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Proletarian issue 72 (June 2016)
Industry matters: Unite says no to Brexit
Union-busting at Topshop

Saturday 14 May saw the latest in a series of protests over a regime of bullying and union-busting at Sir Philip Green’s Topshop. Topshop gets its clothes from sweatshops abroad and in the UK, ducks out of £300m in taxes, exploits unpaid interns and pays its staff poverty wages.

Arcadia, an outfit (owned by Green’s wife) which runs Topshop, outsources its cleaning operation to Britannia Services Group (BSG) and then disclaims all responsibility when BSG refuses to pay the London living wage and victimises those who join a union to protest.

Such was the experience of Maria Guaman and a fellow cleaner when they joined United Voices of the World (UVW) union and began to agitate for decent pay and conditions. When they complained about intimidation from BSG managers, they were suspended.

As Maria blogged: “Topshop knows about it and is letting it happen. They could and should easily intervene but they are choosing not to. So they must be encouraging trade union victimisation, or at least condoning it.”

In addition to the demonstrations, the UVW has started legal proceedings against both Topshop and BSG. (See Cleaners suspended from Topshop in response to living wage campaign by Maria Susana Benavidez Guaman, Change.org, 6 April 2016)


Unite: no to Brexit

Unite has backed a warning from Airbus management to its employees not to vote for a Brexit, apparently taking the view that what is good for monopoly capitalism must be good for the working class.

But the claim by Unite’s assistant general secretary Tony Burke that “UK workers derive significant benefits from European social and employment legislation that would immediately be lost if we voted to leave the EU” misleads workers. (Unite welcomes Airbus EU referendum letter and strongly urges members to vote ‘remain’, Unite, 5 April 2016)

When any of these workers’ rights have proved a serious impediment to the profitable exploitation of labour, they have been effortlessly waived (remember the working time directive?) And Greece’s continued membership has done nothing to stop the country becoming a graveyard of workers’ rights, despite its enduring EU membership.

As the capitalist crisis deepens, this capitalist club necessarily reveals its true priorities: concentration of capital across national borders, privatisation, austerity, zero-hour contracts and the crushing of workers’ rights. This is not just, as Tony Burke suggests, an “austerity and privatisation agenda that the EU has been following in recent years” (an ‘agenda’ which could supposedly be ditched in a ‘reformed’ EU), but an imperative that is dictated by the very nature of the global crisis in which imperialism is foundering.

Burke’s further appeal to “the critical role that the European Union has also played in securing peace” rings hollower still, bearing in mind the crucial role played by the EU and Nato in destabilising Ukraine and sowing the seeds of new wars.


Blacklisters cough up but justice still denied

On Monday 9 May, eight major construction companies were due to go on trial at the High Court on blacklisting charges brought on behalf of victims. The companies involved are Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Costain, Kier, Laing O’Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska UK and VINCI. However, after last minute improvements in the compensation offers put up by the companies, it was agreed to settle.

A High Court hearing on 11 May heard a public apology and admissions by the firms as to their involvement with blacklisting. Total compensation amounted to about £50m plus £200m in legal costs.

Blacklist Support Group secretary Dave Smith, whilst recognising this development as a “historic victory”, was hard-headed in his comments on the kind of society within which blacklisters continue to flourish.

“The blacklist firms might have hoped that by buying their way out of a show trial that the scandal that has disgraced an entire industry will go away: it won’t. Blacklisting is a human rights conspiracy against trade unionism by big business and shady anti-democratic political policing units within the British state.

“These fat cats and their friends in the police took food off of our children’s table, causing years of family hardship. We take this personally. A few quid and a mealy-mouthed apology is a long way from justice.

“We intend to continue our fight to expose those who orchestrated and colluded with blacklisting. In any civilised society, the wretches would be in jail by now.” (Update from Blacklist Support Group, Unite the Resistance, 9 May 2016)


Kids’ strike over school tests

As the government executed a U-turn on compulsory academisation of all schools, thousands of parents were keeping their six and seven-year-olds off school to avoid subjecting them to Standard Assessment Tests (SATs).

These competitive tests, designed to identify winners and losers in an educational process increasingly resembling an obstacle course, are seen by teachers and parents alike as at best a waste of time. At worst, we might add, such tests play a key part in branding some students as ‘failures’ even before they have departed infancy, eroding their self-confidence and preparing them for a likely future as docile wage-slaves.

Campaign group Let Our Kids Be Kids ran a petition calling for the SATs boycott, which attracted 45,000 signatures, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) declared its dissatisfaction with the tests. On the day of the boycott, 500 different protests and boycotts took place.

To compound the government’s embarrassment over the ‘kids’ strike’, schools minister Nick Gibb was unable to answer a SATs literacy question designed for six and seven-year-olds. Radio 4’s World at One presenter read him out this sentence: “I went to the cinema after I’d eaten my dinner,” then asked Gibb whether the word ‘after’ was being used “as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition?”

Answers on a postcard please. (SATs strike: teachers turn blind eye to absences as thousands of children miss school in protest by Rachael Pells, Independent, 3 May 2016)


Tata: the vultures circle

With the global overproduction in steel leaving Tata making a massive ongoing loss on its British operations, the prospects for Tata workers are bleak – as they are for steel workers all over the world. For the asset-strippers, however, the disintegration of the steel industry offers potential rich pickings.

The government’s promise to acquire a 25 percent stake in any potential buy-out, plus hundreds of millions in support, offers a tasty bribe without any kind of public accountability, whilst the possibility of shuffling Tata’s pension liabilities off into the Pension Protection Fund will slash benefits for thousands of workers by an average of 20 percent.

“Companies that have bought assets from Tata have not taken on pension liabilities. The commodities broker Liberty House, one of the declared bidders for the sprawling Port Talbot plant, has said it would not sponsor the pension scheme.

Greybull, a ‘family office’ investment company, which is close to buying the Scunthorpe-based long products division for £1, set up another, less generous scheme. That deal has carved out around a quarter of Tata’s British revenues and a third of its British workforce.

“John Ralfe, an independent consultant, said: ‘No buyer of the individual Tata Steel plants will take on any pension liabilities, which will remain with Tata Steel UK. Once all the plants are sold or mothballed, there will be no underlying business to support the £15bn British Steel pension scheme and it looks certain to end up in the Pension Protection Fund.’” (Tata Steel’s pension scheme is a ‘noose around its neck’ by Andrew Bounds and Michael Pooler, Financial Times, 14 April)

The trade union response to the mass cull of jobs in the British steel industry has not been to lead occupations of steel plants, or even to organise strikes in protest. Instead, the response has been to berate the government ... for failing to fight the trade war with sufficient vigour. TUC chief Frances O’Grady told the press: “Cheap Chinese steel imports are wrecking the UK steel industry. It beggars belief that ministers are blocking attempts to deal with this.” (Government giving China green light to dump steel, TUC, 16 March 2016)

What is wrecking the steel industry is the decades-long failure to invest – a failure predating by many years China’s emergence as a trade rival. The crisis in the industry stems from the overall crisis of overproduction – a crisis that gluts commodity markets with products of all kinds; products that the world needs but cannot afford to buy.

This crisis inevitably sharpens the competition between rival producers, moving in due course from the economic to the military sphere.

Communists prepare to end this crisis by fighting a class war against capitalism, whilst social democrats (the Labour party and its various hangers-on) seek to end it by assisting British imperialism in fighting its trade war corner. Instead of gathering up the threads of resistance into the common cause of overthrowing capitalism and organising production on a socialist plan, social democracy ticks off the British government for its alleged failure to show sufficient enthusiasm for EU plans to ramp up protectionism against non-European steel imports.

Telling workers that the solution to their problems is for British capitalism to stick with the EU, batter the Chinese and win the trade war is the worst political advice. It will not ‘save our steel’, but it will help to tighten the bonds that tie the labour aristocracy to imperialism, as well as preparing the psychological ground for the next bout of warmongering.

In the hopes of saving Tata Steel’s operation in Port Talbot, union reps volunteered to collude with local management in the axing of 750 jobs in exchange for a two year stay of execution and a cash injection of £100m. The logic was familiar and beguiling: better embrace the loss of 750 jobs voluntarily than see all 4,000 jobs go otherwise.

And if the wind had been blowing in the right direction at the board meeting in Mumbai, the ‘turn-around plan’ might just have squeaked through ... this time. But even if it had, and most of the jobs had secured a reprieve, how would keeping everyone mesmerised by this ‘partnership’ approach do anything to toughen up workers ideologically for the much bigger struggles that lie ahead as the crisis of overproduction deepens?

Only communist leadership can rise to this challenge.


Sudden death of the ‘weekend effect’

A new Oxford University paper has revealed that hospital data used to ‘prove’ that death rates are higher for those admitted to hospital at the weekend (the so-called ‘weekend effect’, which featured so heavily in Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s propaganda war against the junior doctors) were completely flawed.

The original Oxford Vascular Study, based on hospital admissions for over 90,000 patients in Oxfordshire for stroke, muddled up patients admitted for stroke with patients admitted for other routine weekday procedures.

Unsurprisingly, the death rates for stroke patients admitted at weekends were higher than death rates for weekday admissions where stroke cases were mixed up with less acute cases. The new study found that more than a third of admissions registered as stroke victims were in fact for routine procedures.

In short, all that the original survey really proved is that very ill people are generally more likely to die than less ill people. (Junior doctors’ contracts: fresh talks under way by Adam Brimelow, BBC, 9 May 2016)

What is clear as day, even without an Oxford research paper, is that hospitals staffed by overworked, underpaid and demotivated health workers are not going to be good places to stay if you have the misfortune to get sick.

By failing to seize the junior doctors’ fight as the focus for a class-wide mobilisation in defence of the NHS, the trade union movement has helped ease the way for the next stage of the dismantling of the welfare state.
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