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Trade Union Congress 2020
Reconstruction After The Crisis Repaying The Debt To The NationâsÂ Workers
Monday, September 14th, 6:30pm to 7:30pm
Chair: Carolyn Jones
Speakers: Prof Keith Ewing,Â IER/CTUF, Dave Ward,Â General Secretary CWU, Andy McDonald MP,Â Shadow Secretary of State For Employment Rights, Janet Williamson,Â Senior Policy Officer TUC
Labour Party Connected
Reconstruction After The Crisis â Repaying The Debt To The Nationâs Workers
Monday, September 21st, 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Speakers: John HendyÂ QC,Â IER/CTUF, Andy McDonald MP,Â Shadow Secretary Of State For Employment Rights, Claudia Webbe MP, others TBA
The pandemic revealed to many that some seven million âkeyâ workers, essential to maintain the fabric of society, are amongst the worst paid and least legally protected of the entire workforce. Too often, they suffer from poor terms and conditions, precarious legal status, insecure and unpredictable hours, income and jobs, and lack of protection of their health, safety and wellbeing.
The contrast between their critical role and the terms and conditions under which they work reveals the irrational and unjustifiable nature of the so-called âlabour marketâ in which working people are no more than disposable commodities, âhuman resourcesâ.
But as the ILO set out in 1944, Â workers are not commodities, but human beings. The economy should be democratised, with each workerâs voice being heard at the very top.
There are clear signs public opinion has swayed against austerity and towards major economic changes. So what do we want and how do we get it? Join us to discuss both.
ByÂ Steve Turner
Tony Merrick, who passed away last week, was a giant of the British trade union movement who stood up to the state’s attacks on workers and was jailed with the Pentonville Five for defending his class.
Reflecting on the life of Tony Merrick and his pivotal role as one of the Pentonville Five from my home in south east London, I was reminded of another famous strike connected with the Thames riverside â that of the Bermondsey women workers in 1911. Like the Five, those women and girls, working mainly in jam and biscuit factories, inspired a generation of workers to fight back against injustice, their strikes quickly spreading to other groups, including those in the nearby Surrey docks.
And so it was when Tony, along with Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Con Clancy and Derek Watkins, was imprisoned in 1972 for picketing Midland Cold Storage (MCS) â now the site of the Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. Anyone who has been in my office at Uniteâs headquarters will have seen the framed poster on my wall signed by the Five which acts as a proud and constant reminder to me not only of their struggle, but of those of construction and postal workers, miners and transport workers at the time, the ongoing fight for justice for the Shrewsbury 24, and later disputes such as those led by the women workers at Grunwick, Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet.
These âunofficialâ walkouts and strikes were part of a collective demonstration of working-class militancy to defeat Tory attacks on an increasingly confident and powerful shop stewards movement, independent, rank and file-led trade unionism and collective bargaining.Â They represented a mobilisation of working-class solidarity that defeated the Toriesâ flagship Industrial Relations Act â which included powers to sequestrate union assets, prevent mass picketing and secondary action and created a National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC).
This wave of action also saw the Official Solicitor emerge to eventually âFree the Fiveâ following national solidarity strikes, the national shutdown of the docks and much of our press, public transport and even the threat of a TUC-supported general strike.Â Two years later, we saw the defeat of Ted Heathâs government and a Labour victory in the general election of 1974. This, ultimately, led to the repeal of the Act.
The lessons we learn from this period are important ones for our struggles today. The Pentonville Five exposed the true role of the state and its agents in the police, private investigators and the secret services. Their attempts to crush dissent by infiltrating, undermining and sabotaging the activities of trade unionists demonstrated their contempt for anyone seeking to defend jobs, pay and wider working-class interests.
Phone taps, mail intercepts and undercover âplantsâ inside our movement were all utilised in the attack on our unions and class. This included the ârecruitmentâ of the soon-to-be chair of the executive council of the Transport and General Workersâ Union itself. Brian Nicholson, a docker, was subsequently âexposedâ as an agent of the state (MI5) working at the heart of the TGWU, the dockersâ own union. Iâve got no doubt that todayâs Brians are being groomed for office by those same organisations â who never changed their view that our unions represented an âenemy within.â
The 1972 actions and the picket that led to the arrest of Tony and his comrades were essentially about jobs, pay and union organisation in the face of the introduction of new technology, in this case, containerisation. The Five and their union werenât opposed containerisation itself but were campaigning to create a âbuffer zoneâ around ports where only registered dockworkers could load, unload and handle container cargo.
Midland Cold Storage was inside one of these buffer zones, less than two miles from the London docks, and the dispute was essentially to assert the dockersâ right to control what was dock work. This was a crucial and legitimate demand when you consider that newly-emerging container traffic required a tenth of the existing workforce to handle.
As with Heatonâs in Merseyside, MCS attempted to ban the picket, seeking an injunction from the NIRC. The imprisonment of the Five for contempt of court, having refused to appear before and accept the ruling of the NIRC, led to an immediate national stoppage in the docks, with tens of thousands of printers, transport workers, miners and others walking out over the following days.
Thousands joined daily demonstrations at the gates of Pentonville prison and by the time the Five were released five days later, hundreds of thousands had walked out and the TUC had supported the call for a general strike. Their release resulted in defeat â albeit temporary, as we now know â of the casualisation and deregulation plans involved in the National Dock Labour Scheme. These reforms were finally implemented some 17 years later by the Thatcher government.
Tony Merrick, alongside all those involved in those disputes, inspired a generation of trade unionists and shop stewards. But the battles for control of our unions by elected workplace shop stewards, and the instilling of lay member democracy in our rulebooks, continue.Â Our unions have seen numerous attempts, some successful, by officers and a growing bureaucracy to control the actions of rank and file members.
Unite follows its predecessor, the TGWU, and the proud shop stewards of our legacy engineering unions in being led by our members. But this had to be won and we have to fight constantly to retain our values and politics.Â We have never repudiated industrial action and today we have a ÂŁ36 million strike fund.Â We try to inspire confidence in our shop stewards and class at every opportunity to encourage them to fight back, winning not only at work for our members but in society and politically for our class.
And as we face todayâs challenges, including automation, artificial intelligence and the digitalisation of work, recovering and rebuilding post-Covid, Brexit and the climate emergency, there are opportunities for us to win. Our agenda must be bold: a million green jobs, diversification and a transition to a greener, cleaner economy, a shorter working week, early retirement and the fair distribution of our common wealth across our nations.
Thatâs what Tony and his generation of fighting trade unionists have taught us, and the challenge they leave us. We have to inspire and nurture the will to fight, have confidence in our ideas and in the need to break bad laws when necessary. We must recognise the need for class solidarity and unity of purpose.
We know, of course, that this will only be achieved by a confident, united and powerful trade union movement, rooted in our workplaces and communities; one that can win the battle of ideas and convince workers of the need to fight for that better, fairer and greener world.
Itâs a challenge that will define our leadership in the coming years. I look forward to that fight with the same enthusiasm that Tony did forty-eight years ago. Rest in peace, comrade.
Steve Turner is the assistant general secretary of Unite the Union, responsible for manufacturing. Â He is also national chair of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity.
This article first appeared on the Tribune website August 4th, 2020
Writing in 1918, Lenin reflected on the ârottenness, mendacity and hypocrisy of capitalismâ.Â Â In the same text he wrote also of bourgeois democracy being âa paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploitedâ:Â The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.Â Â 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.Â Â
At the time of the lockdown, about a third of the workforce was designated as âcritical workersâ â engaged in health and social care, as well as in transport, food distribution and retail.Â Â Unlike others who could work from home, most âcritical workersâ 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.Â 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.Â Yet the hypocrisy continues, with âinflation bustingâ pay rises announced for some public sector workers, including doctors and teachers.Â But nothing for many others in the public and private sectors who have been on the front line:Â Â 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.Â Â But along with exploitation and low pay, we also confront the reality of âcritical workersâ being exposed to Covid-19 and dying as a result.Â 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.Â Â Stockpiles not replenished were allowed to become obsolete.Â 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. Â Â Â 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 Stateâs failure to provide basic protective equipment that revealed ârottenness, mendacity and hypocrisyâ.Â Â Our inadequate labour laws failed to require employers to have in place occupational sickness schemes, leaving workers dependent on statutory sick pay of only ÂŁ95.85 a week. Â Â Workers with mild symptoms of the disease were thus expected to choose debt and immiseration as the price of altruism.Â Â Bad employment practices are a risk to public health, as well as the health of the workers themselves.
Equally offensive â and equally a threat to public health – are the funding arrangements for the delivery of public services.Â Â Public services have been outsourced to profit-making international service companies.Â These companies have led the way with the commodification of labour â using workers only as and when needed.Â 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.Â 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.Â Â 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.Â Â Nowhere is there a better example of Leninâs thesis in The StateÂ that the bourgeois democracy is a âmachineâ used by businesses to âmaintain their powerâ.Â Â And nowhere is there a better example of Leninâs thesis that the more democratic the State âthe cruder and more cynical is the rule of capitalismâ.Â Â On the eve of the lockdown, the âdemocraticâ House of Commons authorised ÂŁ266 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.Â Since then we have seen only the abuse of union leaders â 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.Â At the same time, there has so far been no response publicly from the government to maintain State intervention to protect jobs.Â 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.Â Â Yet the response of the neo-liberals is as predictable as it is risible.Â Â According to Sajid Javid â some-time Tory Chancellor writing in The TimesÂ just after the lockdown started â âthe free market is the only way to revive the economyâ, insisting that after the pandemic has passed âwe must not allow the Left to win the argument about wealth creationâ.
That was followed by a Daily TelegraphÂ columnist writing a week later in celebration of Marco Datini, a 14thÂ century Italian entrepreneur, who âemerged from the plagues of 14thÂ century Tuscany an even richer manâ.Â Said to be the âforerunner of the modern businessmanâ, Datini was âproof that if there is one thing as adaptive to change as viruses, itâs capitalismâ.Â We now know who has paid with their lives and livelihoods as a result of Covid-19.Â Â 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.Â Â It is true that billions of pounds have been spent on the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and other measures designed to bail out business.Â Â Indeed some cling to the naĂŻve 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