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Proletarian issue 54 (June 2013)
Industry matters: slave labour legal again
Trading workers’ rights for shares

A new attack on workers’ rights is signalled by a recently-announced government scheme that will allow companies to issue contracts to their employees that, in exchange for a bundle of company shares of doubtful value, will strip away key elements of their employment rights.

Rights to be lost include those relating to unfair dismissal, redundancy and the right to request flexible working and time off for training. The new contract will also double the notice required from women returning from maternity leave from eight to 16 weeks. In short, workers have to be as flexible as Houdini whilst employers can make it up as they go along.

If you already work for a company that decides to opt into this devil’s bargain, you can (in theory at least) choose to ignore your promotion prospects and decline the new contract. New hires, though, will have no choice in the matter, and will have to sign away their rights if they want the job.

General strike?

Two of the largest trade unions, Unite and Unison, which together command over 40 percent of union membership within the TUC, are edging gingerly in the direction of a token one-day general strike, to include both private and public-sector workers.

Yet subs from members of both unions continue to pour into the coffers of the Labour party, even as it sets about denouncing even the limited and token strike that is being proposed. At least in 1926 Labour waited for the strike to get started before betraying it.

After last year’s no-strings resolution from the TUC conference, which called in the vaguest terms for unions to examine the “feasibility” of such a strike, these two giant bureaucracies are clearly under pressure from their members to put some flesh on the bone.

Unite, the main mover in this charade, is banking on its lawyers being able to establish the legality of a general strike on the basis of European human-rights law, thus making the whole exercise conditional upon the integrity of the same bourgeois courts which in the recent past have sabotaged one Unite strike ballot after another.

In between militant-sounding soundbites from McCluskey (presumably issued with a view to seeing off Jerry ‘cut Labour funding’ Hicks in the recent election for General Secretary), the union is muttering that it will in any case take several months to build a consensus across the rest of the TUC (the Usdaw shop workers union and the ATL teachers’ union have both declared against a general strike) and stolidly refusing excitable demands from the National Shops Stewards Network (NSSN) to ‘name the day’.

Unison sounded even more lukewarm, telling the Independent: “A general strike – in principle, yes, we would support that, provided there was a legitimate trade dispute and it was legal.” And so far from seeing such a one-day wonder as the symbolic prelude to a serious campaign of resistance, Unison has said that “a general strike can only be the culmination of a campaign, not the beginning of a campaign”.

A key part of Thatcher’s trade-union-bashing laws, lovingly preserved by Labour in government and now outliving their original architect, was the outlawing of sympathy strikes. However cunningly different unions conspire to fortuitously find themselves on strike, in the pursuit of unrelated disputes, all on the same day of the week, the only people this will confuse are union members themselves; bourgeois courts will not be fooled for one moment by such ruses, and can be relied upon to find or manufacture any number of points of law which will challenge the legality of such actions.

The only thing which would shake the judges’ confidence in this matter would be the eruption of a truly mass strike movement organised on the basis of a working-class offensive against capitalist rule. The prospects of such a movement being drawn into existence by a leadership so obviously hell-bent on staying legal are precisely nil.

Such a movement can be built in Britain only when the baleful influence of the Labour party has been fully exposed and uprooted. It is that task which confronts workers most urgently today, and not a phony debate over whether or not the TUC can be persuaded to go through the motions of a one-day letting off of steam.

Slave labour legal again

On the rare occasions when judges take their own ‘independence’ too seriously and deliver judgements not entirely to the taste of the capitalist state, such verdicts have a severely limited shelf life.

Such was the case with the verdict delivered by the Appeal Court in a test case brought by Cait Reilly and Jamieson Wilson, two claimants who had been forced into unpaid work under threat of having their benefits suspended. The court decided that this was illegal, a verdict which in theory meant that thousands of claimants whose benefits had illegally been docked could now claim back their money from the DWP for all the weeks affected.

Without missing a beat, the government cobbled together the ‘Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Bill’, with the aim of retrospectively legitimising the suspension of benefits, letting the DWP off scot free and endorsing the right of the state to starve the unemployed into submitting, no longer to wage slavery, but to outright slave labour.

This bill passed through parliament like a dose of salts: aside from an insignificant minority of Labour MPs anxious to maintain their lefty credentials, the Labour party abstained en masse, thereby effectively giving its support to the bill, which duly passed its third reading by 263 votes to 52.

What is the consequence of this rigmarole? Firstly, the courts were given a little space to demonstrate in theory the ‘sacred independence of the judiciary’. Secondly, parliament was able in theory to demonstrate ‘democracy in action’. And thus thirdly, without in any way compromising the honour of the British constitution, the unelected dictatorship of capital quietly demonstrated in practice its own non-negotiable right to rule.
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