Unfairly dismissed? Well, speak to your union…

The Beecroft Report commissioned – and apparently supported – by the Head Bullingdon Boy himself, which was leaked originally on Tuesday to the Telegraph, continues to startle.

It is not just that the evidence base for the conclusion is so poor, as revealed by Channel 4’s FactCheck (did No. 10 really pay money for this? And, if so, who paid?). And neither is it the overt prejudice on the issue of workers’ rights from the shurely unlikely source of a venture capitalist who has strong links to the Tories, as revealed today in the Indy. This is, perhaps, the most shocking sign yet of the attack on working people which the Tories are mounting under cover of the state of the economy. Not an unprecedented attack, by any means, but which is startling from the perspective that it is a coalition government that is making it (although the junior partner has squeaked its opposition to the Report). And neither was there any mention of abolishing unfair dismissal laws in the Tory manifesto. No-one, indeed, voted for this.

Two observations, really:

(a) this is a sign of an increasingly confident, not to say arrogantly aggressive, government which feels it needs to pay no attention to protest. This might have been a bit of kite flying to assess public reaction to such a move, but I doubt it: such a piece of kite flying wouldn’t have been attempted by a government that knew it would not get away with it. Consequently, protest actions – like the one on November 30 on pensions in the civil service – need to be supported and the actions themselves need to be stronger if the attacks on working people are not to become even more direct.

(b) unfair dismissal laws were introduced – originally by a Conservative government, ironically enough, albeit in a rather different era of unions’ ability to mount a strikingly successful national campaign of civil disobedience to the law and its machinery – since it was thought by the 1965-1968 Donovan Commission that a law institutionalising unfair dismissal would prevent much of the unofficial strikes over dismissals which it regarded as a major factor in the UK’s low productivity. It is a sign of the times that we now have a new Tory-centred administration which is either ignorant of this or which feels it can simply ignore it on the assumption that strikes are now – and with some exceptions, this week not least – such an apparently invisible part of the industrial relations scene.

The ability of trade unions to take strike action over unfair dismissals, particularly unofficially, might be far removed from policy considerations these days, but the suggestion that things have gone so far that public policy can remove one of the employment rights safeguards whose original intention was actually to reduce the incidence of such action being taken is a novel one. Nevertheless, that’s a manual we will have to dust off again if we are to be able to deal convincingly with the increasing threats which this government is posing to workers’ rights. And, conversely to its aims, dusting off that manual is a move which could be good for us – if, of course, we can remember where we put it. Like the Charter earlier this year, this is something around which we could organise – but ideally locally, actively, rather than nationally.

Back to the future? Only under the Tories…


Labor’s top ten

In celebration of today’s Labor Day in the US and Canada, thenation. has come up with its own version – with videos – of the top ten songs commemorating workers’ struggle. As always with personal choices, there’s always room for debate about inclusions and omissions – but it’s good to see something from Phil Ochs in there. And the Dolly Parton is an inspired choice.

Having had my own bash at this a couple of years ago, I know how difficult it is to come up with much from the last couple of, well, decades. RATM/The Nightwatchman apart (from thenation‘s commentators – to which I might also add Diana Jones and indeed, Ry Cooder – thanks to @billybragg!), there’s just not a lot of people out there writing memorable modern songs about labour. A reflection of the – surely temporary – decline in collectivism no doubt, but, with work remaining central to the preoccupations of millions of us and with no shortage of issues to concern us, where indeed have all the good songs gone?

(thenation.com‘s list came to me courtesy of Labourstart – whose Labor Day solidarity campaign features the continuing struggle to get T-Mobile to allow workers in the US free choice of being represented by unions. Add your words to the e-mail deluge here.)

Destination: a big hill

I’ve been in Poland for the last week for, firstly, the annual meeting of the Editorial Board of the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, a journal which I help edit; and then secondly in attendance at the 12th international conference of the Otto-Brenner-Stiftung, a German research trust attached to the metalworking union IG Metall.

It was my first trip to Poland, hitherto a (rather large) hole in my visited map of central Europe, while the event provided major opportunities to catch up with old and new colleagues in the European trade union movement. The conference was held in Katowice, a town with perhaps all the tourist pull of Redcar, with which it shares a steel industry past if not the coal mining one that also defines Katowice, although I travelled to, and spent some time in, the rather more lovely/touristy city of Krakow some 77kms away.

It’s clear that Katowice has changed, radically. From a position of a reliance on heavy industry, and in a situation where a glimpse of sunsets was an apparently rare event as a result (as well as constituting a personal definition of hell), Katowice has become, well, a city of conference and business hotels and not obviously a lot else. Even if the jobs are not necessarily ‘McJobs’, the shift in the employment base is evident and that of course presents great challenges to trade unions.

Against a backdrop of dramatic and almost universal decline amongst central and eastern European trade unions, the conference theme of environment and growth – with discussions centring on green jobs, shifts in production away from car manufacturing and a consumption based on environmental values rather than consumerist ones – presented the stage for a tough series of debates. With employees and their trade unions having gone through one, hugely costly transition already in terms of the shift to market-based systems, and for whose impact the blame can clearly be laid at the door of capitalism, the prospect of going through another represents clear difficulties to trade union colleagues from the region. Here, when it is western trade unions that are propounding the need for such a transition represents a unique difficulty as regards their eastern counterparts. Examples of successful, and inspirational, organising initiatives can be found – and the transition to environmental values is clearly a very necessary one – but these need to be made clearer, more imaginative and more relevant if central and eastern European trade unionists are to be convinced that this next transition will not lead to them being totally wiped from the map.

For those of you looking at the title of this post for a less metaphorical hill, how about this: the Kopiec Kościuszko (Kościuszko Mound) – one of four such surrounding Krakow, this one being 326m above sea level affording magnificant views over the city and surrounding area. And yes, it is of course absolutely possible to get to the top even though the path might be serpentine.

We are one

Today this blog stands proudly shoulder-to-shoulder with the US trade union movement in its respect our rights campaign, defending the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers.

In Wisconsin, most notably, as well as Ohio, Indiana and in other states across the US, Republican legislators have passed laws curbing collective bargaining rights for public sector workers allowing public authorities to impose pay settlements and changes to terms and conditions, including pension rights, without reference to trade unions in negotiations. Inevitably, this opportunistic attack on collectivism in the workplace is being made in the name of austerity measures and the global economic crisis, and the US union movement has called today – the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis as he supported the organising efforts of sanitation workers – as a day of solidarity action.

The ideological nature of the assault is reason enough to oppose; but it also makes little sense strategically: what will get us out of the crisis is an expansion of demand and every attack on wages and living standards makes that a less likely scenario. We know also that – as today’s TUC letter to the US ambassador points out – the declining value of real wages and the declining share of national income being taken up by wages played a role in how the crisis evolved in the first place. Furthermore, here in the UK, right-wing politicians and think tanks are no doubt watching keenly to see how much could be replicated in this country; while we know that private sector employers tend to be keen followers of US practice and that what happens over there happens over here after a lag of a couple of years. The lessons of the long-term decline in private sector union density are clear, and need to be addressed.

The right to bargain collectively with an employer is an essential freedom of modern, advanced democratic societies and it’s no good fighting for democracy abroad while ignoring it at home. An injury to one is an injury to all.

Marching on together

There are probably as many reasons to march tomorrow as there are cuts. Of all the reasons set out in the megabytes of bandwidth devoted to this, I liked Accidental Academic‘s perhaps the best.

The TUC’s largest mobilisation for decades will see hundreds of thousands on the streets of London demonstrating opposition to the government’s ideologically-driven cuts programme and in support of a better economic alternative. Sadly, I’ll not be among them – for reasons which include a certain indolence in getting myself organised in time; and weekends being sacrosanct, combined with a lot of travel at the minute from my Perthshire eyrie. Both reasons which are insufficient in themselves, and outweighed by the number of reasons why I should be out there. Though I will be there in the spirit (or, otherwise, in the Armchair Army (First Chairbourne Division)).

The False Economy and March for the Alternative websites have done a terrific job in the mobilisation in providing reasons for people to get out there, and the use of Twitter (@March26March) has been terrific in adding a steady drip feed of messages to stiffen resolve and provide backbone. The TUC has dealt well with the organisational and logistical difficulties in rallying this number of people in one place – as have thousands of ordinary trade unionists up and down the land.

Above all, probably, is the simple message that taking billions out of an economy faced with recession – and this week’s OBR report provides more proof that this economy is on the slide, compared to where it was six months ago – is neither sensible nor a strategy. ‘Marching for the alternative’ sounds to me  a campaign theme that it’s been pitched exactly right and it’s clear what the TUC is marching FOR, as opposed to what it is marching AGAINST.

And the campaign theme? Well, James’s Sit Down for me (obviously!); for everyone else: Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up (equally clearly). But for everyone, whether in the armchair army or the mobile marching one, how about dusting off Billy’s Between the Wars? The call for ‘sweet moderation’, when confronted with an ideological onslaught of the simplest, most caustic public-sector-bad, private-sector-good type being exhibited by the Tories and their yellow Tory mates, remains a strongly relevant call to arms for middle Britain.

For those going tomorrow, have a great day: and have a sing out for me! And make it massive (hat-tip: @kmflett).

Twitter 1, BNP 0

My Twitter feed has been alive all day with news of, and activity around, the BNP’s planned hosting of an event in Polmont tomorrow at which party leader Nick Griffin was due to speak (thanks @vicki_jamieson). To their credit, @MacdonaldHotels – the owners of the venue – have cancelled the booking, leaving the BNP with nowhere to go.

Fuller details are contained over at Eric Joyce MP’s blog (hat-tip: @johannabaxter). Joyce is right to acknowledge the role of Twitter in mobilising anti-racists to put pressure on the hotel group concerning the booking – and this is self-evidently a tribute to the immediacy of the power in this direction of social networking. And a terrific achievement for anti-BNP forces it is, too.

But this is not the first time this has happened recently. The STUC has also taken on Best Western group over a booking it took for the BNP in Leicester (the STUC involved itself as a result of the work of Satnam Ner, a trade union activist from Prospect – the union for professionals). The STUC reports a positive outcome to its representations to Best Western over the event, as well as the likelihood of the continuance of ‘a good working relationship’ as a result of its actions. I’m not sure that Macdonald Hotels has such a working relationship with the STUC – but evidently the example set by STUC/Best Western is a strong one within the sector.

Such action take once is innovative; twice, then it has become a trend. Hotels across the UK not taking bookings from the BNP at all is the goal – and the mobilisation power of social networking means we’re one step closer to achieving exactly that.

Cheers all round.

Mayday! Indeed…

What better place to look for some informed comment on the Tory plans to relocate the May Day bank holiday to later in the year than the TUC’s ToUChstone blog?

Paul Sellers’s post hits all the right notes on the issue, but I also learned – courtesy of ToUChstone commentator Adrian Cruden – that the UK actually came into being, as a result of the Act of Union of 1707, on 1 May. And so it did. What better day indeed to celebrate ‘UK Day’?

(Meanwhile, Adrian has some interesting, and radical, alternative suggestions of his own for a Bank Holiday date later in the year.)