National Gallery dispute
Members of PCS at London’s National Gallery have stepped up their strike campaign against the ongoing privatisation of their jobs. Having already notched up 55 strike days, they began indefinite strike action on 11 August, in response to the awarding of a five-year contract, priced at £40m, to Securitas, who are putting their dedicated team of bouncers in charge of showing visitors the paintings and guarding the doors.
The 300 gallery assistants affected will no longer be employed by the gallery but by Securitas. As of 24 September they have been on strike for 100 days.
Back in February, just before the first strikes began, management sought to demoralise the workforce by sacking the local union rep, Candy Udwin. A tribunal agreed in June that this was “likely” to be an unfair dismissal, but management appealed against this ruling and got it reversed on 19 August.
The campaign for her reinstatement and against the privatisation continues. (See National gallery strike: great support for 100th day, PCS, 24 September 2015)
Construction workers defend their rights
Resistance against victimisation secured a happier result in the construction industry in July.
Unite rep Graham Boxall, an electrician employed by an arm’s-length subcontractor to help sort out the wiring at Morgan Stanley’s head office in Canary Wharf, requested to be moved into direct employment by Phoenix, the main contractor for the work, in line with Joint Industry Board (JIB) rules. When management responded by sacking him, the Blacklist Support Group mobilised construction workers and their supporters to picket the site in the symbolic heart of monopoly capitalism.
Confronted with this embarrassing direct action, Phoenix hastily decided to reinstate him. This case highlights the games played by the construction industry giants, which use the device of subcontracting (and sub-subcontracting ad nauseam) to evade their responsibilities as employers and compromise the labour rights of their workforce. (See Picketing reinstates sacked construction rep, National Shop Stewards Network, 27 July 2015)
Direct action like this can serve to expose the subcontracting smoke and mirrors with which such employers seek to baffle workers.
More such smoke and mirrors have been in evidence at Britain’s most hazardous nuclear site, Sellafield.
When construction workers engaged on the massive decommissioning project there started to agitate to have a full-time union shop steward to help safeguard their interests, especially in respect of health and safety issues, the smug reaction from Sellafield Ltd was to parrot that the dispute was “a matter for our contracting companies and their workforces to resolve”. Yet it is precisely the bewildering maze of subcontracting companies that makes it all the more imperative to have a full-time union convenor to cover the whole site – especially given the hazardous nature of the work being undertaken.
Under conditions that will only worsen with the passage of the Trade Union Bill, because there are 14 companies involved in the dispute, Unite is legally obliged to conduct a separate strike ballot for workers at each outfit.
On 5 August, over 1,200 workers walked out. Employees of Balfour Beatty, Cape Industrial, Jacobs Stobbarts and Mitie had already taken industrial action, and employees from the remaining companies are at various stages of the ballot process. On 19 August, about 400 workers from all 14 companies went on strike for two-and-a-half hours, setting up pickets at all three gates of Sellafield and causing traffic jams. (See Sellafield faces wave of industrial action in health and safety dispute, Unite the Union, 24 August 2015)
More strikes went ahead in September. On Wednesday 9 September, employees from all the firms went on half-day strike, but, after being subjected to bullying and intimidation by Cumbria police, the workers refused to go back to work and instead went on unofficial strike till the following Monday. Strikes remain ongoing. (See Unofficial five-day strike by Sellafield contract workers, Cumbria News and Star, 9 September 2015)
It is not clear which of the actions so far taken have been officially authorised by the ludicrous balloting obstacle course. What is clear, however, is that increasingly the only way of meaningfully exercising the right to strike is going to be to put two fingers up to the law and get everyone out of the gate regardless – as happened so brilliantly on 9 September.
The New York Times recently published an article giving a taste of what it is like to work for giant mail-order company Amazon. Whilst the specific exposure was of the company’s facility in Seattle, the company is global and is doubtless no less tyrannical towards its employees in Britain.
The report tells how new recruits are warned to forget ‘poor habits’ learned in previous jobs. “When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall’.” Those who fail to scale the ‘wall’ are dumped: “Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff – ‘purposeful Darwinism’, one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover”.
In classic divide-and-rule tactics, management encourages workers to spy upon and denounce ‘losers’ in their midst. “The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: ‘I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.’)”
The psychological damage wrought by this tyranny is widespread and shocking. One interviewee told the paper that “his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. ‘You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,’ he said. ‘Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.’” (Inside Amazon: wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, 15 August 2015)
Meanwhile, for 18 to 21-year-old ‘losers’ failed by the system and out of a job, ‘purposeful Darwinism’ pretty much sums up the whole social landscape as far as the eye can see. In fact, Amazon’s version of raw capitalism supplies a perfect template for the government plans to punish unemployed youth by sending them to boot camps, to prepare them to do jobs that don’t exist.
With every ‘lawful’ and ‘democratic’ avenue of resistance systematically closing down, the necessity of revolutionary overthrow of the tyranny of capitalism is all the more plainly revealed. Or, as Joseph Stalin put it:
“Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a wretched existence as of old and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat. Imperialism brings the working class to revolution.” (Foundations of Leninism, 1924)