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Proletarian issue 11 (April 2006)
Industry matters
News on the industrial front is, as usual, mixed.
On the European front, the European services directive has threatened to open up western European countries to unregulated cross-border competition in services, with cheap labour coming from east to west. On the other side of the coin, the European Commission is backing one case of British trade unions taking legal action against British firms for not protecting pensions of former steelworkers at Cardiff and Sheerness.

Health and safety

The trade unions hazards campaign met health and safety executive bosses recently in an attempt to resist deregulatory pressure and refocus the Health and Safety Executive on “catching safety criminals and saving workers’ lives” . Prosecutions against companies that put workers’ lives at risk have dropped by a third since the HSE became more ‘business-friendly’. The Scottish TUC has welcomed the Crown Prosecution Service’s rare decision to prosecute owners of a plastic factory in Glasgow where, in 2004, an explosion killed nine workers. In Westminster, meanwhile, the TUC has backed MPs’ decision to ban smoking, announcing it as a major victory for union campaigning.

Very good news is the conviction of the two managers responsible for the four rail workers’ deaths at Tebay. They have been sentenced to serve prison terms of nine years and two years respectively.

An Asda worker has anonymously revealed dangerous working practices at Asda depots and distribution centres that are putting workers’ health at risk.

Pay and conditions

Despite profits of £770m, Asda Wal-Mart is refusing to pay promised bonuses of £260m to its workers. The company is also engaged in a protracted war against unionisation of its workforce. The supermarket chain was fined £850,000 in February for illegal anti-union activities after it attempted to bribe workers in Tyne and Wear with a pay rise in return for relinquishing union membership, after which it attempted to simply withdraw collective bargaining rights. The GMB is currently balloting 25,000 members at distribution depots over possible strike action.

The Royal College of Nursing has threatened strike ballots if pay is not increased above 3 percent. College lecturers are also taking industrial action over low pay awards.

The minimum wage has risen and is now:

£3.30 for 16-17 year olds (up 30p)

£4.45 for 18-21 year olds (up 20p)

£5.35 for over-21s (up 30p)

A survey has revealed that one in four British workers has a second job to pay off debts or to keep up with the cost of living in capitalist Britain. Britain has also the longest working hours in Europe. According to the TUC website www.workyourproperhours.com, 4.8m workers work an average of 7.4 hours’ unpaid overtime, losing £23bn in unpaid wages – music to the ears of fat cat bosses!

A women and work commission has delivered a damning report on the pay gap between men and women, revealing that full-time women workers are paid 17 percent less than men working the same jobs. In part time work, the difference in pay is more than double, standing at a massive 38 percent. The report has forty recommendations, but since there is no requirement for companies to act on any of these, they are unlikely to have any effect on this scandalous state of affairs.

Job cuts

In the National Health Service, 25,000 workers are facing the sack in the light of statistics showing that one in every three hospital trusts is in debt and that overall the NHS is in deficit by £750-800m. The chancellor dismissed the significance of the job cuts, saying that some of them only affect ‘temporary’ staff. This claim has been repeatedly contradicted, an example being the 700 job cuts at County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust, which is to include nurses and medical staff. Health experts say that the NHS faces a shortfall of £7bn by 2010, which will mean nurses and doctors losing their jobs. The fact is that, since Labour came to power in 1997, nurse numbers have increased by 17 percent, but the number of bureaucrats has increased by 45 percent, which means a quarter of the NHS budget now goes to pay pen-pushers. Unison’s response has been to tell the government to “stop making major changes to the NHS”.

The civil servants’ union (PCS), meanwhile, is warning of strike action to prevent 30,000 job cuts in the department of work and pensions.

Cable and Wireless has also announced plans to cut 3,000 jobs over the next three years, while Boots have announced plans to axe 2,250 workers. Usdaw’s not particularly helpful advice to the workforce is “not to panic”.

Pensions

Unions at British Airways are threatening strikes over plans to raise the retirement age for pilots to 60 and cabin staff to 65 (presumably the purpose of BA’s plans is to give itself time to tackle the £1bn hole in its pension fund), while employers have rejected a four-point plan produced by the rail unions to tackle the railway pensions crisis.

The Fire Brigades Union has called off a strike ballot while unions consult over new retirement and pensions proposals. After the government announced plans to increase retirement age to 60 for firefighters, there will be a four-week consultation period and then a recall conference of the firefighters’ union (FBU). The government is also planning to cut the number of fire control centres from 46 to 9, with a loss of 380 jobs.

The top news on the industrial front is the local government workers’ strike action on Wednesday 28 March, which involved millions of workers. This action was caused by the announcement that low-paid workers in local government will be made to work another five years (to 65), while middle-class local government workers retain the right to retire at 60. The Labour promise of “fairness not favours” to trade unions now seems to have become “favours to some union members but definitely not fairness to low-paid union members”.

Local government workers are entitled to retire on a full pension at 60 if the combination of their age plus the years they have worked exceeds 85. Workers who have been contributing 6 percent of their income to their pensions for 25 years or more on the basis of this have been informed, without negotiation, that they have to work five years longer. This affects mainly low-paid workers such as home helps and dinner ladies. The response from union members was excellent:

The Independent admits that “The stoppage – the biggest for 80 years – closed thousands of schools, libraries and leisure centres and disrupted a wide range of local authority services …

“Unions said the stoppage had been supported by more than a million workers in the biggest walkout since the General Strike in 1926. An estimated 17,500 schools were forced to close …”


However, on Breakfast Television on the 28th, Dave Prentis, General Secretary of Unison, said the union was very willing to negotiate a raising of the pension age to 65 – for new employees, similar to what has been negotiated for teachers and others. It is distressing to see that even ‘militant’ union leaders are falling over themselves to accept pay cuts for their workers in the form of the slashing of their pension rights!

Ultimately, only communism will ensure for people an equal share of the fruit of their labours. Only communism can achieve the aim, not limited trade union influence in our capitalist system.


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