Ever since the credit crunch arrived - roughly the autumn of 2007 - workers have been expected to bear its cost on behalf of the bosses, by accepting cuts in jobs, wages and conditions.
In addition, many employers are using the opportunity to introduce measures which they have always wished for, but were too afraid to try. And what might previously have been an unthinkable imposition - like an indefinite wage freeze or even a wage cut - is becoming more and more commonplace, with union leaders' complicity.
This has happened at JCB, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and most recently Honda - to name the most prominent - where in fact wage cuts were played off against job cuts although the workforces have ended up with both.
Of course, just because something is more common, that certainly does not make it any more acceptable! But this is not how Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, sees it. Commenting on the latest unemployment figure - officially now 2.3 million - Barber quoted TUC research which showed that the unemployed outnumbered job vacancies by 20 to 1!
But he then went on to explain that, therefore, "It is entirely understandable that workers in companies under threat in the recession are settling for modest pay increases or even freezes."
Is it really understandable? It might be, if Barber explained why exactly this has happened. Because he knows the reasons, full well. In every case the union officials who were representing the workers, instead of offering any alternative, actually recommended that workers accept cuts in wages, and/or conditions in order to "help" the company in question to weather the recession. They have even organised formal ballots so that workers can vote, "democratically" for a wage freeze or a wage cut, claiming that this was the only way to "save jobs"!
Once more on JCB
Most people will remember the first headline-grabbing case last October, when JCB, the giant construction equipment manufacturer told its workers that if they accepted what amounted to a wage cut by working 34 hours a week, that it would only cut 150 jobs, instead of 510. The union officials went along with this blackmail and recommended that workers vote for a wage cut.
This made the news just because, at the time, (only a few months ago!) it was pretty much unheard of. The press took the line that workers were to be congratulated for protecting the company in this way. And the GMB union official who recommended the deal said "I am delighted that we have been able to save these jobs."
But this was not the end of it - and in fact it seems there is no end to it! Because just a few weeks later, on 13 November, 399 more job cuts were announced across JCB plants in Staffordshire, to the union officers' "disappointment".
Then came the third round of job cuts, on the 12 January 2009: nearly 700 more job cuts this time, 400 of them at JCB's biggest plant in Rocester, with the company blaming the lack of credit from banks, preventing potential customers from buying its diggers. This time the GMB official said he was "very disappointed".
Just over a month later, on 16 February, a fourth round of job cuts commenced JCB's Uttoxeter factory with 97 more jobs under threat!
There have been 1,700 job cuts at JCB since last summer. Certainly the company has not been using the record profits it made last year (£187m) to provide continuing employment for its workers. £187m could employ 1,700 workers on £20,000 a year for 5½ years. Probably it went on a few ocean going yachts?
And now there are no more "deals" to be made with the GMB, apparently. To quote the GMB works convenor after the 3rd round of 700 job cuts were announced in January; "The GMB will continue to support its membership and fight to reduce these numbers wherever possible. We are continuing to work a 34 hour week which means more than 300 of our members' jobs remain protected. Whilst these are unprecedented times for our membership. the Joint Shop Stewards Committee for JCB UK remains extremely proud of this sacrifice and the professional attitude of all those affected."
It seems these 300 "protected jobs" are on an island in a sea of JCB sharks, which the GMB officials have decided are friendly guppies.
This official went on to call for a "nationalised investment bank that can invest in the plant and machinery we need, to keep the British economy moving". Yes, subsidise the small capitalists to subsidise the big ones and let us pray that the workers get a few crumbs on the side! That sounds a bit like the postal workers union leaders' call for a "Peoples' Bank" to save Royal Mail while proposing nothing to the 50,000 postal workers who could lose their jobs.
Car bosses and Unite leaders, united
Just as JCB workers were not given the chance to fight against all the redundancies thrown at them, neither have workers at Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota, Honda, nor Ford. Not yet, anyway.
The car industry is regarded as suffering the most from the recession. Every company has been affected. From the near-bankrupt Midlands van-maker, LDV, where 7,000 jobs are threatened, Nissan Sunderland where 1,200 workers lost their jobs at the beginning of January, to Ford Southampton where 500 workers are being made redundant by 1 May. Aston Martin, which launched a £1m car at the Geneva Motor Show in February, sacked 600 workers in December, 300 permanent and 300 temps - one third of its workforce.
In every case union negotiators have been involved and have ended up agreeing to accept the job cuts. The only walk-outs which have been visible were at a car component plant supplying plastic dashboards to Jaguar Land Rover. And these only took place over two days, failing to threaten production at JLR.
No doubt there have been other stoppages and signs of resistance which are never reported, like the spontaneous downing of tools for several hours in Ford's Dagenham Press shop on the day that the Ford boss tried to revoke a 5.25% pay rise which had been offered last November - on the grounds that the company could no longer afford it while at the same time announcing 850 job cuts - 500 at Southampton Transit and 350 white collar jobs at Dunton, Essex.
What has the union leadership been doing while Rome burned, then? Nothing but playing violin with the car bosses. They have joined with them at the ongoing summits with government ministers to beg for a car industry bail-out - which already began last year. Then on the 26th February, the same week that BMW had kicked out 350 temporary agency workers from its plant (some had been there between 4 and 7 years), and threatened 500 more with the sack, Unite launched a national campaign "to save car and manufacturing jobs".
To do so, Unite has joined with the bosses to demand a £13bn fund to support manufacturing and "£100m to be used to introduce short-time working across the sector and for the government to protect agency workers from sacking without compensation."
As for the car industry, said Derek Simpson, leader of Unite, "Government must establish a funding mechanism for the car industry within days, not weeks. [...] Only action by the Treasury ... will safeguard the tens of thousands of jobs and the many communities across the country depending on car manufacturing for their livelihoods. [...] By providing short-term loans, repayable with interest, the Treasury could instantly restore some liquidity to this system and save the tens of thousands of skilled jobs that are this moment hanging by a thread."
And while this has been going on, middle-ranking officials like full-time car industry negotiator for Unite, David Osborne, have been doing the rounds of the car factories organising ballots on pay cuts and pay freezes.
First came Jaguar Land Rover, where the giant Indian conglomerate, Tata Industries, which only just bought the company off Ford in April 2008, suddenly claimed it could not carry on without "winding down" the factories and making workers redundant. After 600 workers had already been sacked via "voluntary redundancy", earlier in the year, last November, another 850 IT and engineering agency workers were thrown out. Next thing, on the 15 January another 150 white collar agency staff were given their marching orders, followed by 300 managers! That was still not enough, apparently. So hourly-paid production workers were told that 800 compulsory redundancies were now on the cards for them and another 300 white collar redundancies, unless they were prepared to accept all kinds of cuts - in pay, benefits, holidays, etc. After a month of negotiations the Unite and GMB union officials claimed a breakthrough deal which they put to a ballot of the workforce. The hourly-paid workers were given just one option of course: for a guarantee by the company of no compulsory redundancies for 2 years, they should vote yes to a pay cut of one hour per day and a freeze on their hourly rate for one year, as well as the free mobility of labour across all the plants in the West Midlands. This would save JLR £70m. But of course the company can still make workers redundant, as long as it is "voluntary". The ballot held resulted in a 70% "yes" vote for the deal.
As for the salaried staff they are to lose a bonus payment they had been promised. A local newspaper published a revealing report. Apparently a JLR white collar worker had contacted it, to voice his reservations over the deal. He explained that "from April we will have to work 40 hours a week with no extra pay. We're currently working 37 hours and some of us do 39 anyway - you just do the work you've got to do. Due to work-life conflicts, some people can't work more than 37 hours, as they might have children to pick up from school or take to nursery. If you can only work 37 hours then you'll have 3 hours pay docked. It's all in the two-year deal to avoid redundancies, but if sales fall and things get much worse, that will just get torn up." And then he added "Part of the idea is to get rid of contract staff, who are more expensive. If several thousand of us work an extra three hours, it'll make up for their loss. The problem is that a lot of them are very good at their jobs. And this deal does not apply to managers - hundreds of them will lose their jobs."
This additional lousy deal for the salaried (monthly-paid) office and engineering staff affects 5,000 out of the roughly 12,000 JLR workforce.
The Unite and GMB unions who negotiated this said in a joint statement: "We did not want our members in Jaguar Land Rover to be faced with the same fate as thousands of others who have been dismissed in other companies. ... The choice for our members was clear - further mass redundancies or what is undoubtedly some short-term pain in order to secure the future for our members and their families." etc., etc.
First thing to say is that the union officials seem to have forgotten that over 1,500 JLR workers have already lost their jobs in the last 4 months. Or do subcontracted workers and agency temps not count? But the main point is this: that this deal is a total con! There is no guarantee whatsoever that JLR bosses will not cut more jobs tomorrow, as the worker quoted above pointed out.
And while some union officials were supposedly sweating it out in negotiations with JLR bosses to prevent Tata from stealing workers livelihoods, Unite's leaders, Woodley and Simpson were lobbying the government to accede to Ratan Tata's demand for £500m in loan guarantees. Apparently the £27m grant he already got to build a more fuel efficient Land Rover at Halewood is not enough. The JLR saga is by no means over, of course. Tata made further threats on 29 March in an interview with Sky news. He said he could "wind down" operations at JLR if the government does not give him what he has demanded. So much for the union leadership getting guarantees. As if these kind of agreements are ever worth the paper they are written on - and the union leaders know it. They were not born yesterday.
The story is repeated at Toyota - perhaps with fewer frills and no ballot - but that is because of the even more secretive nature of the union-management agreements at this plant - originating in a single-union, no strike deal with the engineering union more than a decade ago. On the 11 March, after sacking 200 agency workers and launching a voluntary redundancy programme for permanent workers, Toyota announced that production would be cut at its plants in Britain by 10% and that wages would be cut accordingly, by 10% from April this year to April next year! This was agreed without any problems it seems by the Unite officials representing the workers at the Derby and Deeside plants. They said "The proposals put to the workforce today present a real opportunity to restore some stability to Toyota in the coming months, and we will be recommending them to our members". By destabilising the workers with a 10% pay cut? Apparently it never occurred to them to refuse. After all it is the role of the union leaderships to take care of the bosses interests, these days, without any question!
Honda workers have already been laid off until June on 60% of their pay for April and May. Now they are being told they should take voluntary redundancy or a pay cut when production resumes - although this is not spelled out yet. It remains to be seen what the union response will be, but it is probably a foregone conclusion that they will do exactly what the company asks.
British jobs for everyone
There is, however an even more ominous manifestation of the union leaderships response to the jobs crisis.
Take for instance the statement made by Unite leader, Derek Simpson in response to HSBC's announcement of 2,900 job cuts. Said Simpson: "Customers of HSBC will be furious to learn that the company only believes you deserve to have a local banking service if you are a wealthy premier customer, this makes a mockery of their claim to be 'the world's listening bank'. Unite can see no justification for the efficient and dedicated staff in the UK to lose their jobs and all basic and standard accounts to be serviced from India."
As if it was necessarily a case of "either"/"or"! If HSBC wants a call centre in India, good for them. But as far as the existing workforce is concerned, it should not have to undergo any job or wage cuts as a result. How HSBC achieves this, is HSBC's business, full stop. But this simple idea is apparently beyond Simpson's comprehension.
The opportunism on the part of the union leadership has been exposed further in their attitude to the "British jobs for British workers" campaign - where it becomes potentially even more harmful.
This particular campaign which seems to have taken hold in the construction industry, has mainly involved skilled engineering tradesmen who cannot find work. For the moment it is confining itself to protests, pickets and demonstrations and less often, unofficial strikes, outside several power station and oil refinery building sites - for instance Lindsey Refinery near Newark and now the Isle of Grain in Kent where a power station is being built.
Unfortunately the GMB and Unite leadership have had no qualms whatsoever in jumping onto the nationalistic bandwagon - having at first been sidelined by this unofficial and rank-and-file-organised movement.
Of course the union leaders are doing so under cover of a claim that "foreign" contractors (Alstom which is building the Isle of Grain power station employs two Polish subcontractors, for instance) are undercutting British minimum standards for pay and conditions. However by following their usual practice of demanding that the government and the bosses do something about this, or that rules are introduced and the bosses forced by the courts to play by them, they in effect do nothing. Which means they are standing back while the workers carry on waving British flags and get more and more angry that they are left out in the cold and unemployed.
And all the while foreign workers are left unorganised with nobody actually trying to bring them together with the other workers on site and the (militant!) unemployed workers outside, to fight these "unscrupulous bosses", as the Simpsons of this world describe them. This would be the only way to impose equal pay and conditions so that there is no "advantage" for the bosses in employing one kind of worker over another. That is all it would take!
Obviously what makes these "British jobs for British workers" protests so ominous is the economic context in which they are taking place. These are just the kind of conditions for mild xenophobia and the unfortunately "normal" British nationalism to turn bad and dangerous. But instead of nipping it in the bud, we see the union officials, who certainly are not racists, fanning the flames of racism and xenophobia, just because doing otherwise would mean opening the prospect of a real fight back - something that they do not want. As for their rhetoric being a way to rebuild credit among the workers, this is unlikely to work - these workers saw them for the scoundrels that they are long since already! And not because of their anti-racism, but because of their servility to the government and to the bosses, thus squandering all the potential strength which workers' organisations - i.e. the trade unions ought to have.
The latest initiative of Unite says it all. It has decided to launch yet another joint campaign with the bosses - this time with right-wing ex-CBI chairman and now "Lord Jones of Birmingham", Digby Jones, and the chair of the Motor Manufacturing bosses' association, plus the ubiquitous MP, John Cruddas and Professor David Bailey who direct Birmingham Business School. It is called "Unite for jobs" and it argues for a "road map out of the recession". But what does it aim at? Getting yet more "strategic assistance for UK manufacturing" from the government!
By now it is probably blatantly obvious to most workers that nothing is to be expected from the union leaderships, when it comes to defending even their most basic assets - their jobs and wages. Because the last thing the union leaders are willing to do is to offer workers the means to use the only effective weapon they have, their capacity to act collectively. The problem that needs to be resolved whenever workers come under attack these days, is how to break down all barriers - sectional and national. This is the only way to unleash the very real strength that workers represent in society - whether there is a recession or not.