Wednesday, 6 June 2018

BUILD WORKERS' UNIONS: demand £10 now and 16-plus hours

"Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated", quipped American novelist and humourist Mark Twain, when a New York reporter conveyed the fact his obituary had been published back in the US while he was on a speaking tour in London. 

A similar reply should have been issued by the leadership of the trade union movement this month, as Doomsday reports on the state of the unions and workers' struggles were published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the formation of the British TUC, at the Manchester Mechanics Institute in 1868. 

Capitalist media outlets - including the allegedly liberal Guardian - gleefully reported government statistics of 2017 witnessing the lowest number of strikes since records began In 1891; a mere 79, involving just 33,000 workers in a total of 276,000 days of strike action.

Parallel government figures reported 6.2 million union members in the UK, which - due to the overall rise in numbers at work - means a marginal dip in the percentage of workers unionized, down to 23.2%.

Wake Up Call

Certainly, these cold statistics should act as a loud, screeching alarm-call to union leaders and activists. Especially so the startling fact that the average union member grows older, as less than 5% of workers aged 16-24 are union members.
But such data only give us a superficial glimpse of workplace realities. 

The low strike figures heavily disguise the mounting anger, bitterness and discontent of workers at employers' exploitation. 
The reign of fear, often terror, imposed by senior managers on behalf of the owners might cow many workers for a period but is also storing up the combustible materials for future outbreaks of struggle, on pay, conditions, loss of hours and jobs, against repressive, petty measures at work. 

The back-breaking and mind-breaking workload, as bosses across every sector demand more output from fewer workers, has led to an epidemic of stress at work, camouflaged by reductions in sick absences as the same workers fear for their jobs and face cruel disciplinary sanctions for being off work. 

Fury is gathering on 'the shop floor' at the gaping chasm between the pay and perks of top management and Chief Executives compared to the Ice Age pay freeze for workers, both in the public and private sectors, with the deepest and longest real wage cuts since the Napoleonic Wars, 200 years ago. 

Anyone in any workplace will testify to these growing resentments. Anyone campaigning on the streets for an end to poverty pay, zero hours contracts and job insecurity will confirm the growing desire by people to vent their anger at the ruthless profiteering, even if initially only by signing a petition.

Workers Always Need Unions 

Workers - who constitute a growing, overwhelming majority of the Scottish and UK populations - need the collective defence of unions now more than even their parents or grandparents did. 
That will always be the case, for as long as the rapacious system of capitalism exists - the system which systematically robs workers of their unpaid labour as the source of private profit for a tiny handful. 
The right to collectively withdraw our labour - to strike - is one of the core weapons workers ultimately possess, to stop cuts to jobs, wages, conditions and human dignity at work.
And indeed, even in a future socialist society, we will need independent workers' unions to help democratically plan and organise production for society's real needs, and to help check and prevent the development of government excesses and state bureaucracy.

Given the grotesque gap between the rich and the rest of us is growing - with a million Scots below the poverty line, including over half a million workers, whilst 'our' eleven billionaires have combined wealth of over £16,200million - the urgent need for organised workers' unions cries out more loudly than ever.

Living Example

So why are the unions not growing? And what do we need to do about it? 

On a microcosmic level, union membership in my own 400-plus workplace has grown from 15% in 2010 to 75% now, because we've stood up for members on day-to-day issues; won some reforms, such as minimum 4-hour shifts and 16-hour contracts; resisted detrimental changes, even when we've not always won; and broadcast our aim of policies such as an immediate £10-an-hour minimum wage. 
Significantly, not only does that contrast with the average union density of 13.5% across the private sector, but the membership embraces all age-groups from 16 to 70, and workers from at least 17 different countries of origin. 

More telling by far, those unions which have fought back against the onslaught by successive governments and employers - in a period of general setback and retreat since the brutal defeat of the heroic miners' strike in 1985 - have retained and increased their membership. Unions prepared to put up a fight, to defend members, including by strike action, may frighten a few overpaid, remote union (including TUC) bureaucrats, but they attract and embolden workers into joining.
This experience applies to a wide range of employment sectors. 

20,000 Join UCU During Strikes

University staff in the UCU union, of vastly different job grades and age ranges, took determined strike action this Spring, initially on pensions, but also raising the growing curse of insecure contracts. 
A remarkable 20,000 new members joined the UCU, in many cases literally on the picket lines, because they saw action on issues they relate to; issues rooted in their material self-interest. Action forced upon a reluctant, lacklustre, compromising union leadership by the demands of branch activists, it has to be added. 
Thousands of them have been transformed by learning the fundamentals of solidarity, and into an awareness that regardless of job title they are education workers, selling their labour power to employers battling to boost profits by a race to the bottom on wages, deferred wages, and conditions. 

RMT Grows By Fighting Back

Another union which has strengthened its numbers in recent years, despite vitriolic attacks by the privatised employers, successive Tory and Labour governments, and the media, is the RMT.
It's no accident that transport and storage accounted for 68% of all strike days in 2017. They've fought to improve wages; defied the propaganda onslaught when they've used their pivotal position in the London economy, in particular; courageously battled for public safety in strikes against Driver Only trains (winning in Scotland's case); and led the campaign for public ownership of the railways and ferry services, including here in Scotland. 
A union that takes its own rule-book clause about "replacing the capitalist system with a socialistic order of society" has emboldened workers to stand up for themselves... and grown in strength. 

PCS Strike Ballot 

The civil service workers' PCS union, which has a left-wing leadership (including members of the SSP) was specifically targeted in an attempted demolition job by the Tories - and in previous decades by Labour under Blair and Brown, when they declared a target of 100,000 job cuts.
Last year's attempt to crudely wreck the PCS by the abolition of the check-off system of collecting union members' subs directly from their wages, made PCS activists more determined; they defended membership levels in a systematic campaign of signing members up to payment by direct debit. 
If anything, the whip of Tory counter-revolution may have reminded many workers why they need the union. And they are now balloting for strike action in pursuit of a 5% pay rise, to partially compensate for a decade of pay cuts.

The Cruel Trap of Social Partnership

These examples (and there are others) demonstrate a simple truth that needs to be applied across the board: unions prepared to fight for workers on bread-and-butter issues, informed by an understanding that workers have interests in direct conflict with the interests of the employers, with a willingness to mobilize members in decisive action, are best equipped to grow. 

And the corollary is also true: unions which fall for the monumental con-trick of 'social partnership' with the employers, discouraging members from daring to take action in case it upsets their 'social partners' in the boardrooms, are prone to seem irrelevant and unattractive. Especially to a younger generation who have little or no living examples of successful, mass, national struggles by unions. 
Yet these are the very people most in need of powerful, active, determined unions, prepared to combine for collective defence and improvements. 


There are literally millions of younger (and older) workers in low-paid, precarious sectors like fast foods, hospitality, retail (the second-biggest jobs sector, after the NHS) and social care. 

The ten million across the UK in 'precarious jobs' including those on zero hours and short hours contracts, agency staff, temporary jobs, the gig economy, and bogus self-employment.

The one million in part-time jobs only because they can't get the full-time jobs they want.

The hordes of retail staff on 7-hour, 10-hour or 12-hour contracts, but at the beck and call of 'business needs' - the phrase heartily hated by workers expected to chop and change their sleep patterns and family life to do additional hours in busy spells, only to be cast aside onto their lowly contract hours without overtime at the whims of management.

And that's not to mention the 21st Century version of 'the dark satanic mills' run by the likes of Amazon. 
A new report by the GMB union exposes the outrageous scandal that ambulances have been called out to Amazon plants 600 times over the past 3 years, with workers taken to hospital in over half of these 600 call-outs. They describe "pregnant women being forced to stand for 10 hours, to pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles - even miscarriages at work." 

Winning Young Workers Through Courageous Action 

Workers in these super-exploited sectors especially need to be organised to fight back. But in order to win over new and younger workers to the union cause, leaders of the TUC, STUC and specific unions need to revive the fighting methods and spirit of the early pioneers of the most downtrodden sections of the working class - such as those who heroically battled during the waves of struggle by the unskilled and semiskilled workers in what was known as 'New Unionism', from the 1880s to early 1900s. 

It's all very well the TUC's Frances O'Grady marking its 150th birthday by declaring "the unions have to change or die", followed by vague talk of a digital reach, and dodgy mutterings about helping workers BEFORE they decide to join a union. That dodges the key questions: what do the union leaders plan to fight around, what issues, what alternatives that relate to workers' material conditions and needs? 

And when will they dump the fatal trap of relying on their 'social partnership' with the employers, which in turn hampers their ability or inclination to confront these 'partners' with collective action to win workers' demands? 
To quote but one example, when will O'Grady and the TUC pledge to never again repeat last year's dirty deed of excluding the Southern Rail strikers' RMT representatives as they huddled in a meeting with the privateers to do a deal behind the striking guards' backs? 

Nothing New About 'Social Partnership' 

These misnamed 'Social Partnership' deals are neither original, nor good for workers' health, nor for union growth. 
They were called 'Mondism' (after the big chief of chemicals giant multinational, ICI) after the defeat of the 1926 general strike. 
Under the Labour government of 1974-9, it was called the 'Social Contract', which meant union leaders enforcing government wage restraint; workers' wages being slashed by an average 10% whilst prices let rip at about 30% inflation, leading to workers' bitterness, confusion - and the ultimate election, by default, of the obnoxious Tory Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher. 

Past generations of socialists and trade unionists had a less polite, more accurate name for 'social partnership': class collaboration!

Pockets of Resistance 

Pockets of resistance by workers are already erupting, giving a glimpse of the potential for a wider, bigger struggle to stem the tide of insecurity, poverty pay and exploitation that curses the modern working class. 

Small groups of McDonald's workers - victims of poverty pay, zero hours contracts and harassment at work - have been on strike for £10 and union rights. McDonald's tried, in vain, to buy them off with the biggest pay rise in about 10 years. 

TGI Friday's workers are striking every Friday against the theft of their tips and wages by Friday's profiteering bosses. The last straw - after earlier loss of premium pay for bank holidays, Christmas and New Year, and denial of even the miserly government minimum wage through charges for black shoes as part of their uniform - was the two-day notice of robbing front-of-house staff of 40% of tips from customers (up to £250 a month) to top up the plummeting pay of kitchen staff. These Unite union members show young (and older) workers will fight, provided unions take a lead. 

Tesco Dagenham Strike 

Retail - including the giant Tesco's - is a prime example of partnership agreements that are designed to facilitate union recruitment, but hamstring the ability of the unions to resist attacks or organise action for improved pay, hours and conditions. Bitter disappointment from workers at their unions ("the union did nothing when our pay/bonuses/premium pay was slashed", being an all-too-common complaint) is beginning to shed members. 
In contrast, at the stand-alone Tesco distribution centre in Dagenham, Usdaw members have recently staged strike action for pay parity with workers in identical jobs in neighbouring depots. Only ten out of about 500 crossed the picket lines, and even more workers have joined the union, as they see it taking a determined stance, forcing Tesco bosses into talks on the very first day of strike action, after them ignoring the union for over a year.

The central message that should be shouted from the rooftops of every union headquarters is that they need to break from the grisly embrace of so-called Social Partnership with the employers; and organise every union official, shop steward and union activist to launch a concerted campaign around key issues that will make the unions immediately relevant in the eyes of the 75% of workers who haven't yet been convinced to join. 

£10 Now & 16-hour Minimum Week 

Aside from battling on issues specific to particular workplaces, the trade union movement could gain a vast new lease of life if they seriously prepare action plans around two immediate issues: a national minimum wage of £10 here and now, rising with inflation, for all over 16; and a guaranteed minimum 16-hour week for all who want it, to replace the curse of casual, insecure jobs. 

The entire trade union movement committed to "a £10 minimum for all workers" back in September 2014 - nearly 4 years ago, at the TUC conference - unanimously! It's criminal that, with honourable exceptions, they've barely lifted a finger in pursuit of this since. We need socialists and other dedicated trade unionists to bludgeon the more reluctant union leaders into action on this... before the £10 demand becomes entirely obsolete through inflation! 

The other central demand here suggested - a legally enforced guarantee that all employers are obliged to offer a minimum 16-hour contract to all workers who want it - is a new, pioneering policy that could tackle the complex balance between workers needing flexibility and the same workers needing stable incomes and stable lives. 

No employer should be allowed to opt out. But workers who wish to opt out in favour of fewer hours could do so, with representation by their union to protect them from any bullying by bosses. 
This would transform the lives of millions of workers who simply can't survive on zero hours or short hours contracts. The latter is especially rampant in the likes of retail. 

The fighting demand for a guaranteed 16-hour minimum was first raised in my book, Break the Chains, subsequently adopted as a policy by the Scottish Socialist Party, and I'm proud to have convinced my Usdaw union national conference, in April, to agree to it as union policy - unanimously! 

Reach Out to Young People 
As well as drawing up urgent plans to campaign around workplaces on these twin demands, the unions could reach out to young people by asking for meetings in secondary schools and at colleges, especially aiming at the 'student-workers' who now frequently staff retail, hospitality, food and drinks to earn a living in the absence of a student grant. 

The National Rate For the Job 
In all this, unions can also combat the vicious exploitation and racist division surrounding migrant workers, by seeking to recruit and organise them around the demand for 'the national rate and rights for the job' - countering divide-and-conquer tactics by employers and governments. 

Just as socialists played a pivotal role in the pioneering days of trade unionism, especially around the demand for an 8-hour day to reduce the grinding drudgery of the times, so too socialists in the unions and workplaces - and indeed in schools and colleges - can do so around fighting policies like £10 now and 16-plus hours. 

The Pioneering Spirit  
There is no need to write the obituaries of the trade union movement. But there is every need to break from the compromising, self-defeating trap of 'social partnership' with workers' own worst exploiters and enemies. 
The unions, and STUC, should reach out to genuine political allies including the SSP, construct plans to vigorously fight for these policies, and show the same brash readiness to battle for them that was the hallmark of the best of the early pioneers. 

Resist the Fear! 
Workers have been forced to live in fear for far too long, without the confidence that most of the union leaderships are prepared to confront and defeat the capitalist employers. 
The 150th birthday of the TUC shouldn't be marked by mourning and moaning, but by organising around such class demands that will inspire workers to struggle for a better future, melting away their fears in the process.

To give the last word to the aforementioned Mark Twain: "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." 

Thursday, 31 May 2018


Contrary to all their warm words about 'valuing trade unions' and 'supporting social partnership', the SNP government appointed a corporate lobbyist (Andrew Wilson) and 23 business representatives to produce the Growth Commission on Scotland's future - but totally excluded the STUC and unions which organise and represent over 630,000 workers.
So it's no wonder the Commission's Report advocates a neo-liberal nightmare of ten more years of low Corporation Tax, low wages, insecure jobs, capped public spending, 'fiscal responsibility' - another decade of savage austerity cuts, in plain English.
This is an offer any self-respecting worker will refuse, in anger and disgust. 

Even compared with the milk-and-water SNP government White Paper - 'Scotland's Future' - published in the run-up to the 2014 Referendum, the Growth Commission Report is a monumental, catastrophic retreat. 
Far from painting a picture of the future that would recommend Scottish self-government to the huge swathes of working class people yet to be persuaded, the multiple threats to the material well-being of the working class at the core of this document couldn't be better designed to dissuade them if it had been written by hardcore Blairite Unionists.
But unless the independence movement wins the hearts and minds of the working class majority, no amount of cosying up to big business and the multinationals will convert the 45% into a majority for Scottish self-government.
When people rightly object to the total exclusion of the trade union movement - Scotland's biggest civic organisation, by far - from constructing a vision for an independent Scotland, we have the bizarre spectacle of Glasgow SNP councillor, Russell Roberston, who defected from Labour in 2016, tweeting that inviting the unions into the Growth Commission would be like "letting Dracula control a blood-bank".
This is a contemptuous insult to workers and their families - which, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to be denounced by the SNP leadership.

Vampires in Charge of Blood Donors' Future!

In fact, it would be more appropriate to point out that asking a neo-liberal corporate lobbyist and his cohort of business interests to frame the future of the working class majority is like letting Dracula shape the fate of the blood donors - given that it's workers who produce the wealth of the economy, only to see it sucked dry for the profits of a tiny handful.
The STUC and affiliated unions should now combine with genuinely pro-trade union parties to devise an entirely different vision of Scotland's future, in stark contrast to the Blairite dystopia from the SNP's Growth Commission. 
One based on secure, well-paid jobs; a minimum wage based on two-thirds male median earnings; a guaranteed minimum 16-hour week instead of casualised labour; progressive taxation to fund jobs, house-building for rent, and other services; democratic public ownership of all public services, transport, energy, banks and big businesses.
That's what we argued back in 2012-14, with many workers persuaded to vote YES by the SSP and Trade Unionists for Independence, because of the vision we presented of a radical socialist change to the society we live in - not a Mini-Me UK capitalism.

That's the kind of Scotland workers need - not a haven for the tax-dodging rich and corporations.

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