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…

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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.

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.)

That employer charter…

Been a little busy recently; hence the lack of posts for a while…

One thing I have been catching upon, however, is BIS’s publication last week of its draft employer charter. I had spotted the headline issue at the time – the withdrawal of the right to claim unfair dismissal (other than in discrimination cases) unless you have been employed for two years* – but the charter was new to me until today.

Apart from its abuse of the English language (continuing the ConDem tradition in this respect) – charters, historically, represent social progress rather than a menu of what you can do in the workplace to undermine it – I love the charter.

I think trade unions should embrace this – not so much to lambast it, although that is certainly one option – but as an extremely effective recruiting sergeant. Handing the charter out to non-members with a simple message to say:

Look at what employers can already to you – and that’s before the ConDems start attacking your rights at work. Join the union and make sure you’re protected

seems a very powerful message about the importance of joining the union. If I wasn’t already a committed and engaged member, I’d certainly be asking where I should sign.

* Attacking workers rights in a recession is a typically Tory agenda approach to life (which the LibDems appear to share). Yet, there is no evidence that it will actually increase employment and it is likely that, regardless of the promise, vulnerable workers will be most harshly affected. And the notion that you can’t be unfairly dismissed unless you can fulfil a two-year service criterion is, quite simply, bizarre. It will remove essential employment rights from 12% of employees at a stroke, and providing encouragement to poor employers will do nothing for jobs.

Viva comradeship

Here’s to ‘Los 33’ on their safe evacuation from the mine, and to all the hands, engineers, scientists, paramedics and officials involved in accomplishing the rescue so smoothly and with such excellent organisation.

The scenes over the last 24 hours at the mine have been intensely emotional and euphoric, and sharing in that joy has been a global experience – one of the wonders of the internet is its ability to bring everyone closer together and that has clearly been a major aspect to these amazing events. Congratulations to the BBC too, whose live reporting on the BBC website has been sensitively and engagingly handled (even if the demands of 24-hour live TV commentary have presented their own, er, challenges. Less is definitely more when it comes to commentators’ and interviewers’ verbose, repetitious and occasionally mystifying, western-oriented, inanities and concerns.)

And now, with everyone out, it’s time to look at the lessons. A number stand out:

– the miners have survived so long (including 17 days at the start when no-one knew if they were alive or not), and have emerged from the mine with such strength and assurance, and good health, because they have stood together. The BBC website carried the story of a journalist who has been working with miners and who had advised them to pick one word around which to make a speech. The word they chose: ‘comradeship‘ (linked to Google’s cached version as the BBC has overwritten updated the page). They have formed a society underground; under the command of the extraordinary figure of the shift foreman Luis Urzua, they have been disciplined and resourceful; they have been organised; they have shown an incredible amount of solidarity. They’ve had Elvis singalongs and religious services to strengthen morale; and secured water and delivered food and medical services to each other. They have had a daily routine of eight hours for work; eight hours for rest; and eight hours for their own instruction. All this has made them resilient enough to survive the ordeal. Mining is that sort of occupation: your own survival underground depends on those you work with and miners therefore tend naturally to recognise the values of solidarity better than others (though not all of ‘los 33’ are indeed actually miners). They don’t need to learn the lesson that people really are stronger together: but people in increasingly self-regarding, individualistic societies do need to learn (or re-learn) it.

– mining really does ‘have to modernise’ (in the words of Mario Gomes, the eldest of the rescued miners). Stories abound of the desperation of the miners at that mine, willing to accept a higher wage premium to compensate for its poor safety record so as to improve prospects for their families (including Franklin Lobos) or else, in the case of Victor Zamora and Raul Bustos, to start again following the Chilean earthquake earlier this year. And it does indeed make no sense that the safety record of Chilean mines fluctuates inversely to the price of copper: it gets better when the price falls, since only the large, more or less multinationals are left in the marketplace. (That’s not intended to be an argument that working conditions are good in multinationals, or that the Chilean mining industry now needs to be handed over to the multinationals, though I fear that some softening up in this direction is already happening).

Firstly, this is a case for better regulation – a case which Chile’s mining minister and President both appeared to accept yesterday – but it’s remarkable that we appear to need this sort of event to remind us of the value of regulation. It’s also a case that we need to place better value on the minerals that people risk their lives to mine. Human life is cheap: and it’s cheapened still further by an economic approach whose only interest is driving prices downwards in the search for greater profits. As consumers, we have an immense role to play in acquainting ourselves better with the components of the things we buy, and the human cost that goes with our desire to buy them ever more cheaply. And a responsibility to do so, too, which we need to remember once the media circus has all packed up and gone home from Campo Esperanza.

¡Chi-chi-chi-le-le-le, los mineros de Chile! ¡Viva los mineros!