrived at by using the workers' strike vote purely as a bargaining chip), was put on the table at a meeting in Manchester. The shop stewards attending, voted to recommend it to the workforce. Now it is being put to referendum amongst the whole (unionised) workforce and the result should be out in early October.

Unite leaders explained: "if the offer is accepted by the workers there is the opportunity for industrial peace in an industry which has been plagued by unrest, thanks to certain unscrupulous employers. With a certain number of new build projects on the horizon, the construction industry is hugely important to the UK economy and will help bring the UK out of recession.!) If the offer is accepted it's in everyone's interest to make the agreement work." So now construction workers must vote for a 2% pay rise plus 1% for 2011 and collaborative frameworks which institutionalise union representatives, in order to help get the country out of the recession? Hopefully the workers involved will see this for the ludicrous idea it is and not feel in any way blackmailed by it! Especially as it contains no provision for those who have been thrown out of their jobs since the crisis (one third of the workforce!). The idea of sharing jobs without loss of pay, so that everyone has a job, should be obvious - but apparently it has not occurred to the union officials.

A simple fight for postal jobs?

So what about the ongoing postal workers' strike - aiming precisely to prevent some of the ongoing public sector cuts which TUC leaders say that they vehemently oppose?

The union is presently balloting postal workers for a national strike after all of the London Region, parts of Scotland and an ever-growing number of other offices dotted around the country have been staging rolling strikes ever since late June. This was sparked by the implementation of so-called "revisions" in the allocation of jobs after significant numbers of jobs were cut - mainly on the delivery side of Royal Mail Letters' operations.

As the Communication Workers' Union has pointed out, mail volumes have fallen by an estimated 10%, while jobs have been cut by an average of 40%! The consequence on the ground has been that walks done by several workers have been merged into one walk for a solitary worker to do. This has nothing to do with the issue of "modernisation" and the acceptance of automation, so often referred to in this dispute. As far as we know robots are not yet capable of doing postmen's walks!

Indeed, forcing postal workers to run, rather than walk, in order to complete a round is going back to the origin of the "Marathon" - when in ancient Greece, messengers ran for miles, between villages, to do their deliveries!

Now, walks are taking as long as 5 or 6 hours, instead of the maximum 3.5 hours (sorting of the letters and packets into the right sequences is meant to occupy the first 3 or 4 hours of the working day, and even if a machine cuts this time down, workers cannot be expected to be out walking for such long periods at a time, with so many pouches or full trolleys of mail! They have, up to now, been more and more pressurised to use their own cars to get the work done, but even if they do, they are unlikely to deliver all their mail. Which means "cutting off" - i.e., bringing undelivered mail back to the office - and exposing oneself to the possibility of being accused of "wilful delay of the mail" - a sacking offence. In larger offices, where workers tried to resist the revisions, they were allocated to new jobs anyway and in some offices, in order to penalise the most militant workers (often the most senior), they have been given the hardest jobs or put on reserve, so that the manager has complete control over what they do each day. In short, the cuts in jobs are making deliveries' workers lives hell.

Job cuts have also been made in the mail centres where most of the sorting takes place - despite the fact that the few new machines which have been brought in, in some offices, cannot begin to substitute for the number of workers who have been made redundant - and even less so during their frequent break-downs!

This is, in short what the strike is about. The 2007 agreement did cover these changes and the CWU even prided itself in having "won" extra bonuses in exchange for savings made at the expense of jobs - a Pyrric "victory" if ever there was one! But the union officials expected to be consulted at each stage of implementation. Whereas it seems that at some point Royal Mail bosses made the decision to just push ahead with the job slashing, regardless. Their ultimate aim appears rather obvious, in fact. They want to replace permanent full time workers with part-time workers and in many cases with workers on temporary contracts.

Loopholes in the CWU's tactics

There is, however a major problem with the way that the CWU has handled its dispute so far.

Firstly, with respect to its aims: what it keeps demanding is a "new agreement on modernisation", and it has offered a 3-month moratorium on all strike action if Royal Mail would only sit down and talk about this "new agreement". Unsurprisingly, Royal Mail has consistently rejected this offer of a no-strike deal! On the other hand, the CWU has not demanded an immediate halt to the job cuts! As long as these are made within the jointly agreed voluntary redundancy framework (officially called "Managing the Surplus Framework"!), the CWU apparently accepts job cuts! But then again, this is a union leadership which proudly bargained for a bonus to be paid to workers for the savings made when vast numbers lost their jobs previously!

In fact the CWU stresses only one real point - that the "union" is under attack and therefore this strike is really about defending the union. If this was not the 21st century and 20 years after the unions went into "partnership" deals with the bosses, and if unions were not huge bureaucratic machineries which even have to employ professional pollsters to find out what their own members think, then maybe the idea that "the union" and the workforce was the same thing would be credible. But it evidently is not!

The second aspect of the problem concerns the tactics of the strike, which has been organised in the form of rolling, 24-hour strikes with each section having its separate day out, once a week - deliveries, distribution and processing following each other on different days, unless these are all located in one big office - as is the case for instance at London's Mount Pleasant.

This way of striking has had no effect whatsoever on the bulldozing through of revisions and casualisation by the management. In between the strike days, management just continues to cut and revise! Even worse is the fact that in some sorting offices, workers have come back after a 24-hour strike to find the office reorganised, and sorting frames or even whole sections removed - presumably transferred downstream or just eliminated altogether! They are then meant to fit in with the new scheme of things. So despite the strike, the changes over which the strike is being waged are being made anyway - and managers are even using the situation to facilitate change.

Especially on deliveries, the number of casual postal workers has been steadily increasing - and it is these casual workers who, along with managers, are attempting (but failing a lot of the time) to keep the mail moving during strike days.

So far, at the time of writing most London workers will have taken 12 strike days since their ballot gave a 91% majority for strike! For them it is obvious that if they had taken indefinite strike action they would probably not even need to be on strike anymore! The fact that the strikes are still solid, if not even more solid, since they started 3 months ago, says everything about the workers' strength of feeling against the management, not to mention their loyalty to each other and to the union, despite the way it mishandles their dispute!

The national ballot, which was delayed twice, is now (at the time of writing) finally taking place - and the result will be out (only) on the 8 October.

This ballot got a mention in the CWU's emergency motion to the TUC conference. But, incredibly, it did not even mention job cuts! It said that the national ballot for strike action "follows the failure of management to negotiate a new agreement covering the wages, terms and conditions of the workforce in the modernisation of the industry." It called on Congress to support the "campaign of the CWU, and calls upon Royal Mail management to reach an agreement which secures the modernisation of the industry by consent and negotiation." It went on to welcome the withdrawal of the Privatisation bill and asked for legislation so that the government can take over responsibility for the pension deficit. And that was it - as if this government was not responsible for all the attacks against postal workers in the first place!

The official reason for the ballot delay is that the union needed to be sure all the legal loopholes had been covered, so as not to be challenged by an injunction from management. But most postal workers think that the union leadership delayed the ballot so the result would come out afterthe Labour Party's annual conference, to avoid embarrassment all round, especially since it is Brown and Mandelson who are the authors of the postal workers' distress.

It is still possible that an "agreement" will be made with Royal Mail before a national strike is even called. If so, it is more likely than not that it will be a sell-out. But if not, the delay in getting the whole postal workforce involved (most postal workers think it should have been a national strike from day one) has not helped matters at all.

Of course the prevailing wisdom is that the closer a strike gets to Xmas the more power the union wields. If so, they would find it difficult to explain why the 2007 national strike, which was called off in mid-October, before a clear victory, culminated in the very "agreement" which Royal Mail is waving in their faces today, claiming that all of the revisions and reorganisations and job cuts were underwritten by the CWU in 2007! It should also be remembered that it was the TUC leader Brendan Barber, who urged the CWU executive to cave in to Royal Mail's demands at the time! The postal workers can do without that kind of "support"!

At the time, the union officials also left the workforce wide open on the pension issue by agreeing to remove it from the dispute so that it would be dealt with separately in later negotiations. As a result, Royal Mail just pushed through its proposed pension reforms despite the CWU's failure to agree - and terminated the final salary pension scheme.

The postal workers are facing a fight which it is vital for them to win. They can win it - but it would help if they learnt the lessons from the recent past and, instead of leaving their fight under the control of the leadership, as it is today, they really took it into their own hands, because this is the only hope they have of winning back the ground already lost. The reinstatement of jobs and the reversal of delivery revisions are what the strikers aim for. But they should be very clear that this is not what the union leadership aims for - nor does it even figure in their demands! When the leaders say they want an agreement - all they want is the right to say "yes" to the job cuts. They have never even intended to say "no"!

It is obviously not enough either, just to go wildcat on the official leadership of the strike - as happened in 2007 when the strike was called off prematurely. The strikers need to co-ordinate their efforts between offices and they also have to think about getting other sections of workers outside the Royal Mail involved. And not when the strike has reached a desperate stage, but from day one!

Make it cheaper for them to give up!

The TUC conference did do something useful. It highlighted the fact that in every industry, private or public, workers are confronted with exactly the same kind of attacks. It showed the extent to which the employers' offensive is co-ordinated across the economy, with the help of a government which is at the beck and call of the capitalist class - and which is, in addition, the biggest job slasher of all.

Yes, this is the situation that the working class is facing today. And how else can it be addressed, except by a co-ordinated working-class response to the co-ordinated employers' offensive?

If union leaders were not so terrified of rocking the boat of their various kinds of "partnerships" with the bosses and the government, such a response would have been the main item of discussion at this TUC conference.

Instead, whenever they are forced to organise some kind of fight back, union leaders ensure that it remains isolated - like in the case of last year's Visteon occupation. And even when the number of workers concerned is such that they can not only make a big show of strength, but also get other sections of workers to join them, the union leaders manage to atomise their forces in endless rolling strikes - as has been the case over the past 3 months at Royal Mail.

Such policies are inefficient, they weaken the forces of the working class and can only result in demoralisation. Instead, workers need a policy to go on the offensive - one which is aimed at boosting the numbers of those who are fighting back and, above all, which is aimed at winning.

And since jobs are the main issue at present, they need a policy which is aimed at banning these on-going job cuts for good. They need to show to the bosses and their politicians that attacking workers' jobs is just too costly, both politically and economically. The bosses must learn that every time they go on the rampage against workers' jobs, they will face a resistance that they just cannot afford. Because this is the only language they understand!