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Proletarian issue 70 (February 2016)
Industry matters: pay ‘rises’ belied by decline in real wages
A report commissioned by the GMB trade union, based on figures issued by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), estimates that in the seven years from April 2008 to April 2015 the real value of wages earned on average by full-time workers in the UK has dropped by 13.6 percent. In the case of London taken on its own, the drop in real wages has been 23.2 percent.

Over that period, whilst nominal wages have risen by 7 percent, this is more than offset by inflation amounting to 20.6 percent over the same period. It is by subtracting 7 percent from 20.6 percent that the report arrives at the figure of a 13.6 percent decline in actual spending power. (See Real value of wages in the UK plummets by 14 percent since 2008 – and the gender pay divide shows no signs of budging by Jane Denton, This is Money, 30 December 2015)


Victimisation

As the Trade Union Bill is wheeled through the Lords, employers are limbering up for more overt repression of all who dare to speak up in defence of their fellow workers. Here are three current examples.

First is Clive Walder, who was sacked from his Midlands call-centre job after 38 years of service for British Telecom. His alleged offence: briefly losing his cool with an aggressive customer. His real offence: working as chair of the CWU trade union’s Birmingham, Black Country and Worcester branch.

This branch has reported that 7 percent of call-centre staff quit the job every month – so stressed in some cases that they walk out mid-shift. The company’s answer to complaints of stress is simple: sack the whistle-blowers. (See Reinstate CWU2 Cliver Walder and John Vasey, National Shop Stewards Network, 11 November 2015)

Next up is the case of station supervisor Glen Hart, who London Underground management are hell-bent on sacking after 20 years with a clean record working on the Tube. In his case, the motivation of LU is transparent: he is being punished for having stood with the Rail and Maritime Transport union (RMT) during last year’s dispute over staffing levels on stations.

Mr Hart followed LU’s own guidelines (as well as the RMT’s ballot instructions) by closing his station when it was unstaffed, yet management sought to penalise him for this. When this failed, LU invented some story about him threatening a manager. The fight to reinstate him continues. (See Defend Glen Hart, RMT London Calling, 14 December 2015)

Finally, November saw a walk-out by posties in Bridgwater over the victimisation by management of an employee suffering with multiple sclerosis (MS). The worker, Andrew Mootoo, looked set fair for reinstatement. Now news comes in of another walk-out by over 40 postal workers in the Cupar delivery office in Fife, again sparked by victimisation of a fellow worker, David Mitchell.

He had been doing the job for 27 years when he was sacked under suspicion of dishonest conduct – a charge which was rejected by the employment tribunal judge, who ordered Royal Mail to reinstate him. Yet even in the face of this verdict, RM is refusing to give Mitchell back his job, hence the walk-out.

The local paper recorded that he has been a well-liked local figure in Cupar and there is much public sympathy with his plight. The Station Bar pub across the road showed its support by offering free pints to the pickets. (See Royal Mail workers at Cupar delivery office will strike in support of sacked postman David Mitchell by Victoria Weldon, Herald Scotland, 16 December 2015)


Network Rail: here come the cowboys

The government is presently going through the ritual of ‘consulting’ about the future of Network Rail, which was renationalised as a rescue measure (essentially to clear its £34bn debt) in 2014. While the consultation is seen by those in Whitehall as a mere formality – a prelude to rubber-stamping the reprivatisation of the nation’s rail tracks – a report by Dr John Stittle of Essex University has spelt out all the reasons why such reprivatisation would run counter to the public interest.

Dr Stittle’s report warns that privatising the rail infrastructure risks a return to the bad old days of privatised Railtrack, blighted by many more workplace accidents, broken rails and SPADs (signals passed at danger) and by more dreadful accidents like those at Hatfield and Potters Bar. Further, to keep shareholders happy with hefty dividends, most of the funding for any future improvements would have to be funded by taxpayers and/or passengers.

Dr Stittle’s explanation of why privatising rail infrastructure makes no sense in terms of serving the public interest is spot on – but will be of little interest to the government, which serves profit-hungry monopoly capital interests, not the public good. (See Privatising Network Rail could put passenger safety at risk, warns new report by Philip Hadley, Action for Rail, 12 January 2016)


South Korea: ‘democracy’ in action

In South Korea, as in Britain, protests are being mounted against a repressive new trade union law. In Korea, however, the stakes are higher than in Britain – for the moment.

On 6 November 2015, the Seoul government, in response to a rooftop occupation by workers, sent hundreds of police to raid the offices of the Korean Public Services and Transport Workers Union, confiscating documents and computers. Police later followed this up by raiding the offices of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), and for 24 days the KCTU’s president sought asylum in a Buddhist temple in Seoul before being arrested on charges of organising the protests against the new law.

Workers did not have to wait long to see the new law in action again. On 9 December, in protest at a decision by the state-owned Korail to set up a separate company to run a new bullet train line (seen by workers as a preliminary to privatisation and sackings), rail workers went on strike. On 17 December, 30 police raided the rail workers’ union (KRWU), seizing computer hard drives and documents. (See Australian unions condemn Korean crackdown, SIGTUR [Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights])

On 19 December, more such material was seized in simultaneous raids on the KRWU’s regional head offices. Police actions were egged on by statements from the prime minister, which branded the strike illegal and threatened stern measures.

Encouraged by this attitude, Korail suspended 7,927 strikers and arrested two union leaders. It also declared economic war on the union and its 186 leaders, suing them for damages of $7.25m. On 20 December, this wave of police state terror culminated in a massive raid on the KCTU offices in Seoul, resulting in the arrest of 130 trade unionists and the injury of several workers on the receiving end of pepper spray.

Events such as these prompted even Amnesty International to take time out from traducing the socialist DPRK in north Korea to record back in 2013 that the south Korean state’s use of “unnecessary and excessive force” was in violation of “international human rights and labour standards”. (South Korea: Stop arrests of trade union leaders and respect the rights of striking workers, Amnesty International, 24 December 2013)


Pakistan: police conspire with Nestle to break labour laws

Back in 2012, Nestlé signed an agreement with the union representing workers at its Kabirwala plant in Pakistan under which Nestlé would regularise the services of 588 contract workers and give them the employment benefits supposedly guaranteed by the country’s labour laws.

Then, in September last year, management tore up the agreement, trying to get rid of the contract labourers. Without any notice, Nestlé went ahead and locked out 800 low-paid contract workers from the plant, plunging the whole community into destitution.

For 48 days, the ousted workers picketed the site – until they were brutally suppressed by the police. Nestlé managers, in cahoots with the police, are now hunting down union members, while union president Muhammad Hussain Bhatti and other activists have been jailed on ludicrous ‘anti-terror’ charges. (See Release Muhammad Hussain Bhatti, CBA Kabirwala factory union president by Syed Fazal Abbas, Socialist World, 7 December 2015)


Chicago: state education slashed to pay for the crisis

In the US, as in Britain, the banking crisis of 2008 (in reality an episode in a much longer-brewing crisis of overproduction) is being paid for by the working class. One striking example of this is the sharpening crisis in state education in Chicago, presided over by the union-bashing mayor.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel follows in the footsteps of the infamous Mayor Richard J Daley, memorable for his brutal repression of anti-Vietnam war protests outside the Democratic Convention in 1968, and of his son, Mayor Richard M Daley, who, in cahoots with Wall Street bankers, mortgaged the city’s finances to a system of interest-swap agreements – thereby securing loans at a cheaper rate of interest ... for a while.

But this toxic fiscal instrument, because it locked Chicago city hall into very long-term interest rate payments, plunged the city’s budget into crisis when that interest rate became relatively high as general market interest rates crashed in 2008, leaving Chicago on the rack of usury. The bill to exit these agreements amounts to at least $270m. This tale of woe, closely mirroring Britain’s own experience with PFI hospitals, concluded the same way, with the bankers let off the hook whilst the working class is presented with the bill. (See Taxpayer tab to exit swap agreements: nearly $300 million, Chicago Business, 14 October 2015)

In particular, Chicago’s budget cuts have hit state education with great ferocity, disproportionately affecting the working class. Since 2012 (the last time Chicago teachers went on strike in defence of pay and standards in state education), the mayor has bulldozed on with the cuts. In response, on 13 December last year the Chicago Teachers’ Union Local 1 announced the ballot results.

Out of an electorate of 24,752, fully 22,678 cast a vote, an undreamed of turnout in any bourgeois election. And 96 percent of the votes endorsed strike action unless the budget cuts were reversed. (See Chicago teachers vote to authorise strike, FightBack News, 14 December 2015)


Greece: the struggle continues

In Greece, after a pause to digest the full enormity of Syriza’s betrayal of the fight against austerity, general strikes resumed in November and December, with another planned in February, following a series of rallies and demonstrations in January.

Central to the organisation of these strikes is the popular front movement PAME, oriented behind the leadership of the Greek communist party (KKE). (See Strikes and actions by the class unions prepare the general strike of 4 February, PAME, 19 January 2016)

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