Saturday, 7 August 2021

Lucky for Some

by New Worker correspondent

 Despite the gloomy prognosis on pay for most public sector workers there are rays of sunshine for some of the high castes. The Chancellor’s pay freeze for civil servants does not apply to those at the very top. Clare Lombardelli, the Chancellor’s chief economist got a rise of £30,000. This blow against the gender pay gap means her salary is now just under £150,000.
     One way round pay freezes is for the chosen few to be awarded bonuses, which they can “earn” by simply turning up. The two top Treasury civil servants, Sir Tom Scholar and Charles Roxburgh, were each given bonuses of up to £20,000 on top of their salaries, along with the Treasury’s department’s head of tax and welfare, Beth Russell.
     Well-heeled Tory MPs, such as former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith disapproved because it would cause grumbling in the lower ranks. He said: “I would have thought that they would show a bit of sympathy and that even if you were to pay them bonuses, they weren’t paid until everyone was back to work properly” .
     One group of workers who won’t be getting a pay rise because it would be too politically embarrassing are MPs whose pay will be frozen in this financial year. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) had recommended a bumper pay rise worth about £3,300 late last year, but both Boris Johnson and Sir Keir Starmer opposed it. It dawned on the IPSA that an increase “would not reflect the reality” faced by many voters after the coronavirus crisis. As MPs are on a minimum of £81,922 this will not cause too much hardship and they would have to have remarkably tough brass necks to accept a rise while lecturing others on the necessity of fiscal prudence.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

DVLA – People before Profit

By New Worker correspondent

At the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) at Swansea talks to avert strike action over Covid-19 health issues broke down resulting in workers taking strike action earlier this week. The four day Tuesday-Friday strike was organised by the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) who are deeply concerned about the lack of immediate moves by Management to reduce the number of workers on site. Since September 600 workers have tested positive for the virus, and one has died. Despite this most of the 2,000 workers till have to come into work, sitting just a metre apart.
     PCS is seeking a reduction in the capacity of the site by removing over 300 desks, a revision of risk assessments which has led to a further 300 staff being sent home to work safely from their homes. PCS points out that further consideration needs to be given to pregnant women and those who live with vulnerable people. It also demands from management a commitment on how to proceed in the talks over the coming months, in terms of extending home working, safety on site and any potential increase in the numbers of staff on site when it is safe to do so.
     Despite progress during the failed talks PCS argues “that the DVLA is able to give more than it is willing to at this stage and we believe that a strong show of strike action next week will help tip the balance to getting management to reduce numbers in the medium term and make the site safe”.
     Instead of a physical picket virtual rallies were held and an overtime ban begins this Saturday.

Friday, 18 December 2020

Grave Pay Cuts

Commonwealth war graves El Alamein Egypt
by New Worker correspondent

Two civil service unions, Prospect and PCS, along with Unite are taking up the cases of workers employed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) who are facing having their incomes cut in half and losing health benefits by the Tory Government using the excuse of Brexit.
    A ‘Brexit Mitigation payment’ of up to £30,000 has been offered, which unions denounce as inadequate, should their members accept local contracts for the loss of earnings.
    Defence minister Ben Wallace doubles up as chair of the Commission and can exert considerable pressure on the employer to give a fair deal to our members, says PCS, whose requests for further urgent negotiations have been completely ignored.
    PCS says members have been given a false choice to either repatriate or face losing up to half their wages. The union also condemns the Government for deliberately withholding this information until the day after Armistice Day commemorations. The CWGC set a deadline of 7th December for accepting the £30,000.
    Unite’s national officer Bev Clarkson said: “Commonwealth War Graves staff, many of whom left the UK years ago, face having their incomes halved or upending their home lives and that of their families. These are staff who perform an important duty on behalf of the UK and the other Commonwealth nations. The commission is treating them appallingly and the government must step in to protect their terms and conditions.”
    One 61-year-old gard­­ener, who had worked for 35 years for the Commission across Europe, told the Daily Mirror: “It’s shocking and it has been handled so badly. It’s just so unfair. We have all devoted our lives to looking after the graves of the brave soldiers who died and this is how we are being repaid. There has been no consultation – an email arrived one morning which gave us three weeks to make a decision. I feel so down.
    “We either have to return to Britain, where many of us haven’t lived for years, or take these terms which ­basically means our pay is halved.”
    But CWGC Director General Barry Murphy merely said: “We believe that the new arrangements will properly align this group with our existing staff in France and Belgium.”
    As the New Worker goes to press there will be a Westminster Hall debate on the issue, The Government’s Brexit excuse is of course nonsense, because people working for the British government abroad are always paid British salaries.

Sunday, 22 November 2020

Mighty Minnows?

By New Worker correspondent

This week we once again turn the spotlight on the activities of three of Britain’s smallest and newest unions which are not affiliated to the Trades Union Congress. The three unions whose recent activities are discussed were generally founded to organise in sectors which larger and established unions have not been successful in organising for one reason or another.

IWUGB

First we turn our attention to the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) which was founded in 2012 and has a membership of 4,613.
     It recently elected a new general secretary, Ecuador born Henry Chango Lopez when he worked as a porter and cleaner at the University of London. Here he helped unionise the majority of the outsourced workers there. After a ten year campaign the union finally secured the end of outsourcing at the sprawling federal university. His election follows less than a week after this major victory for the union. Following his election he said “I have the experience of being in the union since the beginning, when we had about 300 members and no office. I used to work as a cleaner and porter at the University of London. Before I joined a union I didn’t know anything about unions and I was an exploited worker so I am very proud of what we have achieved”.
     The founding General Secretary, Jason Moyer-Lee, commented that “We should all be proud that our union believes that a migrant worker, who came to this country barely speaking English and got involved in unions as an outsourced cleaner earning less than the living wage, is the best person to be our leader. I have every confidence that Henry will do great things in this next phase of the IWGB’s history and I look forward to supporting him in those efforts.
     The IWGB specialises in representing sections of the workforce which have traditionally been non-unionised and under-represented. It was founded out of dissatisfaction at Unite and Unison’s failures to organise. This correspondent has heard grumbles that an organising initiative involving the Unite ended the moment the photographer departed from the launch event.
     IWGB also represents bicycle couriers, cycle instructors, Uber drivers, and foster care workers, almost entirely in London. In 2018 it established a Game Workers Unite group which now appears to have be inactive for the past year. A union for precarious workers can have a precarious existence itself.
     While it has organised strikes it has been particularly active in the courts. Its legal department has notable successes in establishing that private hire drivers and couriers are rightfully employees, thus entitling them to a range of employment rights previously denied to them by employers.
     Last week it won an important High Court judicial review against the Government which called for health and safety protections for ‘gig economy’ and precarious workers. This success means that the government failed to properly implement EU health and safety directives and must now extend health and safety protections to ‘gig economy’ and precarious workers.
     It points out that the pandemic has made workers’ rights into a public health issue, arguing that the Government’s failure to extend health and safety protections has left many workers in the ‘gig economy’ exposed to serious risks. It claims that one in ten workers engage in ‘gig economy’ work, which accounts for at least 4.7 million people working in the UK with little to no health and safety protections.
     Speaking of the case Henry Chango Lopez said “We are delighted with this win for workers’ rights. In the midst of the pandemic, health and safety at work has never been more important. It is crucial that businesses know they must protect the health and safety of their workers and that the Government brings the criminal prosecutions necessary to enforce this law.”
     Alex Marshall, the union’s president added that: “Key workers have been calling for greater protection throughout the pandemic and this has largely fallen on the deaf ears of their employers. The IWGB contacted numerous companies during the first wave and they either did very little or nothing at all as they tried to escape any accountability for their workforce. This ruling is long overdue and the IWGB expects that in the light of this clear ruling, the UK Government will now take urgent legislative measures to ensure workers’ safety.”

UVW

The United Voices of Workers (UVW), is a similar, but smaller union founded in London in 2014. It began by winning victories for porters at posh auction house Sotheby’s and for security workers at the slightly more downmarket Harrod’s. It also represents people at the lower end of the legal profession such as trainees, pupil barristers, assistants, administrative staff, paralegals and even a few barristers.
     In April its United Strippers branch won a legal victory at an Employment Tribunal which a rejected the owner’s arguments that the ladies were self-employed and therefore not entitled to rights such as sick pay or holiday pay. No doubt that makes the venue an acceptable place for left-wing groups to hold their meetings.
     It also focusses on securing the London Living Wage, contractual sick pay and other rights and like IWGB has won battles on behalf of outsourced cleaners at the London School of Economics which set the tone for other similar campaigns. It also runs English language classes for its members and even took on the might to the British Monarchy by launching a case on behalf of a mostly black African who claim they are treated differently to the mainly white admin staff who work directly for the Royal Parks.
     At present the union is fighting the case of a member who was sacked from his present job for leading a strike at a former employer. Security guard Cetin Avsar was suspended by security, aviation and construction company Wilson James from work at the Francis Crick Institute in London’s Kings Cross, London. Wilson James said that his role in the successful strike at a London college which saw outsourced workers brought in-house “means there is a conflict of interest between your opinion and work with the union which lead to your protesting, and your employment with Wilson James”.
     The evidence presented includes a dossier of photos and videos of Avsar on strike and expressing his views in the press about outsourcing. UVW said this is “one of the most blatant and egregious violations of a worker’s human rights” they have ever seen.
     In response Avsar said: “I am totally shocked by the way Wilson James is treating me. They are totally victimising me for being a member of UVW union and for having taken lawful strike action against my previous employer Bidvest Noonan at St George’s of London. This has caused me a lot of distress. I have done nothing wrong. They are breaching my human rights and I will not stand for it”.
     Petros Elia, UVW added that “The hypocrisy of Wilson James is staggering. They have slapped a Black Lives Matter poster on the front of their website and waxed lyrical about how their industry “needs to do more for those from BAME backgrounds”, but in the same breath are unlawfully punishing a BAME key worker for having taken lawful industrial action against a great institutional racism at his former workplace”.
     In another case the union’s Legal Sector Workers United (LSWU) branch won a court action against a top divorce law firm Vardags (i.e. their lawyers are very expensive) which prevented the firm from gagging a former employee accused of leaking a memo in which female staff were reminded that they could dress ‘discreetly sexy’, but ‘never tarty’. She was sacked for alleged poor performance as soon as the leak was discovered. Nursing its bruises Vardags accused UVW of seeking a high profile scalp, which means they must be doing something right. Petros Elia, responded by saying: “Vardags has chosen to impugn our legitimate trade union activities in defending and promoting the interests of our members. They and other bosses in and beyond the legal sector should be in no doubt that we will continue to do so.”

IWW 

The third on the new unions is the Industrial Workers of the World, which was founded as a trade union in 2012, reviving in name at least the once mighty north American syndicalist union, known as the Wobblies.
     It has recently been active in the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) sector which rakes in £1.4 billion a year in Britain. The companies involved often have grand names which disguise the fact that their premises are couple of rooms above a chip shop. They often have employment practices to match. Other companies sell online course to learners abroad, particularly China.
     On Monday IWW announced it was taking the Canterbury based “Overseas Teacher” company to an employment tribunal on behalf of nine teachers who are hired on as self-employed. They allege they are not being paid the national minimum wage; statutory sick pay; and failure to provide holiday pay and suffer unfair deductions of wages. IWW caseworker Ryan McCready said: “We feel these teachers were essentially employees in everything but name. Just looking through their contracts, we were alarmed by the amount of control which the company exerted over these individuals. When we spoke to the teachers, we were shocked by how much more this translated in practice.”
     The lack of employee status “means is that schools and other organisations can hire staff at below the minimum wage, ignore UK employee and worker legislation, and subject them to conditions that are incredibly harsh and regressive” she added before concluding “It’s indicative of the declining state of the TEFL industry standards and this case really is the teachers standing up for their rights.”
     The IWW hopes more present and former teachers at the Overseas Teachers to join the claim. Efforts were made to resolve matters internally and through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to no avail.
     One ex-teacher said “It was really demoralising to see almost $100 deducted from my pay for 2 days of illness, that’s significantly more than I earn in that amount of time, so it seems very unfair. Eventually that led me to leaving the company as I don’t want to have to sacrifice my health for money.”
     Another teacher said “I was never in the job with the aspiration to make huge amounts of cash, only enough to survive. I accepted the bad working conditions and lack of communication because I believed the job provided me with the security to pay my bills. After our sudden and undiscussed change in contract, I could no longer afford most of my living costs. I now hold several jobs and continue to rely on Universal Credit due the unreliability and unethical practices of the Overseas Teacher.”
     More generally the IWW has been involved in opposing redundancies in Covid-19 related redundancies. English UK, the TEFL trade organisation were disappointed in the lack there was no specific government support offered to the language teaching industry which lead to redundancies in language schools in recent months.
     Now that furlough has been extended to March 2021 language schools seem reluctant to rehire even when legally possible. IWW say that keeping workers in a job would maintain “the UK’s image as an advanced economy in the soft power battles of inter-imperialist rivalries will hopefully be, to a certain extent, protected”.
     IWW claims that the TEFL industry has a history of a serious lack of union organisation, which it is now putting right in opposing zero hour contracts and bogus self-employment. It has claimed a number of recent victories against other companies in getting staff onto furlough at the start the pandemic. These include the high-profile campaigns against EF and Kaplan, and organisational support for reps at EC English who managed to reduce redundancies with an unpaid leave agreement. Those subject to that agreement are now back on furlough as they remained on the pay role.
     Now that the furlough scheme has been extended, those same workers are back on furlough.

Monday, 19 October 2020

the thin red line

by New Worker correspondent

One of catering company Compass Group’s subsidiaries, Eurest Support Services (ESS) has been condemned as Britain’s most “heartless employer” for the manner in which it has been treating staff working on Ministry of Defence bases. They have been forced to sign new contracts making them hundreds of pounds worse off with the alternative of immediately losing their jobs.
     The workers, who are employed on outsourced MoD contracts mostly as cooks and cleaners on minimum wage, and are facing cuts in hours as well as a reduction in their working weeks. The sites they service include RAF Shawbury, RAF Cosford, and dry land Navy bases HMS Sultan, HMS Excellent, HMS Collingwood, and various army depots.
     The workers are facing a cut in their working weeks from the normal 52 to 50, 49 or even 48. Some of them face losing up to £1,600 a year.
     Unite the union points out that this is even worse than similar cases such as those at British Airways and Heathrow Airport because ESS is actively ordering workers to “sign or be made redundant”. In addition the union does not believe this is a genuine redundancy situation because ESS has not issued either a HR1 or section 188 notice, or undertaken any genuine consultation process on redundancies. Instead workers are required to undertake face-to-face meetings with local managers and the responses to fears about impending poverty have been callous.
     Unite reports that members have raised concerns such about not being able to afford their rent or mortgage, or “if I lose all this money I might have to use a foodbank” and “I’m on minimum wage as it is, what am I going to do?” Managements response has been to tell them they’re getting an extra ten days extra holiday and even “you may be eligible for Universal Credit, I can come across and go through the process with you and help you apply”.
     Managerial assurances that they would get a pay rise in April were, in fact, only a reference to the planned rise in the minimum wage, which ESS is legally obliged to pay.
     Caren Evans, Unite’s senior officer for defence workers said: “They are using a false redundancy process to force workers who are already on the breadline to accept huge pay cuts.
     “Unite does not believe this is a lawful process but ESS is relying on the fear and intimidation it can exert on workers on the minimum wage, to force these callous changes through.
     “The fact that this is on MoD contracts and involves workers who are dedicated to care for our armed forces is simply appalling”.
    She also deplored the fact that “ESS is seeking to squeeze every penny from these contracts and it doesn’t care about the service our armed forces receive or the effect it will have on workers”. That is of course what capitalist contractors do.
     Ms Evans also added “It is even more appalling that the government and the top brass at the MoD are refusing to take action and are looking the other way as misery and exploitation is occurring on their watch”.
     ESS have been blaming the Covid-19 pandemic for the changes but its MoD contracts have been unaffected and the workers were required to keep working throughout lockdown so the common excuse for cutting wages hold even less water than normal.
     ESS tried to do the same in 2017 in the Gosport area, including Fort Blockhouse, in 2017.
Then  Unite took ESS to an employment tribunal for breach of contract. ESS was then forced to accept that the cutting of the working weeks was illegal and it was forced to reinstate the working weeks and pay and average compensation of £1,900.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

TUC Meets in Cyberspace

By New Worker correspondent


The 152nd Trades Union Congress met on Monday and Tuesday in a greatly abbreviated format, with only four people on the platform at Congress House in London whilst the delegates made their contributions from home in the front of their computers. The general public were invited to watch but it would be surprisingly if many did.
    The event passed largely unnoticed in the bourgeois media, which from the point of view of those of us wanting to encourage militant trade unionism was perhaps no bad thing. This correspondent looked in briefly, but this was not a rewarding experience. The speeches were of the sort one has heard before and will hear again before long.
    The Daily Telegraph was only interested in reporting the Taxpayer Alliance’s report on the salaries of leading general secretaries whilst nothing could be seen on the Times website on Tuesday afternoon. In the 1970s the proceedings of the annual conference received blow-by-blow TV coverage, except for the 20 minutes when Playschool came on. Then the debates were lively and general secretaries were parodied by comedians alongside cabinet ministers and royalty. Trade union militants were vilified rather than mocked or ignored as they are today.
    In recent months TUC unions have seen a rise in membership to about 6.44 million. The figures to May record an increase of 91,000 (74,000 in the public sector and 17,000 in the private sector) in the last year but this is still merely half the figure of its glory days of the 1970s.
    Density is much less; it is at present merely 23.5 per cent. The TUC’s press release on this growth welcomes an increase in female membership by 170,000, which means that there are now more women members since 1995, however this merely reflects a decline in the older industries. A major problem is that whilst less than a quarter of members are under 35, more than 40 per cent are aged over 50. The TUC calculates that members earn 3.6 per cent more than unorganised workers. Claims have been made that many members have joined since these figures were compiled because worries about job losses grew as the lockdown dragged on.
    These figures ignore members of trade unions out-with the TUC, such as the British Medical Association (BMA) for doctors and those such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) who valiantly attempt to organise low-paid couriers and cleaners.
    The TUC now has only 49 unions in its fold, largely as a result of smaller unions merging into ever larger organisations. These mergers mean that four unions alone account for more than half the TUC’s membership. Size does not only bring strength; it has also brought problems. In the case of Unison, which has united most grades of local government workers, its size has led to very bureaucratic structures. In some cases, the union has been accused of being more interested in cuddling up to Labour councils rather than representing the interests of its members.
    The conference was opened by this year’s President, Ged Nichols, whom readers will be surprised to know is general secretary of Accord, a small 23,000 strong finance union founded in 1978 as the Halifax Building Society Staff Association.
    He moaned that we are at “risk of a catastrophic no-deal” Brexit before sounding like a preacher saying he was against sin by pointing out that: “It’s not the great and the good that have kept the country going. Not the hedge fund bosses and the captains of industry. But the labour of working people.”
    General secretary Frances O’Grady continued in a like vein in a speech that was short on detail, saying that the TUC will be “standing together for a fair deal for working people” and called for the job retention scheme because “the pandemic isn’t scheduled to end in October”.
    The few specific demands were to start by making employers publish race pay-gaps and banning zero-hours contracts. She also demanded that the minimum wage be raised as planned.
    She went on to say that “if the government doesn’t act, we face a tsunami of job losses” before continuing: “So my message to the chancellor is this: We worked together once before. We are ready to work with you again – if you are serious about stopping the catastrophe of mass unemployment.”
    So that’s the problem solved then, and we can all sleep easy our beds knowing that the TUC has demanded talks with a Tory chancellor.
    Another virtual speaker was Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer who correctly said that “our Party was born out of the trade unions” but made absolutely no reference to repealing the oppressive Tory union laws. As might be expected he deplored the incompetence of the Tory Government but whilst deploring Johnson for “reopening old wounds on Brexit” added that he should also “get the Brexit deal you promised”, which hopefully means he has at last given up any hope he had of reversing the 2016 Referendum.
    Starmer said: “We can’t go back to a society where over half of care workers earn less than the living wage … and we can’t let the Tories use this crisis as an excuse to weaken workers’ rights.”
    He also had a number of schemes for handing out money to bosses, such as expanding part-time working and rewarding employers who keep people on rather than cutting jobs, and targeting “those sectors most in need – for example retail, hospitality…aviation…and those hit by local lockdowns”.
    The conference agenda was more of a shopping list with a list of calls for recognition for various groups of workers, various calls for a vaguely different post-coronavirus economy, pleas for aid to various sectors and the nationalisation of public services. All 66 motions were passed with not a single one being rejected, a testimony to the fact that they were all so bland that than nobody would take offence by them, or if they did were unworried about them coming into effect.
    There were groups of motions demanding “Respect and a Voice at Work”, “Good Services” and “Winning More for Workers”. The National Education Union (NEU) put forward a motion deploring Child Poverty that was unlikely to find anyone who would support the concept.
    Much of that is due to the Standing Orders skilfully compositing conflicting motions into something acceptable to all opinions. For instance, the Bakers Union called for a £15 hourly wage whilst the shop workers had a more modest demand for £10, so we got a composite which read: “We need a real living wage: we need the national minimum wage immediately increased to £10 per hour for all workers regardless of age and we call for £15 per hour for all workers – we need working people to be able to live and not simply survive.”
    One thing that was conspicuous in its absence was any demand to mobilise workers to undertake any action that might bring these calls to reality.
    The only international item on the agenda was a Unite motion on Palestine, deploring annexations on the West Bank and calling for the TUC to write a stiff letter to that effect to the Prime Minister. That will te
ach him.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Crown Jewels at Risk

Russian President Putin at the Tower in 2003

By New Worker correspondent

For the first time since Henry VII established the unit in 1485, some of the 37 yeoman warders at the Tower of London, commonly known as Beefeaters, are facing redundancy because of the reduction in tourism due to the coronavirus plague.
John Barnes, CEO of Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which runs the Tower and five other sites, said: “We simply have no choice but to reduce our payroll costs.
“We are heartbroken that it has come to this.”
The 37 Beefeaters live inside the Tower’s grounds with their families, so redundancy means the loss of housing.
The Tower reopened a fortnight ago. Normally 12,000 visitors pass through the Tower but now it can handle less than 1,000 people each day. HRP depends on visitors for 80 per cent of its income and says the closure has created a £98 million shortfall.
Two Beefeaters have taken voluntary redundancy, but it is likely that compulsory redundancies will be enforced. Tourists wanting a photograph with a Beefeater must now stand two metres apart.
Mark Serwotka, General Secretary of Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), which represents many of the warders, said the decision was a disgrace, adding: “Our members help guard the Crown Jewels and keep historic royal monuments and premises clean and safe. They should not be paying for the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.”
At time of going to press, Her Majesty had not given her views on the matter.
Last month it was revealed that at another HRP property, Kensington Palace, 75 per cent of the gardeners had been furloughed amidst the coronavirus crisis, which will doubtless ease the terrible financial burden on the Crown.