Professor Keith Ewing: Covid-19 has exposed a failing state

Professor Keith Ewing, president of the Campaign For Trade Union Freedom

Writing in 1918, Lenin reflected on the ‘rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalism’.   In the same text he wrote also of bourgeois democracy being ‘a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited’:  The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.   While of course Lenin knew nothing of Covid-19, the wisdom of both observations has been brutally exposed by the pandemic, as badly exploited workers have been failed by the State, with their trade unions both increasingly marginalised and vilified.  

At the time of the lockdown, about a third of the workforce was designated as ‘critical workers’ – engaged in health and social care, as well as in transport, food distribution and retail.   Unlike others who could work from home, most ‘critical workers’ had to be physically present.

Although not true of all critical workers, a large number were in low paid employment, dependant on the minimum wage.  Moreover, as a group, their income had fallen by 4% over the last ten years compared to 0.3% for all workers.

At the moment of its greatest crisis the government was thus demanding that the greatest sacrifice should be made by those who were least well rewarded and in some cases those most vulnerable.  Yet the hypocrisy continues, with ‘inflation busting’ pay rises announced for some public sector workers, including doctors and teachers.  But nothing for many others in the public and private sectors who have been on the front line:   care workers, food production and distribution workers, bus drivers, and a host of others.

Others still – such as taxi and delivery drivers as well as others in the gig economy – are waiting on a UK Supreme Court decision in the Ubercase argued last week to find out if they qualify for the statutory minimum wage, or to receive holiday pay.   But along with exploitation and low pay, we also confront the reality of ‘critical workers’ being exposed to Covid-19 and dying as a result. This is due in part to the unwillingness of government to keep people safe – the first responsibility of the State.

Successive Tory governments have failed to maintain the most basic personal protection equipment.   Stockpiles not replenished were allowed to become obsolete.  The government had no domestic capacity to manufacture PPE, and failed in its emergency legislation to take the power to requisition private property to manufacture and distribute essential equipment.    It was thus forced to rely on over-stretched global supply chains, these based in part in seems on the gross exploitation in Malaysia of Burmese migrant workers.

But it was not only the State’s failure to provide basic protective equipment that revealed ‘rottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy’.   Our inadequate labour laws failed to require employers to have in place occupational sickness schemes, leaving workers dependent on statutory sick pay of only £95.85 a week.   Workers with mild symptoms of the disease were thus expected to choose debt and immiseration as the price of altruism.   Bad employment practices are a risk to public health, as well as the health of the workers themselves.

Equally offensive – and equally a threat to public health – are the funding arrangements for the delivery of public services.   Public services have been outsourced to profit-making international service companies. These companies have led the way with the commodification of labour – using workers only as and when needed. Hence the explosion of agency workers employed in different locations, inadvertently exposed to the risk of carrying disease from one site to another.

Add to which the exclusion of trade unions over many years.  True, the unions were inspirational in helping to secure incomes during the initial stages of the pandemic for nine million workers with their proposal for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.   But although a real feather in the cap of leading trade unionists, the Scheme as introduced gave no rights to workers, it being entirely at the discretion of the employer whether to enrol workers under the Scheme or to make them redundant.

This was above all else a scheme to protect big business, workers its secondary beneficiaries.   Nowhere is there a better example of Lenin’s thesis in The State that the bourgeois democracy is a ‘machine’ used by businesses to ‘maintain their power’.   And nowhere is there a better example of Lenin’s thesis that the more democratic the State ‘the cruder and more cynical is the rule of capitalism’.  On the eve of the lockdown, the ‘democratic’ House of Commons authorised £266 billion government support to business, no questions asked.

Yet while trade unions nevertheless won plaudits for preserving incomes, this was to change when Johnson returned to duty and workers were being coerced back to work.  Since then we have seen only the abuse of union leaders – notably in the NEU – insisting rightly on the need to ensure that proper steps are taken to protect the health and safety of their members.  At the same time, there has so far been no response publicly from the government to maintain State intervention to protect jobs.  On the contrary, jobs are now slipping away on a daily basis.

We are on the threshold of one of the greatest economic crises of capitalism, as measured by GDP decline, business closures, unemployment and universal credit applications.   Yet the response of the neo-liberals is as predictable as it is risible.   According to Sajid Javid – some-time Tory Chancellor writing in The Times just after the lockdown started – ‘the free market is the only way to revive the economy’, insisting that after the pandemic has passed ‘we must not allow the Left to win the argument about wealth creation’.

That was followed by a Daily Telegraph columnist writing a week later in celebration of Marco Datini, a 14th century Italian entrepreneur, who ‘emerged from the plagues of 14th century Tuscany an even richer man’.  Said to be the ‘forerunner of the modern businessman’, Datini was ‘proof that if there is one thing as adaptive to change as viruses, it’s capitalism’. We now know who has paid with their lives and livelihoods as a result of Covid-19.   We will find out soon enough who has benefitted financially at their expense.

But in the meantime it seems most likely that the neo-liberal road will be the direction of travel of the Tory government, a government for whom the word mendacious was created to describe.   It is true that billions of pounds have been spent on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other measures designed to bail out business.   Indeed some cling to the naïve belief that under the Johnson government the spending taps will be turned on forever, and that no austerity measures will be introduced to cut the levels of government expenditure. Continue reading

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Video: The Future of Industry, Jobs & Rights At Work

Read a full report from this on-line event by clicking here.


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Support The NUJ : Thwarted In Recognition Bid By “Bosses Union Of Choice”

NUJ condemns BAJ for becoming the “bosses’ union of choice” at Iran International to thwart NUJ recognition process.

The National Union of Journalists has called on supporters of trade union rights to condemn the British Association of Journalists which has clinched a sweetheart deal with Iran International, despite the overwhelming number of journalists there being members of the NUJ who were engaged in a recognition bid.

The NUJ had been in talks with the broadcaster to secure trade union recognition since the beginning of this year.

Iran International refused to engage with the arbitrator ACAS and then revealed it had signed a recognition deal with BAJ, an obscure journalists’ union.

Iran International, a Persian language television channel, is owned by Volant Media UK Ltd

The NUJ had been supporting members at Iran International who have faced harassment and threats to their families in Iran, and threats of action against them in London, by Iranian state officials.

Similar tactics have been used against staff in the BBC Persian Service over the past decade. As an affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists, the NUJ has lobbied the international community, via the UN, in support of press freedom and to put pressure on the Iranian state to stop its intimidation of journalists.

A statement from the NUJ’s Emergency Committee said it was “wholly unethical and unprincipled for any union worthy of the name to trample over the rights of workers, or to deny a collective voice through the union they choose, rather than one chosen by an employer”.

BAJ had previously no known members nor presence at the company. There is a now BAJ “rep”, a senior manager appointed by the union and management, and staff are now being put under pressure to join the union, which is not affiliated to the TUC and has no international trade union connections.

In a letter sent to BAJ and its NEC on Saturday night, asking for the union to withdraw its agreement, the NUJ Iran International chapel said it was “stunned” to see the announcement of the deal with BAJ the previous night, adding: “As a chapel of minority ethnic workers, our voice has been completely taken away from us by an organisation that pretends to stand up for workers.”

The NUJ Emergency Committee statement said the NUJ would continue to negotiate with Iran International “to achieve a sensible outcome that represents the wishes of the majority of the workers in the bargaining unit”.

The NUJ is prepared to fight the case through the courts and via a complaint to the International Labour Organisation if a solution is not found.

The union has now launched a campaign to support members at Iran International and their right to be represented by their union of choice; not one foisted on them by management.

It is asking all NUJ chapels and branches, the TUC and wider trade union movement and the general public to offer their solidarity to the Iran International chapel and will be raising the issue in Parliament via the NUJ’s cross-party Parliamentary Group.

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “Our members have worked hard to build up their NUJ chapel and to progress collective bargaining to secure a genuinely independent collective voice at work. That voice has been denied them by the actions of BAJ, just as our recognition application was in its final straits.

“Union-busting should have no place in our workplaces or our society. Our members at Iran International have faced intimidation and harassment for their work as journalists – that their rights of freedom of association should be trampled on in this way is a grave injustice and one that the NUJ will do all it can to rectify.”

Paul Siegert, NUJ National Broadcasting Official, said: “If BAJ had any morals or understanding of what trade unions stand for then they would do the decent thing and tear up this agreement with Iran International. It is not too late to do the right thing and walk away rather than join forces with management and help silence the voice of workers.”

NUJ Emergency Committee Statement following a meeting on Wednesday 8th July 2020

The NUJ Emergency Committee applauds the efforts of all NUJ members at Iran International who have worked hard over the past two years to organise, recruit and show collective solidarity in their commitment to gain NUJ collective recognition.

It further notes that in recent months, NUJ members and their families in Iran have been subjected to harassment and intimidation by the Iranian state, in its ongoing campaign to silence journalistic coverage of events in Iran and to undermine press freedom.

This EC condemns the announcement by the company on Friday 3 July that it had signed a collective recognition agreement with the British Association of Journalists, a non-TUC affiliated organisation which had no presence, no members and no prior involvement at the company.

The NUJ condemns any attempt to cynically and deliberately block an application for statutory recognition through an agreement with an organisation that has no democratic legitimacy and is a breach of workers’ rights. This EC notes that the courts have been clear that such behaviour engages Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights as it prevents members being represented by a union that the majority had chosen to represent its interests. The right for a union to collectively bargain on behalf of its majority membership within a bargaining unit is an essential element of Article 11 which provides for the freedom of association and it cannot be usurped by a deal with an alternative organisation that commands no support within the bargaining unit.

As a democratic principled organisation established to uphold and fight for workers’ rights, the NUJ believes it is wholly unethical and unprincipled for any union worthy of the name to trample over the rights of workers, or to deny a collective voice through the union they choose, rather than one chosen by an employer. Trade union rights are human rights.

This EC calls on Iran International and the British Association of Journalists to respect the legitimate rights of NUJ members to seek recognition with the union of their choice, not one imposed upon them.

This EC notes that the NUJ, through its general secretary and national broadcasting official, remains prepared to continue negotiations with the employer to achieve a sensible outcome that represents the wishes of the majority of the workers in the bargaining unit. If that does not happen the NUJ will fight this case through the courts and via a complaint to the International Labour Organisation.

This EC also calls on the general secretary to launch a union-wide campaign to raise awareness of this matter throughout all NUJ chapels and branches and among the general public; to seek immediate support from the TUC and wider trade union movement; to seek support from the International Federation of Journalists and global affiliates; to urgently raise with the NUJ’s cross-party parliamentary group and to highlight the abuse of legislation governing trade union rights in the UK to policymakers.

This EC commits the NUJ to taking all possible measures to ensure the rights of our members are respected, to offer them full protection and to do all we can to safeguard their fundamental rights. In doing that we offer the NUJ’s full support, protection and solidarity to all members at Iran International, and particularly to the NUJ’s team of dedicated and inspiring reps.

Please tweet your support of the Iran International NUJ chapel using the hashtags #Solidarity4NUJIranInt  #TURightsAreHumanRights, #BAJofShame, tagging @FlyMyatt, Matthew Myatt, BAJ’s general secretary and asking him to withdraw deal.

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Trump’s NLRB Attacks Union Protection Laws

The US National Labour Relations Board, now with a majority of Trump appointees is considering killing off a legal precedent that has protected unions since the NLRB’s introduction by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

One professor of labour law said he was stunned when Trump’s NLRB announced that it would review the precedent. An AFL-CIO lawyer indicated that it is ‘highly likely’ that the NLRB will at least ‘narrow its scope’.

The upcoming NLRB review arose from a dispute between a United Foodworkers Local 27 union representing 800 Delaware poultry workers and a Trump ‘mega donor’ who owns the Mountaire Selbyville poultry plant where workers have unionised.

Many workers are immigrants and according to legal filings, about two-thirds have required documents to be translated into Spanish or Haitian Creole.

The dispute has been joined by lawyers for a national right-wing group, the National Right To Work Committee  funded by right wing conservatives that has long opposed the FDR New Deal-era precedent.

Currently when a union and employer sign a contract, (recognition agreement) the board has ruled that the contract bars attempts to decertify the union until at least three years later, or after the contract expires.

Without this precedent, known as the ‘contract bar doctrine’, rich companies or even third parties could hit a union with one vote after another to decertify the union as the workers’ representative.

Even if the decertification votes fail, the repeated attacks on the union could become a major strain on union resources. Unions nationwide are already bracing for impact. The record of the current NLRB – all appointed by Trump – has unions expecting a setback.

As AFL-CIO General Counsel Craig Becker said: “This NLRB board is very aggressive in its attempt to displace unions and so it’s highly likely that they’re gonna cut back on the contract bar rule in some way.”

Ironically, eroding the contract bar doctrine could also hurt companies, by destabilising corporate relationships with unions.

Becker said that: “One of the arguments in favour of these bars is it gives both sides an incentive to be reasonable – as opposed to feeling you’ve got to fight to the hilt about everything.”

With the contract bar doctrine, unions have some room to make reasonable concessions. For instance, if an employer complains about a bad worker, union leaders don’t have to fear an immediate member uprising if they agree to address the employer’s complaints.

Becker’s not alone in claiming the contract bar doctrine benefits both sides. The doctrine “always had the support of not only unions, but employers. The only one’s who doesn’t like it is the right wing anti union National Right To Work Committee,” said Martin Malin, professor of law and co-director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Malin said that the contract bar doctrine is “meaningful for unions, but it’s also meaningful for employers. You could have a race where one union is seeking to take over for another – it’s a potential minefield for employers?”

Neither Becker or Malin would say with certainty what effect losing the contract bar doctrine might have. According to Becker, it could give employers “more of an incentive to try to create dissatisfaction with the union as opposed to trying to have a productive relationship.”

Malin said the impact of losing the precedent “all depends on how often decertification is tried and that’s really hard to gauge.”

The answer, Malin said, could depend on the National Right to Work Committee. The group’s legal foundation requested the NLRB review. “What’s the Right to Work Committee’s next move going to be? Lots of active decertification campaigns? It’s something that unions will then have to devote resources to deal with.”

Either way, a negative ruling would be “one of those thousand cuts: Death by a thousand cuts,” Malin said.

Both he and Becker referred to the NLRB’s recent decision to let union elections proceed even when allegations of unfair labour practices have yet to be settled. The NLRB is expected to implement that decision at the end of this month.

Both the NLRB and NRTWC have been called out for going beyond even what employers are seeking.

“This board is notorious for reaching out beyond what the parties are arguing,” said Becker, the union lawyer. “They’ve basically done everything they can to obliterate the last eight years of precedent–but now they’re going back even farther.”

“The NLRB board–as this board has often done–is seizing on a narrow question and using it to issue a broader ruling,” Becker said. “It looks like even the employer wasn’t arguing to abolish the contract bar.”

Instead, the contract bar challenge arose in late April, from the NRTWC. In an April 28th filing, NRTWC lawyers advocated for the NLRB to “overrule or greatly narrow” the contract bar doctrine.

The NRTWC argued that barring do-over elections thwarts the primary goal of the original National Labour Relations Act: Employee free choice. The NRTWC touts its main goal as defending individual workers from what the group refers to as forced unionization.

However, Malin said: “Trying to create chaos in stable collective-bargaining relationships has nothing to do with what they claim their main activity is.”

Referring to the NRTWC as “more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Malin said, “a lot of positions they take go beyond simply advocating statutes or the courts against union security arrangements.” The NRTWC did not respond to a request for comment or questions about its involvement in the dispute.

Malin said the NRTWC has lost its suits on other labor issues, but that “it has cost the unions lots of money to defeat those claims.”

“The Right to Work Committee bills itself as a public-interest law firm protecting the rights of individual workers, but their funding comes almost entirely from employers and employer organizations, groups like the Koch Brothers,” Malin said.

Mountaire’s owner and chairman, Ron Cameron, has a long history of funding right-wing causes but reportedly failed to convince the Kochs to back Trump this year.

Mountaire’s workers are represented by the United Foodworkers Local 27 has been at odds with Mountaire on several fronts.

And the vote on whether to decertify Local 27 comes amidst a pandemic that has stricken an unknown number of Mountaire workers. Mountaire stopped disclosing infection numbers, but told the NLRB that one month after ostensibly implementing coronavirus mitigation measures, 34 more workers – all asymptomatic – tested positive.

The NLRB is now reviewing Local 27’s challenge to the ongoing mail-in election. Ballots on whether to decertify the union must be received by 3pm on July 14. If the union succeeds in quashing the election, the votes will not be counted.

But regardless of how the Mountaire vote goes, the NRTWC could still win a national victory against organized labor if the NLRB strikes down the contract bar doctrine.

When the NLRB said it would review the contract bar doctrine, it said it would solicit briefs on the matter. According to Becker, the NLRB’s language seeking those briefs could reveal a lot, by indicating whether the board is looking, for instance, at shortening the three-year bar against decertification elections, or eliminating it entirely.

In contrast to rulings where the NLRB did not even seek outside comment, Becker noted that, “It actually looks – uncharacteristically for this board – that they’re doing this in an open way and letting people file briefs.”

“This board has rarely done that,” Becker said. Typically, he said, “They’ve gone in and ripped up precedent willy nilly.”

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