Fire service bosses pull out of Covid-19 agreement 

Fire and rescue service employers have unilaterally scrapped a ground-breaking agreement with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) which had enabled firefighters to assist the NHS and care sector response to Covid-19.

Negotiations over health and safety measures for firefighters delivering high-risk covid-19 duties were ongoing when the National Employers issued a communication ending the agreement on the evening of Wednesday 13 January. The decision appears to be supported by the National Fire Chiefs Council. This was done without any prior notice to firefighters or the FBU.

The FBU says the termination is driven by the employers’ desire to alter previously agreed safety arrangements which protected firefighters undertaking additional work.

Under the agreement, firefighters were required to submit a negative covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test before returning to their fire station on normal duties, protecting the service from mass outbreaks by removing the risk of cross contamination.

However, in talks the National Employers attempted to remove this protection at a national level.

Working over the Christmas and New Year period, the union had offered a range of alternative safety measures to enable the activities to proceed safely, but these were rejected by employers. The employers then unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, As a result, there are now no national protections for firefighters delivering covid-19 duties.

The FBU called this an “abdication of responsibility” by employers regarding the safety of firefighters and says the uneven health and safety practices across other sectors should not be repeated in the fire and rescue service.

Firefighters, overwhelmingly represented by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), have taken on numerous additional Covid-related activities during the course of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 in order to assist in keeping communities safe.

This agreement was originally established through a tripartite mechanism involving the FBU, the fire service National Employers and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC). More recently it was renewed via the National Joint Council for Local Authority Fire & Rescue Services (NJC).

The FBU is urging fire and rescue service National Employers to get back around the table so that the national agreement can be reintroduced in full.

The union will be speaking with its members before issuing further guidance.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

“This irresponsible move from fire and rescue service employers threatens to endanger the lives of firefighters, their families, and the public.

“The FBU has consistently worked with employers and fire chiefs in good faith to enable firefighters to safely take on new work to help their communities through this pandemic. But employers have decided to begin a race to the bottom on safety, abdicating their responsibility to keep their staff safe, and services protected from mass outbreaks.

“Rather than support firefighters’ life-saving work, employers have walked away from the very agreement which enabled it. By removing national safety standards, they are exposing staff and services to a deadly disease – all apparently to make a political attack on a trade union simply because we are trying to ensure work is safe.

“Firefighters carrying out covid-19 duties have undoubtedly saved lives and we are proud to have helped them do it safely. We deeply regret that employers have scrapped this crucial agreement and urge them to reintroduce vital national safety protections and resume talks. They should stop playing politics and get round the table to resolve this.”

Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said:

“Firefighters are making a huge contribution to fighting the pandemic – helping the vulnerable, driving ambulances and supporting NHS and care services.

“But safety comes first. The consequences of Covid-19 running rampant through a local fire station and communities are too grim to contemplate. None of us know when we might need to make a 999 call.

“By turning their back on the national safety agreement, employers and fire chiefs are turning their back on us all. They must get back to the negotiating table.”

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Support Indian Farmers Dispute Says Unite’s Jas Gill

By Jas Gill, Unite Executive Council Member

The Punjab farmers dispute is the biggest dispute and the largest protest in the world and other states in India have joined in. There are a lot of people in the Punjabi community posting this on their social media but it has been shadow banned by Facebook. Whereas, mainstream media has not mentioned it a lot during the 40 plus days the protests have been going on.

These farmers bills have huge impact on farming communities in India which are poor and at most farmers only have a few acres of lands.

These three bills will allow large corporations to dictate price and supply which can in essence make farmers lose their livelihoods. This is the biggest stand against a government and corporation in the world.

They have been peacefully protesting for over 40 days and have been met with blockades, violence, tear gas, water cannons and more. Indian government are stopping people from a democratic right which is to protest peacefully.

Farmers have been making food and giving it to other communities in the areas they are protesting, setting up schools, gyms, giving blood and setting up medical centres to help the people in need. Indian government has tried to label farmers as terrorists to discredit there dispute and has used Indian media for their bias propaganda.

There have been many protests by the Punjabi community around the world, in London, Vancouver, Birmingham, San Francisco, New York, Washington, Panama, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Austria, Holland, France, Toronto and much more.

This week MP Tanmanjeet Dhesi has got a letter cross party signed by over 100 MPs and lords which addresses the issues and the fact Boris Johnson has overlooked these issues.

In India there will be a mass demonstration on there independence day on the January 26th by the farmers Unions.

Can CTUF supporters highlight this dispute to all the trade unions and federations around the world to support the farmers and join on the 26th January. 

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US unions welcome Biden’s pick for new Labor Secretary

Marty Walsh – new US Labor Secretary

US trad unions have welcomed President-elect Joe Biden’s decision to appoint Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as US Labor Secretary.

Before becoming the mayor of Boston, Walsh was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and previously the head of the Boston Metropolitan District Building and Construction Trades Council, covering over 20 union locals in the construction industry.

Walsh joined the Labourers Union Local 223 at the age of 21 and served as its president.

Biden was expected to choose a candidate who had wide support among unions given his support for collective bargaining and the right to organise. Walsh will play a key role in implementing Biden’s proposed pro-worker agenda.

He was chosen from a strong field of candidates including California Labour Secretary Julie Su and Andy Levin, a representative from Michigan. Bernie Sanders had also expressed an interest in running for the post but Biden persuaded him to remain in the Senate to ensure the Democrats kept majority.

United Steelworkers international president Tom Conway said that Walsh would make “a real difference” as US labour secretary.

Richard Trumka, the president of the US union umbrella body the AFL-CIO who backed Walsh, said: “As a long-time union member, Marty Walsh knows that collective bargaining is essential to building back better by combating inequality, beating Covid-19 and expanding opportunities for immigrants, women and people of colour.

“He will have the ear of the White House, the Cabinet and Congress as we work to increase union density and create a stronger, fairer America.”

Biden has already appointed 28 union and pro-worker members to his transition teams.

But it won’t be plain sailing. The National Labour Relations Board, which is supposed to enforce the law on the right to form a union, to take industrial action and for workers to improve their pay, benefits and working conditions through collective bargaining currently has a Trump-appointed Republican majority.

With no representatives who have experience representing of workers or unions the NLRB has stripped workers of their protections under the law, restricted their ability to organise, slowed down the process of ballots by workers to secure union recognition, giving employers more time to campaign against unions, repealed rules holding employers accountable for their actions and undermined workers’ bargaining rights.

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The Brexit Deal and ILO Conventions (Part Two)

Far from being a cause for optimism, the EU-UK Brexit agreement’s commitment to work within ILO standards does not hold water, argue Nicola Countouris, Professor Keith Ewing and Lord John Hendy QC.

As we pointed out in our previous article, the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) was engineered to permit the dilution in the UK of those workers’ rights derived from EU law which are in force on December 31.

The TCA offers no guarantee of continuing alignment of rights after Brexit, the likelihood being that British standards will fall further and further behind our European neighbours.

There are nevertheless other provisions of the TCA which relate to workers’ rights which should not pass without comment.

These include Article 8 of Title XI dealing with trade and sustainable development.
To the uninitiated, this might look promising, the parties affirming their commitment to the development of international trade in “a way that is conducive to decent work for all, as expressed in the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation.”

But more than that, Article 8 of Title XI also commits the parties to respect, promote and effectively implement the internationally recognised core labour standards, as defined in the fundamental ILO Conventions, namely:

• Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
• The elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour
• The effective abolition of child labour; and
• The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.
ILO Conventions on freedom of association include protection of the right to strike and to bargain collectively, and for trade unions to determine their own rules and activities.

The Conventions provide levels of protection well in advance of current British labour law.

Yet despite the foregoing, it would be a mistake to get overexcited about Article 8: the commitment to “effectively implement” ILO standards is meaningless.

It is, as our colleague Professor Tham of Melbourne University puts it, a form of “faux regulation,” typical of other neoliberal texts.

In other words, Article 8 is no more than a rhetorical flourish, not intended to bind anyone, and which in practice will bind no-one.

We know this because Article 8 has been copied and pasted from multiple other free trade agreements where it has had absolutely zero effect.

These include EU free trade agreements which bear the signatures of British prime ministers, such as the free trade agreements with South Korea and Canada respectively. (It is thus not the case that pre-Brexit the UK has had no free trade treaty obligations.)

Yet despite agreements of this kind and commitments made to effectively implement ILO obligations, the Tories under David Cameron introduced the Trade Union Act 2016.

The latter was held by the ILO Committee of Experts to add to the long list of the UK’s violation of freedom of association obligations, a comprehensive list which it opened in 1989 and has added to almost annually since.

Under Johnson it is likely that that list will be extended by even more restrictions on trade unions (note the Tory election manifesto commitment to introduce yet more restraints on industrial action on the railways).

The EU (and a number of member states) are also in persistent breach of ILO Conventions — the notorious Viking and Laval cases being good examples.

There, it will be recalled, the European Court of Justice subordinated trade union rights to the right of businesses to engage in social dumping.

Industrial action by trade unions in response would be permitted only if it met very tight conditions, which were subsequently found by the ILO Committee of Experts — in a case involving British trade union Balpa — to violate ILO Convention 87.

The EU could comply with ILO obligations only if the European Court of Justice reversed its decision in Viking, or if there is a treaty amendment to give legal priority to the right to strike in EU law.

Neither is likely to happen. The EU is thus in no position to complain about the United Kingdom’s continuing breach of ILO standards, with which the EU itself is currently unable to comply as a matter of EU constitutional law.

Both parties have thus given commitments in Article 8 in the full knowledge that they do not comply with the commitments made.

Although they will no doubt deny that they are in breach, we live in a world of mutually assured non-compliance, in which it is in the interests of neither party to raise a complaint against the other.

Article 8 will thus continue to be what comparable provisions are in other free trade agreements: pointless.

Apart from the foregoing, it will be noted nonetheless that Article 8 of Title XI includes an express commitment effectively to implement the “effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”

If taken seriously this would be hugely significant. After 40 years of neoliberal “reforms,” collective bargaining coverage in the United Kingdom has fallen from 82 per cent in 1979, to about 27 per cent overall today, with just over half that in the private sector.

In the EU, in contrast, the European Commission is fretting about countries with density levels of less than 70 per cent, and is apparently trying to do something about it.

But while the EU may be gripped by the seriousness of the crisis facing collective bargaining, that anxiety is not shared by the Johnson government, nor is it likely that

Article 8’s commitment to collective bargaining will mean much in practice.
These collective bargaining commitments in Article 8 are to be looked at in the light of Article GRP1 which deals with general principles of good regulatory practice and co-operation.

The latter refers to the right of the parties “to regulate [their] own levels of protection in pursuit or furtherance of its public policy objectives,” in areas such as occupational health and safety and labour conditions.

Although GRP1 is of uncertain scope and application, it offers guidance about British government thinking, as does the clarification added for “greater certainty.”

This protects “the different models of industrial relations” in accordance with national laws and practices, referring specifically to “laws and practices concerning collective bargaining and the enforcement of collective agreements.”

In other words, GRP1 appears to hard-wire a government intention to continue a regulatory model of collective bargaining which has been engineered to fail.

It is a model which has been unable to deliver a collective bargaining density in excess of 50 per cent in any of the major countries where it operates.

The explicit need to preserve this model reinforces the concern about the government’s vision for the “labour market” post-pandemic.

As we wrote at the beginning of Part I of this pair of articles, Labour MPs and peers are being asked to support an agreement that is intended to undermine British workers’ rights, despite the ink needlessly spilled to convince us otherwise.

The agreement fails to protect existing rights sourced from the EU, and fails to protect rights in international law derived from ILO Conventions (and the European Social Charter).

For the party of Keir Hardie to support such a treaty would be not only deeply ironic, but perhaps also a signal of neoliberalism’s final triumph.

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