Thursday, 11 September 2008

TUC 2008: Unions challenge Brown

by Caroline Colebrook

A PENSIONERS’ rally marking the centenary of the first Old Age Pension last Sunday kicked off the week of activity surrounding the 2008 TUC conference in Brighton and drawing attention to the continuing, still unmet demands for a significant raise in the basic state pension and the restoration of the link with average earnings.
Speakers at the rally included Kay Carberry, TUC assistant general secretary; Frank Cooper, president of the National Pensioners’ Convention and it was chaired by Unison general secretary and TUC president for 2008 Dave Prentis.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber opened the conference on Monday with a reminder of union successes in the last 12 months. These included the agreement on agency workers “removing one of the worst injustices from our labour market,” and a “major pensions reform” forcing all employers to contribute to their workers’ pensions.
“What better way for us to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the Old Age Pensions Act won through the campaigning of previous generations of trade unionists?” he said.
He continued: “In the past year we’ve also become stronger as a movement. We’ve recorded a welcome 65,000 increase in our membership and reached out to migrant workers in every corner of the UK.
“And signed a new Protocol with our American sisters and brothers to combat the disgraceful activities of union busters on both sides of the Atlantic.”
He mentioned union involvement in the fight against the extreme right and the British National Party and the fight to defend the NHS from “reckless privatisation”.
Then he touched on the battles to come: “Gone are the comfortable realities of the past decade: that the economy can be taken for granted; that prices will remain stable; that the Tories are a spent political force.
“With the credit crunch biting, with incomes being squeezed by rising food, fuel and energy costs, with the gap between the super-rich and the rest of us now a yawning chasm, the British people are crying out for fairness – and I believe the case for action is compelling.”
Barber added: “But let’s also be clear. The credit crunch is no random act of god – but inevitable; inevitable because governments listened to those preaching the cult of deregulation; inevitable because bankers worked out they could make money by irresponsible lending and selling on the debts; and inevitable because property price bubbles always burst.”

Fuel poverty

One of the major issues debated at the TUC was the demand for a windfall tax on the energy companies that have been making obscene profits as the costs of domestic fuel have rocketed, plunging many working class people into fuel poverty.
Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the giant union Unite, presented a Dossier of Disgrace exposing the greed and excess of the energy companies and the compelling case for a windfall tax.
Since 2003 gas and electricity companies have increased their profits from £557 million to over £3 billion and raised prices by up to 35 per cent in 2008 alone. But for every 10 per cent increase in energy prices, an extra 400,000 people fall into fuel poverty.
The dossier exposes the huge price hikes, profits and share dividends of the oil and energy utility companies. While the industry spends just £50 million a year combating fuel poverty.
Derek Simpson, Woodley’s co-general secretary, said: “Winter is approaching and in the coming months low paid families will be forced to switch their heating off because they won’t be able to afford the bill.
“The heartless excuses from the energy companies for not fulfilling their social responsibilities have been swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Government. It’s time for action, the situation is dire.”
Tony Woodley said: “The greedy oil companies have made billions and in the next four years they will make an extra £15 billion from the British public. The Government must intervene and intervene now.
“Our case for a windfall tax is compelling. It is morally right. So I say to the Government, it’s time to do the right thing and protect the most vulnerable in society.”
Conference backed the motion, which also criticised Ofgem, the industry watchdog, for failing to control price rises and profiteering.
It said: “Congress notes that the Prime Minister, in his speech of 4th September, ruled out financial assistance for households struggling to meet their energy bills, in favour of help with home insulation. Congress believes this is an inadequate response to the current energy crisis.
“Congress also notes that the ‘big six’ energy suppliers had profits last year of £1.635 billion, whilst the average household fuel bill has risen by 42 per cent in 2008. Congress condemns the actions of these suppliers, and the phoney competition between the energy companies.
“Congress further condemns the failure of the Government and Ofgem to take any action to properly regulate the energy market, and curb the excessive price rises being imposed on hard-pressed consumers….”

The NHS

The TUC conference celebrated – and vowed to defend – the “enormous benefits” of the NHS and its “core values of equity, universality and care free at the point of use”.
Unison representative Lilian Macer told the conference: “Despite the attempts of various governments to reform the NHS beyond recognition, it is to the great credit of all in the union movement that the service the service remains overwhelmingly publicly owned and free at the point of use.”
And it is “continuing to deliver high-quality care in the fairest and most compassionate way possible,” she noted, moving a successful resolution that celebrated the NHS’s 60th birthday and outlined key campaigning priorities to meet the challenges ahead.
“Let’s be thankful that, after 60 years, we still have an NHS that continues to strive for equality and fairness,” Macer told delegates.
She welcomed the moves towards an NHS constitution that “should preserve the essential core principles of the NHS”, but warned “we must also remain vigilant in confronting the many new challenges from both home and abroad.”
She outlined two major areas of challenge: the EU directive on cross-border health care and the Government’s obsession with “patient choice” and “personal budgets”.
“Of course everyone wants patients to be able to get the highest-quality care which is the most appropriate for their needs,” said Macer.
“But the Government hasn’t grasped the fact that choice does not necessarily equal quality. And choice certainly doesn’t equal equality either.”
And when it comes to the proposed pilot of personal health budgets, she added: “For once, pilots have to do exactly what they say on the tin: test a policy to see if it works. And if not, scrap it.
“We have been absolutely clear that opening the NHS up to a co-payments free for all would be the first step onto the slippery slope of a two-tier NHS, where the rich got a business class service and the poor had to settle for the leftovers.”
Similar dangers exist with the EU directive – “another cynical attempt by the European Commission to import market principles via the back door” – Macer warned.
“Far from its stated desire of reducing inequality, the directive would do precisely the opposite, as only those who could afford to pay up front for their treatment abroad, and who could afford the travel costs, would have any realistic access to healthcare in other European countries.”

Tax

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the public sector union Unison gave one of the keynote speeches. In it he backed the motion for a windfall tax on fuel companies and also called for higher taxes in general on the super-rich.
“And why stop there?” he said. “Our tax system is one of the most unfair in the EU – the lowest top rate apart from Luxembourg. Those at the top can and should pay more... pay more to help relieve the suffering of the very poorest in our society. A bold step to show whose side Labour’s is really on.

Workers’ rights

The RMT transport union drew the attention of Conference to the threat to trade union rights contained in recent rulings from the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
“Anti-union decisions by the unaccountable European Court of Justice have undermined workers’ rights even further than the Thatcher anti-union laws still on Britain’s statute books and urgently need to reversed,” the RMT said adding: “recent rulings by the ECJ add up to the most serious attack on union rights since the Taff Vale judgement more than a century ago.”
The union called on delegates to back its call for the TUC to step up the campaign against Britain’s anti-union laws and to work for Europe-wide action with the aim of restoring the human right to strike enshrined in International Labour Organisation norms.
“The ECJ is an unaccountable and politically driven body which aims to extend the ‘internal market’ – that’s privatisation to you and me – and its rulings effectively render the right to strike meaningless,” RMT general secretary Bob Crow said.
“The Viking, Laval and Ruffert rulings have each undermined the ability of trade unions to defend their members against attacks on living standards, and the Luxembourg ruling even attacks the right of EU member states to set decent minimum employment standards.
“Together they mean that an employer’s right to ‘freedom of establishment’ trumps the right to strike, and are more restrictive than even the Tory anti-union laws still in place in new-Labour Britain.
“These draconian judgments and EU rules on ‘free movement’, which are enshrined in the renamed EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, represent a fundamental attack on trade union rights.
“Unless we roll back these ECJ rulings we will be left defenceless against the EU’s drive to liberalise markets and institutionalise social dumping.
“That means stepping up the campaign for a Trade Union Freedom Act and ensuring that any new UK Bill of Rights includes all ILO conventions, and it means working with unions across Europe to demand the reversal of the ECJ’s anti-union rulings,” he said.
In the Viking case the Finnish ferry company Viking Line attempted to re-flag one of its ships to Estonia and replace Finnish seafarers with cheaper Estonian labour.
When the Finnish workers decided to strike to stop this social dumping, Viking began legal proceedings and, after sitting on the case for three years, the ECJ ruled that the company’s “freedom of establishment” took precedence over the Finnish workers’ right to strike.
The Vaxholm (or Laval) case began after Swedish trade unionists attempted to prevent Latvian firm Laval paying poverty wages to Latvian builders working in the Swedish town of Vaxholm.
The ECJ ruled that the right to take action is superseded where an employer complains that the union is seeking terms and conditions in excess of the minimum provided by the Posted Workers Directive.
It claimed that as Sweden has no minimum-wage legislation in place the industrial action was invalid.
In the Ruffert case the court ruled that a German public body was not entitled to include a clause in a public works contract that required contractors to pay foreign workers the same rates as those set down in collective agreements.
In the Luxembourg case the court ruled that Luxembourg must remove labour laws putting national and foreign workers on an equal footing with local employees.
In all these cases the ECJ asserts that EU rules on the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour give private firms protection against collective action by trade unions.