Competing for a bigger slice of the ‘Big Society’
One hundred and thirty housing-association workers employed by One Housing Group are in revolt against the imposition of annual pay cuts averaging £2,000.
In 2012, the company won a £15m contract over five years to send social-care visitors out to vulnerable adults in Essex and former rough sleepers across south London. The company wants to slash its labour costs in the hope of widening its share of the lucrative social-care market – in the process undercutting the NHS by 80 percent.
Staff complain that experienced people are being replaced with lower-paid support assistants and sleepover staff with insufficient back-up, resulting in unsafe lone working and a deterioration of care standards.
The Communications Workers’ Union (CWU) is conducting its first national strike ballot since 2009, with an anticipated large majority in favour of a programme of industrial action over pay and privatisation.
No help is to be expected from Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. No sooner had the government finally announced the long-dreaded privatisation of the Royal Mail than Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna popped up on the BBC to announce that Labour will not be pledging to renationalise it, claiming that any such pledge would be “completely irresponsible” and “like writing a blank cheque” – exactly the kind of cheque that CWU president Billy Hayes continues to write to keep the Labour party afloat.
The blacklisting scandal in the building industry refuses to go away, with a parliamentary select committee now referring companies involved in the Crossrail project for further investigation, including BAM, Ferrovial and Kier.
As the Blacklist Support Group points out: “Blacklisting of union members and workers who raise genuine safety concerns is not some historic episode. It is happening today on the biggest building project in the UK.”
In a bid for respectability, BAM sponsored the Transcend festival in London, only to learn that the author of a play staged as part of the event was handing out leaflets to his audience denouncing BAM’s blacklisting activities on Crossrail!
Fire service under attack
The firefighters’ union, the FBU, continues to resist cuts to the service in London. Whilst two of the stations under threat have been reprieved, the other ten still face closure. Of the 18 fire engines originally for the chop, fourteen are still heading for the knackers’ yard. Meanwhile, the toll of jobs to be lost has actually inflated from 520 to 560.
This state of affairs is not confined to London. Across Devon and Somerset, for example, 149 front-line jobs are due to be axed, with full-time cover downgraded in many stations.
In tandem with this slashing of services comes the reduction in pension benefits. Firefighters who flinch at the prospect of still clambering up ladders at 60 and opt for early retirement risk poverty in their old age. Those who quit at 55 will see their pensions halved.
The union plans a strike ballot shortly over this issue.
North Sea helicopter disaster
The loss of another four oil-rig workers in a helicopter crash off Shetland in August highlighted the failure of the industry to clean up its act since a similar tragedy in 2009 cost 16 lives when another Super Puma chopper went down off Peterhead.
Before the accident, workers on the Borgsten Dolphin rig, the same platform involved in the recent disaster, had already been expressing concerns about safety. Industry ‘experts’ were drafted in to reassure them about the airworthiness of the Super Puma, and some charmer from the oil multinational Total reportedly told workers: “It makes no difference whether you are on an EC225, an L2 an S92 or any other helicopter. You’re taking the same risk. If you can’t live with that risk then you can’t work offshore.”
Under the benefits cap, the majority of out-of-work families with four or more children will be driven into poverty, sinking below the threshold of 60 percent of the median wage for similar in-work families. Leaked government figures predict that 100,000 more children will sink into poverty. The cap threatens to be a home-breaker, effectively encouraging couples with children to split into two households, doubling the benefit ceiling.
Over 10 percent of the welfare budget is accounted for by Housing Benefit, whose prime beneficiaries are actually landlords. The lack of affordable housing and the bonanza in the private rented sector swells the welfare bill, but the working class then pays the price in homelessness and straitened circumstances.
Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles privately warned Cameron that the additional costs incurred by local government through having to cope with fixing homeless people up with bed-and-breakfast accommodation would end up with the cap costing more than it saves.
However, the primary purpose of the cap is not necessarily to generate immediate savings; rather, it is to take punitive and divisive measures to intimidate the working class. These measures are in any case a prelude to much further-reaching attacks, where increasingly nobody will really expect local authorities to be stitching back together the welfare safety net which the state is busily unravelling.
Now that Ed Miliband has publicly committed Labour to a similar cap on welfare spending, that unravelling can be expected to continue regardless of which party wins in 2015.
Sanctions: persecuting the unemployed
Birmingham Against the Cuts has been cataloguing some of the nastiest and most stupid examples of unemployed workers having their benefits ‘sanctioned’ (ie, suspended) as a summary punishment for supposedly breaking any one of a myriad rules which strew the claimant’s path like so many landmines.
One claimant, who had just completed a 20-year span of work, missed one appointment and was sanctioned for three weeks. Another got sanctioned for three months for being late at his workfare placement – as a result of having first signed on as instructed.
Another claimant clocked up more job applications than he had been instructed to submit, but was sanctioned anyway because he forgot to write on the form that he had checked the local paper, as ordered by the jobcentre.
Claimants unable to attend jobcentre appointments or work placement interviews as a result of family funerals find themselves mercilessly sanctioned despite giving due warning. And if you miss more than two appointments through sickness in any given year, or if your work interview clashes with your jobcentre appointment, or if you can’t afford the bus fare to get to the dole office or to your slave-labour placement, then you will be sanctioned.
A particularly nasty case was reported by an MP, Deborah Abrahams, regarding a claimant claiming ESA (the benefit which replaces the former disability allowance). On attending the ESA assessment the claimant suffered a heart attack, obliging the nurse to stop the assessment. Bizarrely, the claimant was then sanctioned for not withdrawing from the assessment.
As above, so below
Whilst the state edges closer towards fascism, attempting to stifle journalistic freedom by such crass means as seizing the partner of a high-profile left-liberal reporter and subjecting him to administrative detention and intimidation (as with the Miranda affair), the ‘official’ fascist grouplets like the BNP and EDL dutifully take up their position on the social margins, launching Twitter hate campaigns against local journalists of whom they disapprove.
One young girl working as a trainee journalist for the Doncaster Free Press recently found herself wrongly accused of tearing up a floral tribute for Drummer Lee Rigby, and overnight found herself the butt of a torrent of vile racist invective and threats.
And, sure enough, when anti-fascists take a stand on the streets against such provocations, the police are on hand to protect their kindred spirits and make life difficult for journalists attempting to cover the event.
Such was the case at a recent anti-fascist demo in Birmingham, where hapless journalists found themselves detained in a police ‘kettle’ along with everybody else, and some photographers faced obstruction in going about their job. The Birmingham and Coventry branch of the NUJ have lodged a complaint about police conduct with the Chief Constable of the West Midlands.
Dodging the issue
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN)’s regular bulletin recently offered an approving link to an ITUC statement on the chemical weapons issue in Syria.
“‘This is the fourth, and most serious use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. While the Assad regime delayed approval for the UN inspection visit, the UN team should try to establish the full facts of the deployment of these horrific weapons, including any indications as to who carried out the attack,’ said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Assad’s forces subjected the area to heavy artillery bombardment in the days following the attack, reinforcing suspicion that it was responsible.”
Yet having thus given free airtime to the disgraceful regurgitation of imperialist slander against the embattled Syrian nation, thereby further greasing the wheels of the war juggernaut, the same bulletin wailed that: “As we try to fight cuts and injustices our leaders look at moving towards military action in Syria.”
So which is it to be? Support for the Syrian nation against imperialist subversion? Or support for the war propaganda of our imperialist masters? So long as the left and anti-war movement continue (at best) fudging such issues, the working class will be weakened in its own resistance against bourgeois class war at home.
By a refreshing contrast, the WFTU offered this statement of anti-imperialist solidarity:
“The World Federation of Trade Unions categorically denounces the intensified imperialist aggressiveness against Syria and calls for the immediate termination of any attack and military intervention being pursued against the country and the Syrian people.
“In conditions of strong inter-imperialist competition and in conditions of deep and prolonged international capitalist crisis where the rivalries over the wealth-producing resources and the geostrategic crossroads are increasing, the conflict in the Middle East and the Mediterranean reaches new extremes.
“The manufactured etiology for the ‘use of chemical weapons’ that is being attributed to the Syrian Army is an obvious provocative slander aiming to provide an opportunity for the military intervention expected and prepared for years by the USA and the other forces.”
The Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT) union is to be congratulated for deciding in June of this year to affiliate to the WFTU. Perhaps Bob Crow will have a word with his comrades in the NSSN and put them straight?
Crow: “A world to win”?
Speaking of Bob Crow, we note that he took the opportunity of the Durham Miners’ Gala to repeat what has now become a familiar refrain.
In a preview of his speech, Crow urged unions to recognise that “there is a whole world of opportunity outside the constraints of the Labour party and RMT would urge them to embrace it and join us in this new political project. RMT was expelled from the Labour party almost a decade ago … together we have a world to win …
“The whole programme of Labour now is to try and sneak into government by default on the basis of a manifesto that could trade under the title Carry on Cutting. Our job is not to prop up the political class behind this racket, our job is to sweep it away.
“With the latest assault by Labour on the unions the time is right to start building an alternative political party that speaks for the working people and the working class-communities that find themselves under the most brutal attack from cuts and austerity in a generation. Clinging to the wreckage of a Labour party that didn’t lift a finger to repeal the anti-union laws despite 13 years in power is a complete waste of time. The time for the alternative party of labour is now.”
Crow is to be congratulated for his forthright attack on Labour. However, this welcome assault upon social-democratic treachery is not accompanied by a clear analysis of the character and role of the party for which Crow yearns. Is it to be another attempt to renovate ‘Old’ Labour, and, if so, how does it differ from Arthur Scargill’s ill-fated adventure with the SLP (a party whose membership at one time included both Crow himself and some of our own comrades)?
The SLP’s downfall was its refusal to extend its organisational breach with the Labour party into an ideological breach with social democracy – a failure which effectively killed the party off. Yet the SLP, for all its faults, was streets ahead of the likes of today’s ‘Left Unity’ crew. For one thing, it held out against an overwhelming imperialist propaganda onslaught to oppose the war against Yugoslavia in unambiguous terms!
The TUC conference approved by a large margin calls for a (rather vague) mid-week ‘day of action’, which Bob Crow chose to interpret in this militant vein: “The surge in planned industrial actions across sectors, including fire, post, transport and education, gives us the ideal foundation from which to make good the trade-union movement’s commitment to coordinated and generalised strike action.”
Whether or not such ‘days of action’ are ever to amount to anything more than a ritual letting off of steam depends crucially on the progress organised labour makes in freeing itself from social-democratic shackles.
Under pressure at Bournemouth, Miliband still claimed to be “against austerity”, but declined to withdraw his commitment to maintaining the 2015-16 cuts planned by the government. He promised to tinker with (but not abolish) zero-hours contracts.
But after this very thin sugar coating came the pill: plans to bite the hand that feeds the Labour party would go ahead, spelling the end of the system whereby unions could automatically draft their members into Labour membership en masse, thereby supposedly (though not in fact) securing a degree of influence over party policy.
It is to be hoped that unions will take the hint and themselves take the next logical step of breaking the link with Labour.