Tuesday, 15 May 2018

FOR A MAXIMUM INCOME - initially 10 times the Minimum Wage

UK's richest capitalist, union-busting, fracking Jim Ratcliffe

We may as well live on two entirely different planets here on Earth, given the grotesque and growing gap in wealth and power between the rich and the rest of us.

Just 61 billionaires now own more wealth than the poorest half of the world's population - 3.8 billion people.
The richest 0.1% of the human species - about seven million people - grabbed as much combined wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion since 1980. And the infamous '1%' robbed 27% of the world's newly created wealth over the same period of 1980-2016.

Stinking Rich List 
Closer to home, the Sunday Times' 30th annual Rich List is enough to make you vomit at the nauseating greed on parade by the 1,000 richest people in Britain. You need to be 'worth' a minimum of £115million to gain entrance to this exclusive club. 

Between them, the richest 1,000 now sit atop a Himalayan pile of wealth totalling £724billion. Yes, that's an average of £724million each! 

And amidst this gathering of the stinking rich, Britain's 145 billionaires are greedily clinging onto £480billion - exactly two-thirds of the total. 

Publication of this latest parade of obscene wealth was trumpeted by cries of joy, in the Sunday Times and other capitalist media, that inherited wealth has been replaced by 'self-made entrepreneurs'. Far from being 'self-made', these are people who've crawled to the top by exploiting workers - robbing the unpaid labour of the working class they employ - or speculating on the upper-class casinos known as Stock Markets, hedge funds and banking. 

Jim RATcliffe - 'Worth' £21billion? 
The media odes of joy were especially triggered by the man who climbed to the top of the money mountain, Jim Ratcliffe, 60% owner of petrochemical giant INEOS, the biggest private company in the UK. He's now officially 'worth' £21.05billion... and figures from INEOS insiders suggest he could even possess as much as £27billion.
This creature should be all too familiar to workers in Scotland - especially those at Grangemouth petrochemical plant and oil refinery.

Back in 2010, Ratcliffe moved INEOS headquarters to Switzerland to dodge taxes in Britain. The Grangemouth petrochemical plant made operating profits of £31m in 2011 and £49m in 2012 - as part of global profits exceeding £2bn. Not content with these gargantuan profits, Ratcliffe consciously planned a showdown with the Grangemouth workforce and their powerfully organised trade unions in 2013. 

He demanded cuts to pay, pensions, shift allowances and bonuses that robbed workers of £10-15,000 each. He set out to smash the unions, victimizing the Unite union convener - aided and abetted by the witch-hunt against him by the Blairite UK Labour Party leadership. And he perversely exploited the fact Grangemouth accounts for 85% of Scotland's fuel supplies and 30% of England's to hold a bazooka to the heads of both Westminster and Holyrood, demanding £150m in subsidies for INEOS' profits. 
Grangemouth workers, 2013

Capitalist Dictator 
In an insult to language - 'INEOS' is Greek for 'bright new dawn' - Ratcliffe plunged the Grangemouth workforce and the whole of Scotland into darkness and despair by shutting down the petrochemical plant, putting it into liquidation, when the workers fought to resist his wholesale butchery of their conditions in pursuit of even greater profits. This poisonous cocktail of blackmail and bullying forced the unions to accept devastating cuts to conditions, a 3-year pay freeze, removal of union facilities and a 3-year no-strike agreement. And it wrung £9m in grants off the SNP Scottish government plus £125m loan guarantees from Westminster - to pursue a course of profiteering based largely on the use of the environmentally destructive fracking process.
This whole episode blows to smithereens the alleged fairy tale of the 'self-made man'; the 'rags to riches' tale we're peddled - not only to justify Ratcliffe's obscene personal wealth, but also to dupe us into thinking that, with a bit of graft, anyone can become a millionaire or billionaire. 

Fairy Tale from Hell 
This fairy tale has a monster at its core, a one-man capitalist dictatorship, who not only threatened to wreck 1,350 Grangemouth workers' livelihoods, and those of 2,000 contract workers, but held the elected government to ransom. Successfully! Now he is suing the Scottish government for banning fracking, and issuing legal threats to anti-fracking protestors in England. This truly is the dictatorship of capital, in the form of one multi-billionaire, robbing workers' families, trashing our environment, trampling democracy underfoot, but lauded by the sycophantic capitalist media as a success story.
Even if there were no other 'Jim Ratcliffes' on earth, this one story should be enough to motivate and mobilise for decisive action against the grotesque gap between the rich and the rest of us. But he's not alone. For starters, the other two shareholders in INEOS have joined him in the top 20 in the 2018 Rich List, at joint 16th.

Scotland's Eleven Billionaires 
Among the filthy rich with some residential link to Scotland itself, we now 'enjoy' the company of 11 billionaires - whose combined personal wealth totals £16.2billion. That's over half the entire annual budget of the Scottish government for the entire Scottish population in the hands of 11 billionaires.
And just looking at the top 3 alone, we see their personal wealth INCREASED last year by £920million!
Glenn Gordon and family guzzled a net increase of £202m from their whisky and gin empire.
John and Kiran Shaw made the Gordons look like paupers, with a wealth increase last year of £606m from their pharmaceutical company, making a sickening profit from the treatment of cancer, diabetes and autoimmune diseases.
Sir Ian Wood and family may have observed crises in both the oil and fishing industries in recent times, but managed to scrape together a mere £112m EXTRA in the past twelve months.

Grotesque Wealth Divide 
In the land of a million living below the poverty line, 52% of them working to stay poor, these figures are obscene.
In the state whose workers are enduring wages worth £24-a-week less than in 2008, a full 10% rise in the incomes of the richest 1,000 is an infuriating insult.
In the nation where the equivalent of the entire population of Dundee last year relied on emergency food parcels from food banks to avert hunger; where people on benefits can't exist and are driven to the edge; and where energy-rich Scotland condemns at least a million families to fuel poverty, these displays of wealth are grotesque.

Why does all this matter? When we're told there's not enough money in society to pay an immediate £10-an-hour minimum wage to all workers over 16 (rising to match inflation since that figure was unanimously agreed by the unions 43 long months ago!), it matters. When workers march and strike for equal pay for women, it matters. As we struggle to guarantee a living pension after a lifetime's contribution to society; for investment in free public transport, a modern NHS, top-class education or other services... when the rich government of and for the rich tell us it's unaffordable, don't forget the Rich List!

Maximum Income 
Alongside battling for an immediate £10 minimum wage, and some job and income stability through a legally guaranteed 16-hour minimum working week, we need to popularize the demand for a maximum income, to start to close the yawning gap between the billionaires and the billions, the plundering rich and the rest of us. 

Let's illustrate the advantages of an initial 10:1 ratio between the maximum allowable income and the national minimum wage; the policy which the SSP stands for, and which I proposed and won 58% support for at Usdaw union national conference last month.
If we use the current (miserly) £7.83 minimum wage for those aged over 25, that would make the maximum income £78.30 an hour - hardly penury! Assuming a maximum 35-hour week, it would allow the richest to earn up to £142,502 a year; not exactly making them scream in agony! 

Let the Rich Scream Blue Murder! 
Even looking at the tiny list of the UK's 1,000 richest, the overly-generous 10:1 formula for a maximum income would still permit them to roll around in combined incomes of £142million. How in hell could anyone object to that ceiling on their wealth? What on earth would anyone find to spend £142,000 a year on? And if (or when) the monstrously rich scream blue murder about a maximum income killing off incentive, we should laugh in their faces. Remind them that they have always argued and practised the policy that the best incentive to make the rest of us work is low pay; the whip of poverty to drive people to work. 

This policy of a maximum income initially set at ten times the national minimum wage is a powerful weapon in a necessary war on both poverty and inequality. Allowing the current crop of Rich List residents to possess £142m between them, as we've calculated above, would hand back well over £723billion to the rest of society this year alone. Imagine what that could mean for wages, NHS spending, education, public transport, job creation. 

A Modest Demand 
Of course, socialists don't just want to limit the size of the slice of cake grabbed by the rich minority; we want collective, public ownership of the entire bakery! That way society could democratically plan to meet social and environmental needs, rather than allow capitalist profit-hunting wreak havoc on both people and planet. 

But a 10:1 maximum compared to a legal minimum wage would be a great start. A very modest demand. But compared to the 183:1 gap between top company chief executives and their average workers - not the lowest paid employees, but average! - it's also a revolutionary change. One pioneered by the SSP, but now also adopted by the mass, 430,000-strong Usdaw union after a full debate at our recent national conference. 

Join the Battle! 
Join us in battling for a Charter of Workers' Rights that together could transform the lives of millions, including an immediate £10 minimum wage for all over 16, rising with inflation; a guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for all workers who want it; and an initial maximum income set at 10 times the minimum wage, to combat inequality and win back some of the stolen wealth which workers create in the first place. 

Saturday, 12 May 2018

RICH LIST 2018: enough to make you sick!

The capitalist rich keep their snouts in the trough at all times

The Sunday Times is about to publish its 30th annual Rich List, spelling out the grotesque greed at the top of society. 
This report produces the league table of personal wealth for the richest 1,000 people in the UK. 
An important detail not known to many of those who read it: the figures of billions and millions amassed by those sitting at the top of the wealth mountain doesn't even take account of what these individuals have in the bank! For mere mortals, any modest savings in the bank are included in calculations for miserly top-up benefits or other entitlements. But the rich flaunt their wealth without having to add their bank balance to the total; so they're even richer than the Sunday Times Rich List says! 

Why does all this matter? When we're told there's not enough money in society to pay an immediate £10-an-hour minimum wage to all workers over 16 (rising to match inflation since that figure was agreed by the unions 43 long months ago!), or to meet equal pay claims for women workers, or guarantee a living pension after a lifetime's contribution to society, or invest in free public transport, a modern NHS, top-class education or other services... when the rich government of and for the rich tell us that, don't forget the Rich  List! 

Two Scotlands in the One Nation

For now, ponder two stark figures amongst many in the 2018 Rich List, as it directly impacts Scotland. 
We now 'enjoy' the company of 11 billionaires - whose combined personal wealth (excluding their bank accounts, remember!) totals £16.2billion. That's over half the entire annual budget of the Scottish government for the entire Scottish population in the hands of 11 billionaires. 
And just looking at the top 3 alone, we see their personal wealth INCREASED last year by £920million!

Richest family in Scotland quaff obscene sums

Whisky Galore... for the Few

Glenn Gordon and family guzzled a net increase of £202m from their whisky and gin empire. 
John and Kiran Shaw made the Gordons look like paupers, with a wealth increase last year of £606m from their pharmaceutical company, Biocon, making a sickening profit from the treatment of cancer, diabetes and autoimmune diseases. 
Sir Ian Wood and family may have observed crises in both the oil and fishing industry in recent times, but managed to scrape together a mere £112m EXTRA in the past twelve months. 

In the land of a million living below the poverty line, 52% of them working to stay poor, these figures are obscene. In the nation where the equivalent of the entire population of Dundee last year relied on emergency food parcels from food banks to avert hunger; where people on benefits can't exist and are driven to the edge; and where energy-rich Scotland condemns at least a million families to fuel poverty, these displays of wealth are grotesque.

Demand a Maximum Income

Alongside battling for an immediate £10 minimum wage, and some job and income stability through a legally guaranteed 16-hour minimum working week, we need to popularize the demand for a maximum income, to start to close the yawning gap between the billionaires and the billions, the plundering rich and the rest of us. 
Let's illustrate the advantages of an initial 10:1 ratio between the maximum allowable income and the national minimum wage; the policy which the SSP stands for, and which I proposed and won support for at Usdaw union national conference last week. 
If we use the current (miserly) £7.83 minimum wage for those aged over 25, that would make the maximum income £78.30 an hour - hardly penury! Assuming a 35-hour week, it would allow the richest to earn up to £142,502 a year; not exactly making them scream in agony! 
Again, if we look at the three richest families in Scotland, and very generously assume a total of ten of them are 'working' adults, that would still allow three families a combined income last year of £1.42million... instead of the £920million they actually got! It would leave £918.58million to spend on the rest of us. 
Without even the full socialist measure of democratic public ownership of the fabulous wealth these three families preside over - to tackle production of green energy and a fully-funded NHS, amongst other things - just this one modest step of a maximum income could begin to transform working-class families' lives.

Which Families Do You Side With?!

Read the Rich List for yourself, and before your blood stops boiling over, commit yourself to battle for measures that will enhance the lives of about 3 million families in Scotland, at the expense of the richest three families and their gluttonous cohort of capitalists and speculators. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

SAINSBURY'S & ASDA MERGE: unions must unite against giant threat

Shock merger of Sainsbury's and ASDA throws workers into turmoil
The shock announcement of a merger between Sainsbury's and ASDA will have thrown workers and their families into a terrible state of uncertainty. And between them, the second and third-biggest supermarkets hire over 330,000 people!
Our new Usdaw NEC - only in place for 4 days! - hasn't met yet, so I'm not pretending to represent the views of the union as a whole. But here are some initial, hastily written thoughts on this bolt-out-of-the-blue declaration, first leaked via Sky news on Saturday 28th, then confirmed today (30th) by chief executives of these giant outfits.
Secret talks have been held at least for months, if not over a year, behind the backs of the three recognized trade unions in Sainsbury's and ASDA, and therefore entirely behind the backs of the workers most immediately affected. Workers who turned up for their Saturday shift will have first heard via the media that their fate was being decided by unelected, unaccountable company chief executives, with all the worry and stress that goes with such major moves.
Sainsbury's, Walmart and ASDA fatcats smugly announce secret deal

Social Partnership? Aye, Right!

This brutally explodes the sham of 'social partnership' between employers and staff, companies and workers' unions. It highlights that we may as well live on two planets, for all the fat cat bosses and workers have in common.
It displays the class-based contempt big business has for the workers who produce their fabulous profits. Every last detail was decided behind the backs of workers' unions - including that Sainsbury's current Chief Executive Officer, Mike Coupe, will be CEO of the new combination when the merger is completed in a year or so. They can trot out cliches about 'valued colleagues' (as Sainsbury's workers are called) for eternity, but it won't change the cruel reality that profit always comes before people in this system.

Monopoly Capitalism 

This 'merger' will create a company with combined revenues of £51billion last year; nearly twice the entire Scottish government budget for the same twelve months. This is monopoly capitalism on display.
Leeds-based ASDA was bought over by US multinational behemoth Walmart in 1999. Two years ago, Sainsbury's took over Argos and Habitat. In this latest deal, Sainsbury's is essentially buying ASDA off Walmart in return for £3billion cash to Walmart plus a 42% share for the latter in the new combined company.
Whilst workers worried at what's happening today, share prices in Sainsbury's immediately leapt up by 20% on the gambling den also known as the Stock Exchange - meaning Walmart/ASDA's share gained £600m within hours!

The Big Three - Choice, Capitalist-style! 

It's hard to guess how Coupe and his counterparts in ASDA and Walmart kept straight faces when they tried to justify the merger with talk of 'greater choice' for customers. The new entity currently accounts for over 30% share of the market - exceeding even Tesco's 27%. The Big Four are set to become the Big Three. How does that amount to 'greater choice'?! It's monopoly capitalism, with galloping polarization between the growing mountain of wealth in the hands of a shrinking handful and the mounting insecurity and poverty pay of millions of workers.
The chief executives have cooed honeyed phrases about 'no plans' for store closures or job losses. Such promises are welcome... on the surface. But 'no plans' is a phrase any union activist can see through. It only means 'no plans we're going to tell you about right now'.
As if to pave the path to future betrayal of this 'promise', Sainsbury's Mike Coupe added in the same statement that he "could not dismiss the possibility that regulators [the government's Competition and Markets Authority - RV] could order the disposal of some sites".

Store Closures? 

Disposal of sites; that's people's jobs and livelihoods he's talking about!
And analysts Global Data reckon over 75 stores will have to go. On top of which the same announcement by Sainsbury's and ASDA bosses admitted they "are targeting savings of £500million, including operational efficiencies."
It doesn't take a retail analyst to warn that if each company has a store in the same town, or same city district, or even same shopping centre, it's overwhelmingly likely one will shut. Maybe not on the day of the merger, but certainly after 'a period of grace', after the alarm bells have stopped ringing at the merger announcement.
And that doesn't even account for the threat of 'rationalization' - as the employer class call savage jobs culls - in the huge distribution centres and head offices of each merging partner.

Profit and Bosses' Privilege 

If anyone still thinks we should have faith in these promises of 'no plans' of store closures or job losses, they need to recall the nature of those making these statements.
ASDA bosses helped to amass profits of £845m in 2016 and a further £720m in 2017 by subjecting their women workers to lower pay than male equivalents.
Sainsbury's are not content with making £589m in profit last year - including a rise of 11% in the second half of 2017; they are also knee-deep in slashing paid breaks, scrapping annual bonuses and scrapping several grades of team leaders and lower management.
And Sainsbury's top-dog 'colleague', Mike Coupe, has grabbed a total £6.7million in salary, bonuses and share packages since he took over in 2014. But HIS job is guaranteed, judging by his own announcement!

Cut-throat Competition Undermines Jobs 

Without wishing to scaremonger, it's also worth considering the potential threat to jobs beyond some of those of the 330,000 in Sainsbury's and ASDA.
In an economic system where cut-throat competition is in the very nature of the beast, the new company will outstrip even Tesco's, and more so Morrisons. The drive to win more of the market share could also unsettle jobs in those two competing capitalist supermarket giants.
And with declarations of price cuts for customers, farm workers and small family farmers will also feel less than overjoyed at this merger; they already know the dictatorship of the Big Four over prices for the food they produce and supply, crucifying smaller producers in particular. Now they face the looming bullies in the form of the Big Three!

So what to do? 

Workers in these two supermarkets are organized in three different unions. Usdaw organizes ASDA workers in N Ireland, whilst the GMB organises ASDA in the rest of the UK. Sainsbury's staff are in both Usdaw and UNITE.
All three unions have demanded immediate, urgent talks with the top management of the two firms. Quite rightly; the unions have been excluded entirely, treated with high-handed contempt in these secret plans to merge.
There should be no inter-union nonsense; no attempts to look after each union's 'own' membership at cost to other workers in the other unions. Unity of purpose and plans is critical. Common demands need to be thrashed out and fought for with maximum unity.

Demand: No Job Losses! 

An immediate (and I hope obvious) demand should be 'Not a single job loss'. That is a unifying demand, which should strengthen workers' confidence that the three unions will stand up for all, and block the added workload that would fall on the shoulders of remaining staff, even if future job losses were to take the form of so-called 'voluntary' redundancies.
Another appropriate demand from the unions could be 'Open the company secrets to union and public scrutiny'. With the secrecy surrounding this merger, this would allow us to demand answers on where all the profits have gone, what the real plans and prospects are, so as to arm workers with information in the battle to save all jobs, in the event of any future store closures, mergers of distribution hubs, or calls for 'voluntary redundancies'.

Public Ownership 

This whole display of monopoly ownership, and the real-life example of the dictatorship of capital over labour - of a couple of chief executives over the lives of a third of a million workers - this whole episode also highlights the alternative of public ownership and democratic control of retail giants, as agreed as a policy at Usdaw's 2017 Annual Delegate Meeting.
That's a policy that could replace the bloodletting of capitalist competition with democratically planned production, distribution and exchange.
In the short term, forums of union reps and union officials in each of the unions, and in turn of all three unions combined, would help prepare for whatever action is required to prevent this merger of two capitalist profit-machines from wrecking the lives of thousands of workers.

Sainsbury's CEO, Mike 'We're in the Money' Coupe caught on camera singing his contempt for workers and their livelihoods, just before announcing the secret merger deal...


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

UNIVERSITY BOSSES ON THE RUN: keep chasing them!

Strikes work! Well organised collective action, with full involvement and mobilization of union members, can put to flight even the most hard-nosed employers. 
That's the core lesson from the ongoing, rapidly evolving struggle to defend pensions for university staff, involving unprecedented strike action by members of the University and College Union (UCU). 

Lecturers, teaching assistants, researchers, librarians, IT and other student support staff voted by a whopping 83% majority for strike action, smashing down the multiple barriers erected by the Tory Trade Union Act, designed precisely to prevent workers from fighting back in self-defence. The first phase of action involved 14 days of strikes, plus action short of strike action (ASOS), including sticking to their contracted 35-hour week. 
Before the wave of strikes, growing pickets and massive rallies, the UUK university bosses insisted the existing defined benefits pension scheme was dead and gone, never to be resurrected. Staff were to lose defined benefits, their pensions to switch to an entirely Stock Market-dependent defined contribution scheme, with the loss of an average £10,000-a-year on retirement. All based on their dodgy valuation of the state of the pension scheme - the USS - which perpetrated the austerity-driven narrative that the pension pot is in deficit, so they simply can't afford to sustain the deferred wages of university staff, throwing them at the mercy of the vagaries of the grotesque gambling den that is the Stock Exchange. 
For weeks, the UUK bosses refused to even talk to the UCU union. Then they made the absurdly offensive offer of talks... but not about pensions! 

Strikers' Control 
Faced with the third of a four-week strike plan, they entered ACAS-sponsored talks with the UCU, and offered some concessions, which initially the national UCU negotiators portrayed as an agreement. All hell erupted on the picket lines, with online petitions gathering thousands of objections to the 'deal' literally overnight, and just about unanimous rejection of this 'agreement' by every single UCU branch meeting the next morning. The rank and file of the union - the strikers and their branch activists - seized back control, and insisted the national negotiators throw out a shoddy package that meant (to quote a couple of the numerous examples I was given on the pickets) staff 'only' losing 42% of their pension instead of 52%, or 'only' 38% instead of the original 48%! 

Emboldened by Insulting Offer 
This episode massively emboldened the strikers, hardened their resolve to hold onto their defined benefits pensions, without cuts to what after all is earned, deferred wages. New forces joined the pickets. New recruits joined the UCU and joined the strike; union membership grew by 15-20% nationally over the duration of this phase of strike action. 
The strikers' strength was further fuelled by the solidarity shown by fellow trade unionists at the pickets, solidarity rallies, and collections for their Strike Hardship Fund. Likewise, by the widespread support from students - including the courageous actions of a determined minority in student occupations at Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, Strathclyde, Aberdeen and Dundee universities.

Solidarity and Steep Learning Curves 
This workforce has not traditionally been the most militant in its trade unionism, but a month of collective action has taught more than decades of theoretical discourse. The electrified atmosphere of the pickets, roving marches round university buildings, and rallies with strikers and their allies speaking, have served to make determined fighters of people who are often on their first ever strike... or who've only just joined the union! 
The growing strike force went back to work after the first phase of 14 days with heads held high. In Stirling, for instance, they assembled at the site of picketing and marched back to work with union banners, behind a piper! 

Bosses Split 
The strike and widespread solidarity from other workers, and students, impacted on the university bosses, leading to splits and public disagreements between the various Vice-Chancellors and the UUK. Union branches pounded the former with demands to make supportive declarations, and to spread loss of earnings through strike action over 3 months, often successfully. 
They also kicked up hell about more bellicose bosses docking pay for staff working to contract, rather than the usual millions of unpaid hours worked through goodwill towards students' education. 
After the roaring success of the first four weeks of strikes, UCU members enforced a 'work to contract', and in preparation for the second national strike phase announced for the exam period from 25 April onwards, over 700 resigned their posts as External Examiners, which would make the exam-period strikes really bite. 

First Serious Offer 
Hot on the heels of this mounting pressure, Unison announced a ballot of its union members on the same pension scheme, which undoubtedly was an added factor in the sudden, apparently spectacular retreat by UUK bosses on Friday 23 March. 

Many strikers were at first astonished and euphoric at what appeared like capitulation by the bosses. But as they scraped away the layers of verbal trickery and obfuscation, it became clear that whilst this is the first serious offer from the employers, and a huge retreat by them, it needs an awful lot of clarification and tightening up to become acceptable. 

As Strathclyde UCU branch president Brian Garvey told me, "After declaring the UCU demand for the status quo on defined benefits to be impossible, they've now conceded it - at least until April 2019." 

The new offer also proposes 'an independent panel of experts' to assess the valuation of what the pension scheme (USS) can support in the future, with 50% nominees from the union, 50% from the employers. But as Brian added, "We need to test the real independence of this panel." 

One of the crunch clauses in the offer is that after April 2019, and after valuation of the USS by the 'independent panel', pension benefits would remain "broadly equivalent to current arrangements." What does 'broadly equivalent' mean? This could be a trap, a deal-breaker, whereby a besieged gang of university bosses try to obscure future cuts to pensions for current and/or future staff, including the spectre of two-tier pension schemes for current and future staff. 

Closing the Loopholes: No Detriment! 
Strikers have pored over the details, and as I write this (Monday 26 March), are holding branch meetings instructing national union negotiators to demand these grey areas are cleared up, to defend the existing defined benefits system, without detriment to staff. 
As Brian Garvey told me, "We need to close the loopholes on economic arguments about the valuation of the pension scheme. If the proposed Panel was to decide the USS is in deficit, we should demand action against mismanagement - and there's been plenty of that around! For instance, the employers' past pension contributions holidays. The bottom line needs to be no detriment to staff. 
This is a huge step forward which demonstrates the effectiveness of strike action, but in its current wording, it's not yet an acceptable offer." 

The UCU strikers have plenty of grounds to be distrustful of top UUK bosses - and their slippery use of language! 
After all - as I've hammered home in speeches at four solidarity rallies at Strathclyde and one at Stirling university, speaking as newly-elected USDAW NEC member:
"These are the same bosses who declare a black hole in the pension fund - despite last year's USS annual report showing 20% growth in assets. These are the bosses who claimed £8million in expenses over the last two years - on top of the 60 Vice-Chancellors who each earn over £300,000 a year. In the same institutions which rake in £17billion a year from students alone. Hardly a corner shop in crisis!" 

And if - contrary to all the existing evidence - the valuation process was to declare a deficit in the USS pension scheme, the employers who took several years of contributions holiday should be forced to fill any gap by increasing their contributions, rather than punish workers for the university and pension scheme bosses' past dodging of their duties. 

Sustain the Action Until Victory 
One of the obstacles to the UUK's verbal trickery, as they are beaten back by the solidarity of the strikes, is the expertise on pensions of many of the academic staff on strike! They've helped demolish the bogus claims and false valuations that were constructed to justify these drastic pension cuts. 
But the power of their expertise needs to be combined with the power of sustained industrial action, until such time as defined benefits are guaranteed not just "until at least April 2019" but for the future. As we publish this, members' branch meetings are poised to demand the planned 14 days of further strikes from late April go ahead, unless the UUK fully concede on the UCU's demands. 

Powerful, unprecedented strikes have pummeled the austerity brigade at the top of this huge sector of the economy, forcing massive retreats already. It could be a massive victory for the entire working class, provided the planned action is sustained until the university bosses accept UCU members' demands to close the loopholes in their 23 March offer. 
As one after another group of workers suffer loss of Final Salary Pension Schemes, and switch to defined contribution schemes and increased worker contributions - paying more to get less, and later - this could be a turning point in fighting back against austerity. 

Pensions Plus...
This struggle is about pensions, but also about much more; against the spreading curse of casualisation and precarious employment, and against marketisation of education, which has increasingly turned students into passive consumers for university business profits, instead of being partners in learning for the good of society as a whole. 
Unless the UUK bosses capitulate completely, we need the wider trade union movement to escalate solidarity for the UCU strikers until they win an outright victory for us all. 

#nocapitulation  #nodetriment  #victorytotheUCU 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018


UCU members striking against savage pension cuts and austerity
The breadth and depth of strike action by staff at ten Scottish universities and 61 across the UK are unprecedented. Members of the University and College Union (UCU) voted overwhelmingly to stage an escalating series of strikes in defence of their pensions, with a total of 14 days already named.

The pickets are large, the roving demos colourful and noisy, and the support for staff from students vast and visible.

Pensions Under Attack

This strike is primarily about an assault on staff pensions, with their bosses in Universities UK (UUK) wanting to slash the current defined benefits scheme - the Universities Superannuation Scheme - to a cheap and nasty defined contributions scheme, where retirement income would be dependent on the fluctuations of the stock market. 
Concretely, as the UCU union spells out, this would mean an average annual cut of £10,000 to pensions for lecturers, teachers, librarians, researchers and student support staff. 
As Dave, one of the strikers in Glasgow, told me, "I face a 50% cut! In many ways, this was always quite a conservative workforce, reluctant to take industrial action, and we often put up with the pay levels because at least there is a decent pension at the end of it. But we have to take the pain of losing pay now, through striking, or there'll be nothing left at the end of our careers."
The UUK bosses claim they have to take this slice off pensions because they face a £6billion deficit. But the same bosses have further infuriated teaching staff with their choices of expenditure. As Dave added, "They say they can't afford to sustain our pensions. But the principal is on over £300,000. And have you noticed the £1billion being spent on buildings and investments in Glasgow and Strathclyde universities?"
On the picket lines 

Marketisation of Education 

Another striker gave me her view of the UUK bosses' claim - and of the deeper causes of the strike - as she rushed in to address a 'teach-in' of supportive students:
"This is about our pensions, but also about the power structures behind it. The way the pension scheme is set up tells all: it's based on a flawed risk assessment, which favours those investing, to the detriment of workers. The assumption in the risk assessment is that all 65 universities will all go into administration; if that were true, our problems are a lot greater than the pensions scheme!
In these underlying power structures, we are told pensions are a benefit. But we work hard for them; pensions are part of our wages. And this doesn't just affect lecturers, but all staff, and it's really important workers are not divided. This is about the casualised workforce, temporary research assistants, the library staff, and all the rest too.
We want to shut down the education factory - because that's how we and the students are treated. The irony is that free education means those who pay are treated better. Free education is of less and less value on the market. That's why we have the students on our side. They live through it and know what it's like to live through the marketised universities."

Student Support 

First-year engineering student and SSP member, Max McKay, told me some of his reasons for actively supporting the strikers and attending their picket lines.
"It's vital we support the strikers. They're the ones trying to teach us and be available to us. Now they need us in their moment of struggle. All students should do what they can: join picket lines, not attend lectures, talk to other students to get their support."
I asked Max what difference the attack on pensions makes to him, as a student. 
"If the UCU don't win, and the pension cuts go ahead, some of the best lecturers will be gone, they'll just leave. Their pay is already low, and the only thing making the job OK is a reasonable pension. Some students may be considering going on to become lecturers, but these cuts may stop them, a loss of opportunity. And if the staff lose on pensions, what next? Us as students attacked next? That's why I've been on the pickets showing my support."

SSP supports the UCU strikers

Principal's Pets... and Pension Cuts! 

Pensions are the upfront source of the anger that has erupted into strike action. But that anger is also fuelled by the ongoing attacks on education, the brutally precarious nature of many of the jobs for the likes of tutors and teaching assistants, and the grotesque contrasts between pleas of poverty by the university bosses and their own opulence. 

Take the case of Peter Mathieson, the recently appointed principal of Edinburgh University. He graciously accepted the offer to move from being vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University so long as he got a basic salary of £342,000 - a mere £80,000 more than his predecessor at Edinburgh!

But while UCU members have been driven to withdraw their labour in defence of their pensions, Mathieson enjoys an additional payment of £42,000 "in lieu of pension contributions". On top of his £342,000, that is. And as a reward for the trek north, he was given use of a lavish "grace and favour" home, plus a £26,000 relocation package. Just in case that's not cause enough for outrage, the relocation bung handed over from university funds included the cost of moving his pet cat and dog.

So the university bosses plunder workers' pensions, but pay out travel costs for the principal's pets! You couldn't make it up... and you don't need to; it's a metaphor for what the university bosses think of hardworking staff. 

The School of Struggle

A new generation is being educated in the fundamentals of trade unionism in the heat of battle. For many, this is their first-ever strike. 
As Strathclyde University UCU chair, Brian Garvey, told me, "Many members are on strike for the first time. And many, many more have joined the union since we started this strike action. They may have been scared to take action at first, but once it gets going, it's like being liberated."
Another key feature of this struggle is the rapid learning about unions, strikes and solidarity that a new generation are living and learning. Whilst withdrawing their labour, lecturers are staging 'teach-ins', addressing hundreds of students on issues like privatisation, the marketisation of education, and as Brian remarked, "I'm going in to speak about what unions and strikes are because consciousness of those issues had declined amongst younger people for a time."

The UCU strikers need and deserve the solidarity of every reader, every trade unionist, every SSP member. Show support on their pickets and demos; invite them to your union branch; help win a victory for the UCU - which would be a victory for all workers, in the face of austerity cuts designed to boost the perks, privileges and profits of the rich and big business.

Brian Garvey puts the case for pensions justice 

FROM THE FRONTLINE: article by a strike leader for the Scottish Socialist Voice:

The staff, students and supporters of the strike know that while this strike is about pensions, it is about more than that. 
The unprecedented turnout is a clear message that we, together, have had enough of austerity, where pensions are cut while those cutting them award themselves £0.5million salaries. 
Enough of cuts in education, enough of taking more and more from workers, enough of taking an axe to our pensions and spending billions elsewhere. 
This strike is wakening academic staff up to the fact that their future is tied up with nurses, construction workers and all working people, and not the heads of UUK taking £10,000 a year from pensions. 
We call our members, staff, students and supporters to join us in our ongoing strike action that will continue until we win this fight for dignity.

 By Brian Garvey, Chair, UCU Strathclyde University

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

CAPITALISM ROBS WORKERS: profit plunders pay

Capitalism creates the Great Class Divide

We may as well live on two separate planets, given the grotesque and growing divide between the rich elite and the rest of us.

This week a media flurry erupted over the crash on the world's Stock Exchanges, starting with the US, then Asia and Europe.
The prime explanation given by apologists for the system we live and work under was something like this: recent US economic reports showed wage growth, which will boost spending power, so companies will feel empowered to jack up prices in the face of increased demand, thereby fueling inflation, which will pressurize the authorities to put up interest rates... so shareholders are dumping their shares.
Of course, the upper-class casino that is the stock market bears little relationship to the real world and the real economy - except that panic in the Stock Exchanges can spread panic amongst capitalist investors and thereby lead to slashing of jobs for workers in the real world.  

Two Planets 

What crazy system do we suffer, whereby working people being able to buy a bit more becomes a problem? The system based on profit for the few, through robbery of the unpaid labour of workers by employers; that's the lunacy at large. 

The system where, globally, the richest 1% grabbed 82% of all the new wealth created last year. The system where a year ago 68 billionaires owned as much personal wealth as half the globe's entire population - 3.6 billion humans. But this year the concentration of wealth has accelerated further: now a mere 61 gluttons of greed match the incomes of the poorest 3.6 billion people. That's beyond obscene. 

DPD courier driver Don Lane, with his wife Ruth. 

Profiteering Kills Workers 

The same week that frenzied selling of shares on the Stock Exchange hit the headlines, a terrible tragedy of exploitation at work didn't make much media coverage, even though it captures much of what is rotten and unequal about the world we live in. 

We have often spoken and written that the capitalist employers use fear as their weapon of choice when it comes to squeezing every last penny of profit out of workers' labour. Nothing confirms this more than the tragic case of Don Lane, a DPD courier driver in Dorset, who died of diabetes last week at the young age of 53.
As his devastated wife Ruth explained, Don had collapsed four times at work in the space of a year, and just prior to his untimely death had been sick and coughing blood, but still went into work. Why? In Ruth's words, "Because he feared being fined." 

Don had skipped numerous hospital appointments with kidney specialists after being previously fined £150 for missing a day's work to attend the hospital. When he wrote appealing for the fine to be rescinded, the parcel delivery firm's area manager refused, writing "I fail to understand why a full day off was required." 

Out of fear of being fined - or even fired - Don missed several subsequent medical appointments. Ruth added: "He would never get breaks and they'd get told off if they missed their time slots for parcel deliveries." 

This outrageous inhumanity is all too indicative of the cruel exploitation for profit - at terrible cost to workers' health - that fuels the system and its capitalist owners' profits.
Recent reports confirm fewer days are now taken off sick in the UK than at any time since 1990. We all witness the workers dragging themselves into work when they should be in their sick-bed (if only to keep their germs away from the rest of us!), from fear of being disciplined under sick absence policy, or simply because they can't afford the loss of wages. 

Tesco: boss on £4.1m - 40,000 jobs cut & deprive women workers of £4bn

Demand Equal Pay for Women 

The double oppression of working-class women is another source of super-profits for big business, and always has been a feature of this class-ridden system. That includes unequal pay for work of equal value.
The big supermarkets are amongst the culprits, adding to the gender pay gap. As well as collective claims in ASDA and Sainsbury's, Tesco now faces legal action on an equal pay claim that could cost them up to £4billion. Put the right way round, that's the amount they've deprived women workers in their shops of, by paying shop assistants about £8-an-hour compared with £11-an-hour to predominantly male distribution centre workers. Both contribute to the accumulation of profit - including the Tesco group sales of £49.9billion last year alone!
It's by robbing all workers - but their female staff even more so - that Tesco's Chief Executive Officer enjoyed a personal income last year of £4.1million! That's his reward - to himself! - for slashing 40,000 Tesco jobs since he took over in 2014.
The fight for equal pay is an integral part of the struggle to end capitalist exploitation. 

Bad Jobs Recovery 

A new, comprehensive report from the European Trade Union Institute, on what's called the Jobs Quality Index, confirms what experience already teaches most of us. Compared with 2005, and despite the feeble economic recovery after the 2008 financial crash, there's been a generalized decline in the quality of jobs across the EU's 28 member states, plus wage stagnation. One of the many features identified is the explosion of temporary contracts, zero hours contracts, and deep-rooted job insecurity. 

Importantly, the report highlights how, in general, higher density of trade union membership and collective worker representation correlates to better wages, improved skills training and career development, and better overall working conditions. And this research also buries the lie that we have to choose between more jobs and more in our wages. Nations with better pay (after adjustments for prices through Purchasing Power Parity) also generally have a better record of creating jobs. 

But the galloping growth of insecure work and underemployment has not abated, even in nations where the economy has grown in economic output (GDP). Is it any wonder the report is entitled "Bad Jobs Recovery"

Zero Hours Wage Robbery

In this country, at least a million workers suffer the horrendous stress and insecurity of being hired on zero hours contracts. It's no accident that a report last year showed young people on these super-exploitative schemes were 50% more likely to suffer mental health problems than their counterparts in more secure work. Nor should it be forgotten that, as research in 2017 proved, those on zero hours contracts suffer an average £1,000 less in wages than workers in permanent jobs with similar backgrounds, skills and job roles. 

Alongside short hour contracts, the 7-year public sector pay cap, and the use of the blunt instrument of fear of the sack, zero hours contracts are one of the means by which wages have been systematically slashed as a share of overall national wealth. Methods by which wages for workers in this country have stagnated and fallen at the worst rate since the Napoleonic Wars, 200 years ago! 

Mass Underemployment 

Mass unemployment was the curse of the working class in the 1980s and 1990s - consciously inflicted by Maggie Thatcher and the parasitic financial wing of the capitalist class. Mass underemployment is its modern equivalent, with at least 3.3 million workers crying out for more contract hours - including the wish to move from part-time to full-time - but unable to get them, as employers rely instead on a pool of workers they can have at their beck and call... according to fluctuating 'business needs'. 

And this week's Westminster legislation on the issue of 'good work' offers absolutely no protection to workers, and a lot of loopholes that protect employers' ruthless profiteering. Following the advice of Lord Taylor's Report, they are keeping zero hours contracts, with the hackneyed excuse that people need flexible working. And instead of wiping out bogus self-employment scams in the 'gig economy', the Tories are providing get-out clauses to the exploiters through a new category of 'dependent contractors' - which still prevents those who in real life are employed workers from being entitled to at least the legal minimum wage, paid holidays and sick pay. 

My USDAW NEC election poster

For Guaranteed Minimum 16-hour Contracts 

That's why the pioneering policy of a guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for all who want it is so timely. In the past month, I've been waging a campaign for election to the National Executive Council of my union, Usdaw. Visiting scores of workplaces, and broadcasting campaign videos, I highlighted, in particular, my determination to help lead the battles for an immediate £10 minimum wage for all over 16 - rising with inflation, with equal pay for women - and replacement of zero hours and pitifully short hours contracts with a guaranteed 16 hours. 

Concretely, that employers should be legally obliged to offer at least 16-hour contracts, with the only exception being where a worker - accompanied by their union rep, to prevent any skulduggery - requests lesser hours. And alongside that, I've fought for the legal right of all workers to be offered higher contract hours after working more than their contract for 13 weeks. Those two measures would wipe out the galloping disease of casualisation, but give workers the power to be flexible. 

Workers' eyes lit up at the mention of these points. Numerous retail workers in every conceivable firm said they'd vote for me on that basis alone. Regardless of whether I get elected to the Usdaw NEC to represent our 45,000 Scottish members, the issues have been broadcast; the awareness of these simple, hard-hitting, far-reaching alternatives broadened. 

Lessons from Germany 

We need every union to take up the cudgels around these fighting demands. Such measures would begin to reverse the vicious spiral of insecure contracts, accompanying poverty pay, which lowers spending power, adding to job scarcity and insecurity. 

And if the union leaderships showed the bottle to organise and inspire workers to take action for these immediate reforms in the way we work - and the way wealth is distributed - it would infinitely strengthen the unions' collective strength, helping to seriously challenge the rotten, unequal, profit-crazed system of inbuilt exploitation that is capitalism. 

Further proof of this vision can be currently spotted in Germany. The economy has grown - but of course, as in other countries, that's no guarantee of improvement for workers' living standards. It takes determined, collective action to win a share of the increased wealth for the one productive class in society - the working class. Germany's biggest union, IG Metall, has just won massive concessions for nearly a million members in the metal and engineering sector, after staging a series of 24-hour strikes. They fought for a pay rise and won 4.3%. They also demanded a 28-hour week, and originally demanded this should be with little or no cut to the earnings from the current 35-hour week. Unfortunately, the deal reached accepts the employers' demand that reduction to a 28-hour week also involves an equivalent cut to pay. But for workers who want a shorter working week, this is a significant breakthrough, achieved through the power of union strike action.

Join the fight for an immediate 35-hour maximum working week

Cuts Hours of Work - With No Loss of Pay 

Learning from this, unions in Scotland should not only step up to the plate and wage a serious fight for an immediate minimum of at least £10-an-hour, and a guaranteed 16-hour week, but also for a shorter working week - to share out the work and slash the drudgery and overwork that many suffer. Millions of workers are suffering back-breaking, mind-breaking long hours of work - simply to survive, as hourly wage rates fall or stagnate compared with rising inflation on the daily necessities of life for working-class families. 

But crucially, a shorter working week shouldn't be on the basis of equivalent pay cuts. We should demand an across-the-board maximum working week of 35 hours now - rapidly moving to a 4-day week and 6-hour day - without a penny in loss of earnings. 

Maximum Working Week
As well as sharing out the work, and improving work/life balance, this would free up time for workers to actively participate in the democratic functioning of their communities and workplaces - for the first time in history! And a shorter working week without loss of earnings would also radically redistribute the wealth - created by workers' combined efforts in the first place - from profits to pay.
The unions have a duty to make the clarion call for action, demanding "Cut hours and profits - not pay or jobs!"