Britain - The bosses' drive against wages

Jan/Mar 2012

We are now almost 5 years into the current economic crisis. And the bosses have already had plenty of time to cut workers' numbers, increase work intensity, cut breaks and benefits, reduce pensions, replace permanent with casual labour, etc. Having done all, or most, of that (even if there is always room for them to try and go further), they are now resorting to qualitatively different methods to boost profits. The main target for their latest offensive is wages - and not just any wages, but the wages of the permanent, usually long-term, workforce.

Of course, wages were cut in 2007 when this crisis first hit, as manufacturing and construction responded with lay-offs and mothballing of plants and sites. But it was the overall wage bill which was cut, on the one hand, by job cuts, and on the other, by workers having their hours of work cut. On the whole however, pay rates were untouched, so if and when work resumed, workers' wages were restored to their former level.

This is not to say that pay cuts were not imposed. With inflation hovering around the 5% mark, below inflation wage rises and pay freezes amounted to the same thing. Indeed, most public sector workers have not yet come out of the 2 year freeze on their wages. And all of this already significantly reduced workers' purchasing power.

But now we are beginning to see another phenomenon. In the public sector first, and in the past several months also in the private sector, employers are trying to get wage rates down permanently, through a variety of means: they try to force workers to sign new contracts, and hire or rehire them under different terms. They have also come up with novel ways to by-pass the Agency Workers Regulations which came into force on 1 October 2011.

In this article therefore, we aim to look at some of the ways in which wages are being cut and also at what attempts are being made to stop these attacks.

Council workers "sectioned"

The brunt of the planned cuts in public sector spending is of course being borne by the workforce. Before looking at wages, it should be said that chancellor Osborne, in his November 2011 statement, announced that not only will there be 490,000 public sector job cuts by 2015, but an additional 210,000 will have to go by 2017. Since the Coalition came in, the GMB estimates that 100,000 public service jobs have already been cut in local government, many in education and social services.

Public sector workers' pensions have, of course, been in the spotlight, after Osborne asserted he would save £3.1bn per year by cutting them and launched a major" reform", which provoked two "general" strike days among public sector workers (30 June and 30 November last year). Since this "reform" involves increasing public sector workers' pension contributions and reducing their pensions, it already amounts to an indirect wage cut.

However, wages were directly targeted by the ConDems. In his very first budget chancellor Osborne announced a two year pay freeze for all workers earning £21,000 or more, which is due to end for some workers in 2012 and for others in 2013. Those earning less (which amounts to 70% of local government workers, excluding teachers and firefighters) got an annual £250 "bonus" in lieu of a rise. Then in November last year, Osborne announced that for the following 2 years there would be a 1% cap on pay increases. At the current rate of inflation, this amounts to a 20% real wage cut over the four years up to 2015-16.

Local councils, which have been ordered to find cuts of 25.6% (£6.68bn) over the 4-year Spending Review period, were quick to show obedience to the government's orders, whichever party was in control. But how do you get workers to accept drastic cuts in pay and conditions? Local authority chiefs came up with the answer: mass sackings, using a piece of employment legislation called the section 188 notice. Workers are given 3-months notice of the intention to terminate their employment - the mandatory "consultation period" for redundancies. Then, once dismissed they are rehired, selectively in some cases, but always on lower wages and worse terms.

By November 2010, a number of councils had already issued section 188 notices to their workforces: Birmingham (workforce 26,000), Sheffield (8,500 workers), Walsall (8,400 workers), London Borough of Croydon (4,000 workers), Northumberland County Council (14,780 workers), Rhondda Cynon Taf (10,000 workers).

Southampton council joined them in April 2011, issuing 3 months notice before dismissing 4,000 workers, rehiring them with 2%-4.5%cuts to pay and allowances. 600 workers were not rehired. Shropshire County Council followed in July, sacking its entire 6,500 staff and rehiring them in September, with wages reduced by 5.4% and cuts to sick pay. Then, in October last year, 10,000 workers were targeted with similar attacks by Doncaster Council.

In Southampton, workers decided to fight back, on the basis of "rolling" strikes proposed by UNISON and Unite union officials. Strikes began in May last year and continued on through the summer. Their spearhead was the refuse collectors, with the limited participation of others, like social workers, and even some council-employed port inspectors, whose action briefly closed down the port.

This succeeded in getting the council to back down, not completely, but still... It offered to repay £1m worth of pay cuts - but this was rejected. By October the council had made a new proposal, whereby it would put back £1.17m into pay packets and make one-off back-payments totalling £300,000. Those earning under £22,000 would not have their pay cut by 2% as originally planned. Earners over £35,000/yr, however, would still get a 4.2% pay cut (instead of £4.5%). This offer was conditional too, on the unions dropping legal action against the council over failure to consult on the mass dismissals and on their unfair dismissal cases (the 600 workers). Although the latter would be able to go to tribunal as individuals, the unions had to pledge not to represent them!

On the 19th January this year, Unite and Unison officials declared that this was not acceptable: "the action short of strike should continue; a joint lobby should be held of the council meeting on 15 February. The theme of the lobby would be, "One year on, council workers still say no to pay cuts"; a demonstration and industrial action will be held on 10 April, to coincide with the opening of the Sea City Museum - linking the £5m the Tories have borrowed to build it, with the millions being taken out of council workers' pay. The unions will consult with members on the form the industrial action will take. It is proposed that all members directly employed by the council will be called on to take industrial action on 10 April."

In Plymouth things played out differently. Last August, when the UNISON representatives of 2,000 workers refused to sign a new collective agreement which cut pay and conditions, the council derecognised the union and expelled its officials from their offices in the civic centre. A campaign to gain re-recognition was mounted which also had the effect of getting the council to back down on some of the cuts. The deal was, that if Unison then signed the agreement and brought its members on board, the council would restore recognition - which duly happened.

The situation in Tory-run Birmingham deserves highlighting, given the draconian council proposals and the surprising lack of cohesive response from the union organisations involved. Birmingham Unison, for instance, claims it has 16,000 members, with 10,000 working for the city council. Over the past 7 years, thousands of jobs have disappeared across the council. Birmingham City Council (BCC) has literally gone on the rampage, with a massacre of provisions. For instance, all sections of Social Services have been decimated, to the point where all 29 residential care homes for adults with learning disabilities have been lost.

The new contract which BCC has now imposed is a so-called "Martini contract", with flexibility as its watchword, potentially forcing everyone to work "any 5 days out of 7", "any time, any place, anywhere", that is, any location and in any job within one's grade - eg., a library worker could be sent to work as a housing officer. The contract removes most shift, weekend and other unsocial hours allowances, amounting to a loss of up to £6,000/yr for many. Unison organised a one-day strike on 30 June against this to coincide with the national action on pensions, and again in September to coincide with the LibDem conference in the city.

On the backfoot, however, Unison signed the City Council's Redundancy Policy. Union leaders claimed they did it "on advice of our solicitors" because they felt it would "at least" give protection to members losing their jobs in the interim. For the time being there is a kind of truce - with the union not signing the Martini contract while the council imposes most aspects of it anyway. Nevertheless it appears that the council has had to make some concessions. Cllr Alan Rudge, the so-called "Cabinet Member for Equalities and HR", has found a "spare" £1.3m to "mitigate" the effects of the new contract on those losing allowances. But since Unison has "been asked not to divulge the details under discussion at present" workers are left in the dark. The union boasts of having delayed the intended introduction of the contract by more than 9 months and postponed the up to 10% losses in pay (!!) until November 2012! But now the council has issued another "section 188 notice for consultation over a further £65m cuts" for the coming year which will affect another 1,070 jobs! And yes, the union officials are talking with the council - being "consulted", in secret...

These are only a few examples in an endless series. Most of these attacks get no coverage in the national media. The unions, which have the means to expose this all-out offensive against local government workers have made no attempt to do so. No wonder: far from seeking to co-ordinate a national fight-back against these attacks, their policy is leave workers to defend themselves in isolation, on a local level. Never mind that this deprives workers of their main weapon - the fact that, nationally, they represent a considerable force due to their numbers. Never mind either, that by failing to build up a national mobilisation in local government, the union machineries are failing to address the root problem - the ConDems' austerity measures which are starving councils of cash!

Of course, there is a logic to this almost suicidal madness. A national fight back in local government would put Labour councils on the spot, just as much as Tory- and Lib-Dem-led councils. And if there is something union leaders want to avoid - and they have explicitly said that much - it is to embarrass Labour councils, even if this means allowing them to get away with murder!

Construction giants treading on trades

In the private sector, the construction giants have been at the forefront of the offensive against wages. In May 2011, the 7 big construction companies, apparently led by Balfour Beatty Engineering Services (BBES), told Unite, the main union representing skilled workers in the industry, that they would be withdrawing from 5 longstanding collective agreements in order to impose a new one, which would include an up to 35% pay cut and new semi-skilled grades - tantamount to de-skilling - from March 2012. This would affect "sparks" (electricians), plumbers, and heating and ventilation engineers.

These agreements are the so-called "Joint Industry Board" (JIB) agreements covering wages and conditions, as well as the Major Projects Agreement (MPA) and the special agreement covering pipe fitters and allied workers (HVAC), which all the major companies have signed up to with the unions - and which were somewhat reinforced in workers' favour after the series of wildcat strikes in oil refineries and other sites in 2009.

The companies' new "Building Engineering Services National Agreement" (BESNA) cuts wage rates and allowances by a whopping one third. It creates new semi-skilled grades to take the place of skilled ones, allowing for instance, final electrical work (often the most vital) to be done by new, lesser-skilled, grades. Of course, the construction bosses want only the minimum expenditure on skills, and while union activists point to the bosses' desire for just a "core workforce" of skilled workers, this in effect is what already pertains.

Unite, the main union involved, sat on its hands for months, leaving the response to this "draconian" proposal to seasoned activists among the sparks and others, at grass roots level, some of whom had already been blacklisted by the big companies, and others who saw action in 2009.

Weekly "pickets" and demonstrations began, all around the country, at important sites where the companies concerned were involved - and at prestigious projects such as the Olympics and Westfield in East London, the Shard at London Bridge, the new rail link sites at Farringdon, Kings Cross and Blackfriars. Large protests have been held in Grangemouth in Scotland, in Sellafield, and also Lindsey oil refinery. By September, no doubt irritated by the regular pickets outside its sites, sometimes involving minor clashes with a few police, Balfour Beatty upped its ante. It threatened its workers that if they did not sign the new contract by 7 December, it would sack them - under the 3-month "consultation" rule of section 188. Another 5 firms then followed suit, all bringing forward the March 2012 deadline. By this time MJN Colston had broken ranks with the other construction companies (there had been one or two work stoppages on their sites) and decided to retain the JIB agreements. So now there are 6 companies involved altogether.

In November, Unite decided to ballot only its Balfour Beatty members for strike action, claiming that this was because Balfour Beatty was the "ringleader". The result, which came out on 29 November, probably speaks for itself. 360 voted yes, and 81 voted no - an 81% yes vote, sure, but that means a vote among only 441 workers out of the purported 1,600 employed by BBES as a whole - already very few.

In fact this exposes the futility of Unite's strategy. A decreasing number of tradesmen and women are registered under the Joint Industry Board agreements and most skilled workers are outside of it already, not to mention all the semi-skilled and other trades who are employed on sites in their tens of thousands and whose participation in any strike action would be crucial.

A large number, if not the majority of skilled workers are not unionised (even some who have been involved in the grassroots protests!), with most on short-term contracts issued by subcontractors - when they are not fully self-employed. Of course, their wage rates and conditions are indirectly protected by the JIB agreement, as employers know that paying them much lower rates could lead to problems for them - as happened with the widespread wildcat action culminating in the 2009 Lindsey Oil Refinery strike. However, once rid of the JIB agreements, the bosses would at least have a legal "carte blanche" to pay both the tiny remaining core of skilled workers and the rest, subcontracted or not, whatever they liked.

Anyway, this certainly means that the unorganised "subbies" or subcontracted workers, all have an interest in fighting this latest attack. But Unite obviously doesn't see it in these terms at all. It has put minimal (official) energy into recruitment and, despite the huge numbers of Eastern and Central European workers on construction sites, it has only lately started issuing recruitment forms in their language - as if it wasn't vital to get these workers actively involved in the fight back! The albeit energetic, recruitment efforts of blacklisted and unemployed activists can hardly do the trick since there are simply not enough of them.

Unite boasted loudly of its "overwhelming yes vote" in the BBES ballot and then in a tacit acknowledgement that this didn't amount to two pins, politely asked BBES to "negotiate" with its officials. BBES seems to have told them to go jump, just as politely. All that changed was the date when the dismissal notice came into effect if workers hadn't signed up to the BESNA - it was moved to 7 January, now passed. But because Unite failed to call a strike within 28 days of its ballot, it has expired and it now is calling another ballot - but only (again!) amongst BBES workers! This result is due on 1 February.

It is unclear as to what happened to the ballots Unite said they were preparing for the other construction firms. In the meantime Unite's leader, Len McCluskey, has apologised to grass roots activists for condemning them, as has happened over the weeks and months of lively, but small on-site protests. He said the union will pay some of the unemployed grassroots activists to start a recruitment campaign on the building sites. Better with us than against us, as they say... Or is it just a device to bring the unofficial protests under Unite's control?

Here's the one I prepared earlier...

Over the past decade - including in the years of so-called "affluence" in the run-up to the crisis - casualisation, that is taking on lower-paid temporary workers, who can be hired and fired at will, has been the main device used by the bosses to cut labour costs. But this has come under threat from several pieces of employment legislation which require that temporary workers receive equal treatment and pay.

The latest piece, the much-delayed British implementation of the European Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), which became law on 1 October 2011, extended these provisions to agency temps. They had been excluded from equal treatment on the spurious grounds that they were not employed by the company they actually worked for, but by a third party, the "employment agency".

Agencies had adapted themselves in order to bypass existing employment law, in order to provide cheap labour - becoming highly profitable enterprises. And their day is not done: because the only rights that temps will enjoy under the AWR, from day 1 are equal access to facilities (eg., the canteen) and information on job vacancies, nothing else! Equal pay only applies after 12 weeks in the same job and even then, does not mean the employment agency has to provide equal pension schemes nor equal sick pay - although it is expected to ensure that a worker gets the same bonuses and holiday pay as permanent workers.

But since this has removed the possibility of keeping agency temps on the job on lower pay for longer than 12 weeks, there is a built-in loophole (initially pointed out by the Swedish delegation to the EU commission responsible for the regulations) which has become known as the "Swedish Derogation". This allows an agency which supplies temps to ask workers to sign up to a contract which excludes them from equal pay rates after 12 weeks. But as "compensation" for this, it will pay a small sum, whose minimum limits have not been clarified in the AWR (and will become a matter of dispute no doubt), to make up for loss of earnings in between work assignments. This will be subject to conditions which the agency will set - like being available for work at all times. In a way, it means that the temp has become "permanently" employed by the agency - a kind of permanent temp. Needless to say this is a "win-win" situation for both bosses and the state, since these "permanent temps" will never appear in the jobless count, no matter how long they remain without an assignment.

There are large and purportedly reputable companies which have been employing agency temps as an integral part of the workforce - and at times as a majority of the workforce - for at least a decade.

Most notorious among them is the car manufacturer, BMW, which builds the mini in Oxford. After having announced its intention to switch temps who have been there for many years onto such "derogatory" contracts under the Swedish Derogation, BMW seems to have shelved its plans, for the time being. But only time will tell whether they try it on again, or whether agency temps, among whom there are workers of over 4 years standing in the plant, will see "equal pay", let alone the permanent contracts, which they should be entitled to.

Meanwhile, there have already been ballots and threats of ballots at several companies including Jaguar Land Rover, where temps were being coerced into signing up to new "derogatory" contracts on lower pay: it was a case of "take the sack" or "sign up".

That the bosses would use the AWR against workers was predictable. Successive governments had been holding out against this EU directive for 6 years on behalf of employers. This gave them time to prepare for the inevitable implementation - which the present government was unable to delay any further. A number of companies had already set up their own new umbrella agencies specifically to make use of the Swedish Derogation loophole.

But far from preparing workers for what was coming or trying to pre-empt the bosses' escape via the loophole, the union machineries have been giving the AWR a self-congratulatory welcome.

For instance, a note entitled "Happy Christmas for agency workers" appeared on the website of the postal workers' union CWU on 24 December: "Hundreds of thousands of UK agency workers, including 2,000 CWU Manpower members working for BT, are on the cusp of receiving the best possible Christmas present - namely employment equality with their directly employed counterparts. Celebrating one of the most significant trade union victories of recent years... " it goes on in this vein, ending with union leader Billy Hayes admitting that some "commercial interests are trying to circumvent this welcome piece of legislation" so that the "trade union movement's fight for equal treatment for agency workers is not yet complete. Given today's poignant 'Christmas Eve' step forward for the bulk of the CWU's agency membership, however, it's right to take stock of what we've already achieved - conscious of the fact that we still need to broaden the victory to cover all agency workers."

However, this great "victory" was felt more like a kick in the teeth for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of agency temps who got the sack for Xmas across the whole economy. And why? For the simple reason that on the 24th December, they would have been completing their twelfth week at work and bosses would have been obliged to give them equal pay for the 12 weeks they had just worked under the AWR!

Closer to home for the CWU leaders, is the scandal of the treatment of Royal Mail's Xmas temps, who this year were not employed through outside agencies, but via a special new company set up by Royal Mail for this purpose, managed by Reed Employment, at a cut rate of at least £1 to £2 per hour less than last year (they were told they would be told what rate they were on, on the day they started). But the pay was completely screwed up so that many are still waiting to be paid for their 3 weeks before Xmas at the time of writing! The response of the CWU, while "celebrating" the "fairness for agency temps" which they claim they had "fought for", was to tell these workers who were just working for a few weeks and often on the "youth minimum wage", to "join the CWU to get pay justice"!

Of course "pay justice" is only achieved by temporary and permanent workers staging real fights on the ground which threaten the workings of the profit system!

2nd tier: "equal work=equal pay", out the window

Another tactic for imposing wage cuts which has become more common of late - but it is not new - is the creation of a second tier of directly employed permanent workers who are on lower pay and worse terms and conditions, even though they are doing the same job as existing workers. In this case, as with the "Swedish Derogation", newly-recruited workers don't get "equal pay for equal work" because they must "voluntarily" sign a contract which specifies the lower wage and specific terms and conditions which are different from and worse than, the existing permanent workforce. It is that simple! "Equal pay for equal work" may have been one of the principles for which trade unionists always fought, but it is not a legal "right". It still has to be fought for!

In the larger unionised workplaces, the bosses were always somewhat circumspect about introducing "two-tier" as it is known, because they expected the trade union officials to resist. So for instance when it was introduced for all new hires in Ford's component supplier Visteon, after Ford had "spun off" the company in 2000, the management asked the ex-Ford, 100% unionised workforce to vote on it, using the blackmail that it was the only way to preserve jobs and their own first-tier terms and conditions. Unfortunately the second tier for new hires was voted through in this case. Only one or two union officials argued that the workforce should call the bosses' bluff and vote against.

Ironically, just a few years after Visteon declared itself bankrupt and had a rocky closure (it is still refusing to meet its pension obligations to former Ford employees), Ford Motor Company itself has decided to go for two-tier in Britain. In the USA, Ford and the other car makers already introduced 2-tier in 2007 - coercing the workers in the context of the crisis and threatening even worse job cuts and closures. With the endorsement of the UAW leaders (the US car workers' union), all new hires were taken on to do the same jobs as existing workers on only half their wages. Today these 2nd tier workers can hope to reach no more than 60-65% of the 1st tier wage [See the separate articles on the US auto workers in this issue of our journal].

Ford still has six British factories, the largest being the Dagenham plant in east London, which is home to Ford's largest diesel engine-producing centre, a press shop, tool room and sub-assembly plant, with a workforce of just under 4,000 altogether, including subcontractors. The renewal of the workers' pay and conditions contract was due last November. But this year, Ford is trying to smuggle in 2-tier.

In the summary of its "final offer" on 27 October 2011 - in the copy which was distributed to the ordinary workers - the introduction of two tier was "hidden" on the back page, as the last item under "other items", headed "Distinct standard grade rates for new employees". It explained nothing, merely saying that "the Company proposed distinct Standard Grade Rates for new employees hired on or after April 2012." it added: "This proposal does not affect existing employees."

Like hell, it "does not affect existing employees"! This is, of course, what the "Company" hopes workers will think. In the detailed offer available only to union officials, the "special rate" for hourly workers was spelled out: a grade 3 employee (semi-skilled) would get £12.99 per hour, compared to the current £14.89 and a grade 5 (usually a skilled worker) £13.93 per hour compared to the current £16.73. Ford excuses this by claiming that these pay rates "would be amongst the most competitive in the UK automotive industry". But by accepting this, not only would Ford workers be accepting to forgo the principle of equal pay for equal work, which they have always tried to uphold (not least for the women sewing machinists who had to stage two historic strikes over this), but they would actually be allowing their own pay to be pulled down in future deals, as the 2nd tier of workers grows larger and the company tries to reduce all workers onto the same lower wage grade. And by the by, since the lower-paid new hires would also be excluded from the final salary pension scheme, this would likewise be eroded.

The added dimension to all of this at Fords is that the company has relied upon directly-employed fixed term temps over recent years making them up to permanent if they had no absence over their term. This was the normal practice until 2008, when all temps were sacked after their 12-month fixed term contracts were up, using the slump in the market as the excuse. Now some of these same temps have been taken back on another 12-month contract which will expire for many of them in March. They have been told that if they are taken on permanently they will not be on the 2nd tier, but would be part of the 1st tier. However, it now transpires that most of them are going to be terminated in March. Ford has plans to install new machinery over the next few months. After that it will most likely require more workers again. The sacked temps who will have had several months on the dole may well be invited back as 2nd tier, if Ford gets its way with this new deal.

Ford's attempt to cut pay and conditions in this way was hidden behind the smokescreen of what seems to be a "good" 2-year pay increase of 6% in year one and inflation plus 0.25% in year 2. Unbelievably, this was apparently considered a good enough justification for the Unite leadership both at plant level and at national level to see no problem whatsoever with these attacks and recommend that workers vote for the offer!

Yet the very same union, Unite, is currently conducting a strike among Marks and Spencer warehouse workers, employed by the contractor Wincanton, over precisely the same kind of pay offer - a 5.5% pay increase hinging on a reduced hourly rate for new starts of £6.45 and a cut in their unsocial hours premiums, while existing workers will get £8. Incidently, Wincanton is also using the Swedish Derogation to avoid paying its agency workers equal rates.

The same Unite is also conducting rolling strikes at Unilever over closure of the final salary pension scheme! But apparently the Unite officials' "partnership" with Ford rules OK! So Ford workers are advised to accept the very same attacks which Unite opposes elsewhere!

The rail workers on the other side of the track

For their part, the rail companies have used all the tricks in the book to keep workers' wages among the lowest. It is only train drivers who have seen their wages rise significantly. This pay policy for drivers was central to the effective divide-and-rule strategy implemented by rail bosses, which has largely prevented strikes and in particular, the solidarity action that the old nationalised British Rail workforce was famous for. But the fact that wages are rock-bottom already among station staff and on-board workers, has not prevented companies from coming up with the imposition of a second tier of workers.

East Coast mainline (King's Cross to Edinburgh) bosses just presented this as a fait accompli to local union reps. This company is actually in government hands, temporarily "renationalised" after National Express could not meet its franchise commitments. It slipped this 2-tier for platform workers in, without so much as a "by your leave" to the joint management-union body, the so-called "company council", where such proposals can at least, in theory, be vetoed by union representatives.

Usually all permanent platform workers can multi-task - that is do several different jobs, like overseeing barriers, checking tickets, giving information, starting trains, presiding over the passenger lounges, etc., and are all paid the same rate for the job. However to make up for chronic staff shortages, agency workers were taken on. But in King's Cross one good thing that the union officials had achieved, was to ensure that agency workers were offered permanent jobs as soon as possible and often after working only a few months for the company - even if they had not managed to get the company to recruit workers as permanents, from day one.

But now East Coast bosses are playing a careful game to avoid paying equal pay. They have taken on platform workers on 9-month fixed term contracts, but at the same time have created a new category. These workers only man the barriers and nothing else, for the time being and are paid a new lower rate (£13,250pa) for the job than the permanent platform workers (depending on service, up to £19,000pa). The company has, however intimated that if they are taken on permanently at the end of the 9-month term, they would reach pay parity after a period of 3 years! In other words they would be lower pay for that long! The bosses obviously thought this contract would be enough to buy the compliance of the union's company council officials, but they may have to think again given that local reps and workers on the ground are determined to oppose it!

The apprenticeship scam

Finally, it is worth adding a word about the use and abuse of "apprenticeships". These are a very obvious means to pay cut-rate wages, given the appallingly low £2.60/hr rate payable to all apprentices for the first year - no matter what age - and to 19 years and under apprentices for the whole term of the apprenticeship.

This "special" new - starvation - minimum wage for apprentices was brought in by the ConDems in November 2010 supposedly to help alleviate youth unemployment!

And the bosses do not even have to fund apprenticeships themselves, even if apprentices are doing useful work in their establishments. For an apprentice aged 16-18 years, the state's National Apprenticeship Service will pay 100% of the cost of the training; for those aged 19-24 years, 50% and for over 25s, a contribution depending on the sector and length of the course. In addition, since November last year an incentive of £1,500 per apprentice is provided for small firms.

Bosses wasted no time in taking advantage. Since this starvation rate came in, the number of apprenticeships has increased spectacularly: up 58% to 442,700 in October 2011, compared to 2009/10 figures. And the number of over 25s in apprenticeships has gone up 257%, with 3,510 apprentices over 60 years! By December 2011, the Skills Minister was obliged to announce that apprenticeships had to last "at least 12 months" - but only for under 19s. Many were lasting just a few months with 3% lasting less than 13 weeks. It is no surprise that so-called "customer care", social care and retail, traditionally low-paid sectors, are the biggest takers-on of these new apprentices with the supermarket chain Morrisons, for instance, taking 12,000 for 2011.

The derisory 10% rise in the number of under-19s in apprenticeships shows that this scam is not likely to even begin to dent the growing youth unemployment, now over one million. But this was never the aim of the game. All that the government has done is to provide bosses with "legitimate" near-to slave labour. And that is no surprise either.

No alternative - except to fight until we win

Now we know how it is that companies make record profits during a recession, when business is stagnating and sales are still relatively low! After cutting everything else, they cut wages. Of course they have always attempted to make fewer workers work more, for less - that is just the way capitalism has always operated - only now, it is a case of turning the screw those few extra turns, until the wood is cracking!

In other words, the framework to protect wages, which workers have built over years of struggle and which has become very fragile during the period of casualisation, is now threatened with collapse. A permanent contract is no longer any insurance against anything. The laws undermining the few employment rights which have been gained and those which were retained from the past, be they rights to union representation, redundancy pay, to go to a tribunal over unfairness and dismissal, to health and safety provisions, to time off for trade union duty - all these are being put into question.

Some of the huffings and puffings which the bosses are making and which the ConDems are echoing are probably just hot air, but some of the cuts have already, de facto, done away with workers' rights and conditions - the monitoring role of factory inspectors, for instance. Access to Employment Tribunals is another obvious target. Given that wage rates under the Swedish Derogation for the "between assignments" periods are deliberately ambiguous, and therefore have been left for the courts to decide, they are probably set to remain ambiguous for the foreseeable future, because if low paid workers have to pay for a tribunal - as is proposed - they are unlikely to pursue the matter.

The effect of the wage cuts is obvious. A further slide downward in workers' living standards - when they have already slid just under 6% over 3 years, with some categories of worker seeing as much as 25% cut from their earnings over the period - and this is only taking into account those who have retained some form of employment!

And of course, this is not the case for the employers. They have ensured that their own pay continues to rise: over the past year, according to Income and Data Services, chief executives' pay rose on average by 43.5%, finance directors' by 34.1%, and the pay of all other directors by 66.5%. Total earnings for directors of FTSE 100 companies increased by 49% last year! A FTSE 100 executive typically received an average of £2.7m in 2010. Directors' base salaries went up "only" 3.2%, but bonus schemes continued to compensate them - whereas private sector workers' pay went "up" 2.6%, with no compensation!

The good news is that disputing the bosses' "right" to cut wages and/or pensions (which are nothing but deferred wages), is no longer a thing of the past. Following the November 30th, 24-hour strike, staged collectively by many sections of the public sector, there have been a number of other small and large fights staged, announced or just threatened, some of which have been mentioned above.

Does this represent a real change of tune on the part of union leaderships? In view of their record, this is not something to rely upon. The fighting talk of union leaders who were quite willing to maintain their partnerships with the capitalists, against all odds, at the beginning of the recession in 2007 and still are, is certainly to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Over the past 4 years, they have agreed to nearly everything, using the bosses' job cuts blackmail as an excuse. This has not prevented over half-a-million job cuts over the past 4-5 years!

Today, union leaders are under renewed pressure to be seen to do something. But this may have more to do with the fact that their cherished "partnership" with employers is under threat, especially in the public sector, with ConDem ministers making anti-union postures for the sake of their electorate. As a result some union leaders may have come to the conclusion that in order to regain their "partnerships", they will need to make a show of strength - which was probably the main reason behind their decision to organise last year's public sector strikes.

Another reason which may put pressure on the union leaderships is the loss of membership. So they may feel the need to be seen opposing cuts in the public sector and the similar attacks in the private sector. And even if they stick to their usual narrow sectionalism by failing to talk about (let alone put into action), the community of interests of private and public sector workers, they will have at least made a few threats of action. The most recent example of fine words came from Len Mc Cluskey, the leader of Unite, the largest union in the country, which straddles both public and private sectors. After accusing Labour's leader, Ed Milliband, of betrayal for coming out in support of the ConDem's public sector pay freeze, he said "Unions in the public sector are bound to unite to oppose the real pay cuts for public-sector workers over the next year. When we do so, it seems we will now be fighting the Labour frontbench as well as the government."

Let us hope, however, that workers remain mindful of the sheep in wolf's clothing behind such talk. Workers have every interest in using all opportunities for taking action which may be offered by the union machineries, but they can only rely on themselves in the fight against the capitalists' offensive.

The struggle against the "qualitatively different" attacks launched by the bosses today, will also have to be "qualitatively different". It will need to be in workers' hands at every stage and bring together many different sections of the working class. And even if there is little such tradition left in the working class, there is no reason why this tradition cannot be rebuilt today!