Judges issue another attack on workers

Simon Basketter reports:

The anti-union laws are being extended by default and we are moving towards a situation where it will be virtually impossible to organise legal strikes.

At the beginning of the month the Court of Appeal ruled in a case that has significant consequences for every worker.

Judges ruled in favour of Metrobus, which had secured a legal injunction against a planned strike by Unite members in October last year. The union called off the strike in response.

This ruling had a knock-on effect on another group of workers last week.

Unite union officials called off a planned strike by bus drivers at First in South Yorkshire—not because there was any challenge to their own ballot but purely on the basis of this Court of Appeal ruling.

The judgement in favour of the employer can be referred to by judges in future cases. It sets a precedent that will make it more difficult for workers to take legal strike action.

One of the reasons the company won the injunction was because a judge found that the union had not detailed with sufficient precision the occupational grades of those taking action.

The same manoeuvre has recently been used against postal and tube workers.

The anti-union laws were designed to hamper unions’ ability to resist, and to give union leaders a way of persuading their members not to strike.

All these laws should go. But instead of being repealed, they are being interpreted ever more harshly. The laws detail a thicket of obstacles that the unions have to navigate to avoid being sued during a strike.

One clause says that unions have to give the employers a list of workers who are going on strike and their workplaces.

Unions must also sort workers into their occupational categories. Such requirements are ideal for employers who want to use technicalities to halt strikes.

The Metrobus appeal case shows how these laws work.

The union argued, “Unite takes the view that the grounds on which the judge decided to grant the injunction constitute a serious impediment on its ability and that of any other trade union to call a strike.”

In response Lord Justice Maurice Kay wrote, “The right to strike has never been much more than a slogan or legal metaphor.”

There were two main elements to the court’s decision.

Firstly, although the strike ballot had closed at noon on 1 September, Unite informed Metrobus bosses of the outcome almost 48 hours later.

In part this was due to a mix-up between Unite and Electoral Reform Services involving a missing fax.

But the court ruled that the time taken to inform the employer was too long.

The judgement reads, “Sec 231 imposes on the union a free-standing obligation to notify the employer of the outcome of the ballot as soon as reasonably practicable; that obligation must be fulfilled, regardless of whether strike action is or is not voted for.”

And importantly, “Notice of strike action can only ever come after notice of the ballot result to the employer.”

Secondly, the court ruled that the union did not properly explain how it arrived at its membership figures for how many bus drivers would be called out from which depots.

The three Court of Appeal judges disagreed about how the legislation applied, but they still ruled that insufficient explanation was given.

The judgement read, “Information about the numbers of employees balloted—what categories they fall into in terms of what job they do, where they work, etc, for union members who may or may not pay their union dues by deduction from salary (whereby the employer can know they are union members) – is provided to the employer, and such information must also include full explanations of how such figures are reached. The figures must also be accurate.”

In effect, legal ballots become almost impossible to organise. Working out all the grades of construction workers or local government workers, for instance, would be completely unfeasible.

The only point on which the majority in the court disagreed with the original injunction was over the importance of a typing error—766 instead of 776. It ruled that this was trivial.

Furthermore, the court also ruled that the anti-union laws are compatible with the article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights on the right to join a trade union.

When Labour was elected in 1997 it had a policy of repealing the anti-union laws. But 12 years later it is sitting on its hands while the laws are applied ever more stringently against workers.

The anti-union laws fly in the face of the democratic decisions of thousands of workers. Unless the laws are challenged, no union could survive the level of detailed scrutiny now imposed on ballots.

But a recent spate of unofficial walkouts and occupations has shown that anti-union laws are powerless if workers defy them.

The only way to win is for unions to refuse to back down in the face of injunctions and threats and strike regardless.

The right to withdraw labour by striking is the most fundamental power that workers have. We must fight urgently to defend that right.

A 90% tax on banker bonuse: who could object?

Not the Daily Mail.

Who’s scared of the bankers? I mean, it can’t be any worse than Deal or No Deal, surely?

We could get Noel Edmonds on the phone to these guys…

Would he be any worse at it?

Truly the drunks are running of the brewery, the vampires are in charge of the bloodbank, the lunatics have taken over the asylum…

The Morning Star reports:

Labour MP John McFall tore into Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Parliament on Thursday over obscene bonus payments to bankers.

Mr Brown went along to a question and answer session with senior MPs hoping to fob them off with a tame document suggesting a few feeble banking “reforms.”

But the terrier-like Mr McFall made Mr Brown squirm, telling him: “I put it to you, Prime Minister, that the horse has bolted.”

He instanced the average bonus of half a million pounds each for bankers at Goldman Sachs announced just this week.

The West Dunbartonshire MP, who is chairman of the Treasury select committee, protested that the recent £9.6 million pay package for Royal Bank of Scotland chief Stephen Hester “is very similar to Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract at Real Madrid.”

He added: “The City has won. Like Ronaldo, they are running rings around both the government and regulators.”

Mr McFall demanded that Mr Brown must act to make sure that ordinary citizens can “trust the banks” and get a “fair deal from the banking system.”

Pale with tension, Mr Brown could only fall back on his prepared brief as he faced Mr McFall and other members of the Commons liaison committee in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House.

The Prime Minister agreed that “excess payments” to bankers were “unacceptable.”

Then he added weakly: “It is only on the basis of long-term performance that we can guarantee the bonus system.”

He said that an interim review of banking governance published on Thursday recommended that “bonuses and remuneration should be over a five-year period.”

Mr Brown stressed that there also needed to be “proper transparency” and a regulatory system “to take action where necessary.”

Thursday’s review was drawn up by City bigwig Sir David Walker – who was director of Lloyds Bank between 1992 and 1994.

He urged that non-executive directors of banks should be “better informed” and actually attend to company duties a bit more often. He suggested they spend “up to 50 per cent longer” at the bank.

Bonus schemes should include a “significant” deferred element to discourage short-termism, he added.

His wishy-washy report said: “Many boards inadequately understood the type and scale of risks they were running and failed to hold the executive to high standards of sustainable performance.

“Bonus schemes contributed to excessive risk-taking by rewarding short-term performance. And shareholders failed to exercise proper stewardship.”

Mr Brown told the MPs’ committee that Sir David “makes some very clear recommendations which I believe will be adopted.”

Tory MP Edward Leigh asked him whether there was any truth in press reports of plans for 20 per cent cuts in public spending.

Mr Brown dismissed this as “quite ridiculous,” but then added that “there are tough choices that have to be made.”

He said that £9 billion of cuts were being made in back-line public services “so that we can increase spending in front-line services.”

And he confessed that extra spending on the Iraq and Afghan wars had amounted to £14bn.

Let them eat guns!

Rail for the people – or Brian Souter?

That’s the question. Should we have public transport or a subsidised cash-cow for a man made wealthy by the state?

RAIL UNION RMT today stepped up their pressure on the government to remove National Express from their rail franchises as new research shows that the company has made nearly half a billion pounds in profits from their rail operations in the past 10 years while sucking in nearly £2.5 billion in public subsidy over the same period.

Just under two weeks ago Transport Secretary Lord Adonis announced that he was taking the failed National Express franchise on East Coast Mainline back into public ownership. Since then, the company have made bullish noises that they will fight to retain the rights to run the service and have also thrown down a gauntlet to the government over National Express East Anglia and c2c which they should be stripped of under the “cross-default” clause.

Today, Tuesday July 14, a parliamentary adjournment debate will take place under the title Rail Services on the East Coast Mainline led by York MP Hugh Bayley where a growing number of MP’s will be applying pressure on ministers for National Express to be stripped of their rail franchises.

Bob Crow, RMT general secretary, said today:

“It’s now two weeks since the government announced that they would be taking decisive action over National Express on the East Coast and we are stepping up the pressure for the company to be dumped as a matter of urgency and for their franchises to be nationalised on a permanent basis, not as a short term, crisis measure.

“National Express have been taking us all for a ride. Not only have they milked the best part of half a billion pounds out of their rail operations but they have sucked in £2.5 billion in public subsidies in the process.

“Now National Express are leaving a potential rail funding gap of £1 billion behind after their chaotic performance on the East Coast Mainline and once again it’s the travelling public and rail workers who are left to pick up the pieces. National Express, along with the rest of the rail privateers, should be kicked off the tracks for good.”

I’d go further than Bob – I’d like to see the privateers prosecuted for their theivery.

Bobbies on the beat – G20 style

“No thanks, we’re not covering this, we see it as just a London story.”

That’s what the BBC said when offered footage of a policeman beating a man to the ground – a man who died of a heart attack shortly after.

This happened at the G20 protests last week -Mr Tomlinson was just walking home from work and was not a demonstrator.

Paul Feldman‘s is the best analysis I’ve seen:

Once again the police have blood on their hands and a cover-up is already well under way. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from the video of the gratuitous police attack on bystander Ian Tomlinson during last week’s G20 protests in the City of London, soon after which he collapsed and died.

The police had the area covered from every angle by CCTV and by their own photographers and must have known what happened. Yet the first official statement said that Tomlinson just happened to be found in a side street and that the Met’s brave police were attacked when they went to his assistance!

Sounds familiar? Jean Charles de Menezes, you will recall, was alleged to have leapt over a Tube ticket barrier and was wearing a bulky jacket, clearly trying to evade the police. None of this, naturally enough, turned out to be true. Yet no one was prosecuted for the execution of the Brazilian electrician while he sat reading his newspaper. And you can bet that the same will apply in the case of Tomlinson.

Why? Because the police are always only “doing their duty” in “difficult circumstances”. And what is this higher “duty” that allows them to behave with impunity and do things that ordinary citizens would end up in jail for? The duty in question conferred on the police by the state is to protect the status quo of capitalist society by whatever means are necessary, lawful and otherwise.

The first professional police force in the world was set up first in London in the 1830s and then throughout the rest of the country at a time of major social and political unrest. Workers had demanded and been refused the vote, trade unionists were deported from Dorset for illegally combining and riots were breaking out against the introduction of the workhouse for the unemployed.

The Royal Commission on the Police 1839 reported that the creation of a force throughout the country was a way in which “the constitutional authority of the supreme executive is thus emphatically asserted”. What the commission was talking about was the authority of the state as a whole in relation to maintaining and developing capitalism in terms of private property, as our book Unmasking the State – a rough guide to real democracy elaborates in more detail.

And that’s how the boys in blue have behaved ever since, with the notable exception of the London police strike after World War One when demands for an independent union were ruthlessly crushed. The high command of the state in the shape of senior officers sets the tone with wild statements about a “summer of rage” on the streets and then the unthinking plods are sent into action to do their worst, which they gleefully do. That’s what happened at the Climate Camp in Kent last year and is routine for just about any protest or action that is not some orderly march from point A to point B.

As the economic slump develops, more and more people will act to defend their jobs and their livelihoods. The police are being prepared for this by the sinister and secret Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO). This is the organisation that did the Thatcher’s government’s bidding during the miners’ strike, which began 25 years ago. In the course of that dispute, a total of 11,000 miners were arrested, 7,000 injured, eleven people died, and 1,000 men were sacked. More than 100 were jailed.

The present capitalist state is clearly an alienating power that is undemocratic and more or less the plaything of the corporations and banks. The police, together with the army and the spy agencies, are this state’s enforcers and nothing will change their historic role. This should add to the urgency of developing a strategy for creating a new kind of political democracy. This would be founded on co-ownership and control of resources and require the replacement of institutions like the police with new forms of community control.

Jerry Hicks, candidate for Unite union leadership, backs wildcat strikes

Jerry Hicks is the only challenger to incumbent general secretary, Derek Simpson, in the contest to lead Unite-Amicus.

Having worked for years at Rolls Royce before being sacked in 2005 for his strong defence of workers’ rights as a trade union activist, he is in touch with the concerns of ordinary members and wants democratic control of the union.

He says, “I believe in elections by the members with officers answerable and accountable to the members. As proof of my commitment to the principle of election of officers I was offered a Full Time Officers Job with the Union in 2003 by Derek Simpson but declined his offer as this would have been an appointment and so against my belief in elections.”

Whilst not backing a break from the Labour party, he promises to ensure support is only given to Labour MPs who back workers’ rights and will scrap the anti-union laws, brought in by the Tories, which criminalise people who fight for their jobs.

He says: “Unite is not only the country’s biggest trade union it’s also the biggest single donator to the Labour Party, having given £11 million of members’ money since 2005. But despite all this and with 100 sponsored MPs, anti trade union legislation is unchanged. Even the most basic right to re-instatement when unfairly dismissed has not been achieved under Derek Simpson’s leadership. Slavish support for the Brown government from our union has to end.”

Whereas Simpson is paid £126,939 with a host of privileges, Jerry promises that if he’s elected he’ll follow the socialist tradition of only being paid the wage of the average skilled worker, not a City fat cat.

Here’s the latest post from Jerry’s blog in which he gives his full support to the striking construction workers who are defying the anti-union laws:

An emergency meeting of the national construction shop stewards forum took place in London as long ago as the 8th January. The meeting discussed the escalating crisis in construction following a series of protests in November and December of last year, over employment rights and also the proposed exclusion of UK workers by foreign companies on power stations and other major UK contracts.

The meeting was originally called for at Newark on the 3rd December following a series of protests at the gates of Staythope Power Station. At the meeting shop stewards voted overwhelmingly to organise a programme of demonstrations toward targeted construction projects within the UK power generation sector.

Shop stewards and trade union activists find it is hard enough as it is to get a job in the industry because of the black listing by the employers. It is a way of reducing their costs and attempting to break union organisation on the major projects.

Rank and file members are preparing for mass disruption on projects throughout the country that refuse to recognise union national agreements. There will be organised demonstrations strikes and mass disruption. We are preparing for a battle to defend our jobs.

Jerry Hicks a candidate in the coming election for General Secretary in the UK’s biggest union Unite-Amicus is supporting the action. He was present at a recent protest at Staythorpe power station where he sustained a fractured leg, having been assaulted by the police.

He said “This should come as no surprise to anyone. The employers have deliberately and actively been looking for ways to exploit cheap labour while covering their eyes and ears to the growing rage of discontent and ignoring all the warning signs, it’s outrageous”,

He went on to say, “To its shame the union leadership failed miserably to grasp the nettle months ago when the dispute was a crisis in the making. The union needs to confront the employers and organise a national campaign for industrial action.”

The employers watch and listen to everything we say and do. If the union does little and says even less they drive the boot in harder and our situation gets worse.

This is not about race or prejudice it is about the exploitation of labour, playing one worker against another. It is about the employers trying to break nationally agreed arrangements and in doing so it is an attack on the union.

Gordon Brown, who at the last Labour party conference said ‘British jobs for British workers’, has created a huge problem all of his own making. He can no longer simply sit on his hands waiting on the sidelines.

Meanwhile, other energy companies are observing what happens next as they seek to further exploit the cheap foreign labour market.

This issue is as a result of the Employers deliberately exploiting a situation, the union leaderships woeful lack of response and Browns pronouncement, Now they act like the like the three monkeys. Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

Banksters are tax-dodgers

The TUC is calling on the govt to make the banks it owns come clean on their tax dodging activities.

(Come clean! What chance the new Met Commissioner floods the City with cops to nab the corporate crooks who have plunged us into recession?)

Richard Murphy, tax expert and blogger, carried out the research…

Lloyds TSB, RBS, HSBC and Barclays have between them well over a thousand subsidiary companies (1,207) incorporated in tax havens. The most popular location is the notorious tax haven of the Cayman Islands with 262 companies, Jersey is second, with 170 companies. HBOS is not included as it has not published a list of its subsidiary companies for 2006, 2007 or 2008 in either its annual report or its Companies House return, in apparent breach of company law.

Not every subsidiary located in a tax haven or financial secrecy jurisdiction will necessarily be used for tax avoidance, says the TUC analysis. Some may be simply providing banking services to the local population and business community of countries such as Ireland – or have particular commercial links to countries such as HSBC’s ties to Hong Kong.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘The taxpayer is now propping up Britain’s banks, either directly or indirectly. Even those who have not had direct bail-outs now trade with an implicit guarantee from the Government. The irresponsible behaviour of banks here and abroad is the biggest cause of the recession.

‘Yet even those who come cap in hand to the taxpayer and Bank of England, continue to do business in tax havens. This raises questions about whether part of the objective is avoiding paying a fair rate of tax to the UK – a tax gap that has to be made up by the rest of us.

‘We cannot know the extent of these activities. Indeed one of the main attractions of tax havens is their secrecy. There is no suggestion that anyone has broken any tax laws, but now banks have public stakes or trade with the knowledge that the taxpayer stands ready to bail them out, the taxpayer has a right to know the full extent of bank activities and liabilities across the world.

‘We should know where banks undertake their activities, where they record their profits and where they pay their taxes. Country-by-country reporting of their activities is essential if we, the UK taxpayers, are to know the risk we are under-writing.

‘Voters are increasingly angry at the banks, who they rightly think must take a large share of the blame for the jobs and homes that will be lost in this recession. The Government should set up a tough public inquiry into why our financial system came so close to collapse – and it should investigate the full extent of their tax avoidance.’

Recession no excuse for construction safety cuts

Along with soft-touch “regulation” in the financial sector, New Labour has championed self-policing in other sectors of the economy – most lethally, in construction.

With the government accelerating public works projects and becoming a big fish as private construction shrinks, there’s an opportunity to regulate the industry.

Alan Ritchie, the general secretary of UCATT, writes in Tribune:

End confusion and chaos in construction

LAST April, Sonny Holland, a 20-year-old “apprentice” scaffolder, fell to his death while at work. His death was a chilling example of everything wrong with the construction industry. Despite being described as an apprentice, Sonny was not being formally trained. He was officially working as self-employed – a ridiculous situation for a so-called apprentice. After he was killed, the firm he worked for went into liquidation in an attempt to avoid its liabilities and then established a “new” company.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Sonny’s death is not that it was unusual, but all too common. In the past two years there have been just over 150 construction deaths – an average of six a month. It says much about the media’s view of the expendable nature of construction workers that the vast majority of these deaths barely received a mention. If there is any reduction in the next annual fatality figures, it will be due to a combination of luck and less available work due to the economic downturn.

My union, UCATT, fears the recession could actually make construction sites more dangerous in the medium term. Much of the industry has a macho culture that only pays lip service to health and safety. When times are tight, safety is first to be cut. With thousands of construction workers losing their jobs, those still employed are even less likely to refuse to perform a dangerous task, for fear of being given their cards and told there are plenty of others who will work without complaint.

Despite these problems, there is a very real opportunity for major improvements in health and safety in general and the construction industry in particular. Two major initiatives were announced shortly before Christmas.

They are the Health and Safety Executive’s launch of a consultation on a new strategy and the Government’s announcement of an inquiry into the high number of construction deaths, chaired by Rita Donaghy, the former head of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service.

In recent years , the HSE has suffered a bad press. The recurring refrain from the right-wing media – of health and safety legislation “gone mad” – has distorted the real story about what is wrong with the organisation responsible for keeping us safe at work.

Since 2002, the HSE has suffered year-on-year real term cuts in resources. This has led to a reduction in the number of frontline inspectors and fewer inspections. In the construction industry, there has been a 42 per cent decline in the issuing of enforcement notices and a 30 per cent reduction in prohibition notices.

The reduction in safety notices is not because sites are safer. When the HSE scrapes together the resources for a targeted blitz of construction sites, at least 75 per cent of those visited are found to be breaking health and safety laws. Many are so unsafe they are shut down immediately. Yet so slim are the HSE’s resources that these blitzes, which cover a tiny fraction of the industry, are becoming more infrequent and visiting a smaller number of sites.

Even more disturbing are the low level of prosecutions following a construction worker’s death. Convictions rates have fallen to just 30 per cent. This is put into perspective by the HSE’s admission that management failure is a factor in more than 70 per cent of fatalities.

Construction is the most dangerous industry in Britain, but a similar pattern of a reduction in safety enforcement can be seen in other sectors, particularly agriculture.

The HSE is under the misapprehension that safety will not improve through an increase in inspectors, inspections and prosecutions.

Instead it is the responsibility of industries to regulate themselves. This dangerous nonsense would be funny if it was not so serious.

In a highly casualised industry such as construction, the only way to keep the many rogue employers in line is by the constant threat of prosecution. Sending them glossy leaflets asking them to be more safety aware is a waste of time and money.

There has been a growing awareness of the failure of the self-regulation throughout the labour movement. Last September, the TUC Congress unanimously backed a UCATT motion opposing self-regulation at the HSE and mandating all TUC-nominated representatives to campaign against it.

That the HSE is now consulting on a new strategy gives the labour movement an opportunity to have a say. This is vital, as the HSE document produced to launch the consultation is so bland and non-specific. It is essential that as many people as possible attend the road shows planned for this month and contact the HSE calling for a greater number of inspectors, more inspections and greater enforcement. Further details of how to get involved can be found at http://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy

If we do not give clear direction to the HSE, then business – obsessed by so-called red tape and “flexibility” – will use try to dilute safety at work still further.

The Government’s inquiry into construction was created because of UCATT’s lobbying, to which ministers finally conceded as part of last year’s Warwick agreement between Labour and the unions.

The inquiry must get to grips with the dark underbelly of the construction industry. If it has the courage, it will take some far-reaching decisions to change the way the industry operates. It must examine the highly casualised nature of construction. People are able to walk onto a site and start work immediately with no checks on whether they know what they are doing and whether they are a danger to themselves or others. Such laxness can have tragic consequences. In January 2007, Zbigniew Swirzynski was killed on his first day on a site in central Liverpool when the jib of a tower crane fell off. A lack of paperwork meant it was several weeks before his family in Poland was informed.

Casualisation in construction is made worse by bogus self-employment. Rather than employ workers directly, companies opt to use bogus self-employment via the Government’s Construction Industry Scheme, a unique stand-alone tax scheme. More than 400,000 workers are officially classified as self-employed while having all the characteristics of an employee.

They are placed at greater danger because they lack employment rights and can be fired at a moment’s notice. Sites using bogus self-employment are almost exclusively unorganised and do not have safety representatives. A well-organised site with independent safety representatives can reduce accidents by 30 per cent.

Is there another industry where the major players do not employ their own workforce? It is the norm in construction. The big household names barely employ a single construction worker.

Work is performed by sub-contractors, who then further sub-contract the work. On a large site, it is perfectly possible to have a dozen companies all working at the same time. Chaos and confusion reign. Even if intentions are good, safety messages are lost and unnecessary accidents occur.

Fragmentation in the industry has accelerated in recent years due to the rise of employment agencies and gangmasters. Workers of widely varying abilities are placed on sites without competency checks being made. UCATT has campaigned for the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to be extended to the construction industry in order to improve health and safety. Sadly, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform rejected our proposals.

The inquiry should examine the arguments in favour of introducing directors’ duties. This would require companies to nominate a director responsible for health and safety. If someone died as a result of flagrant breaches of health and safety, there would be the possibility of a director going to jail. The first time a director was filmed being led from their office in handcuffs, the vast majority of the industry would swiftly get their act in order.

This year could see the beginning of a huge improvement in protection at work and a subsequent reduction in deaths. We need those writing the new HSE strategy and conducting the construction safety inquiry to have the courage to challenge vested interests, ask difficult questions and reach brave conclusions.

We cannot afford another false dawn or a report that is a damp squib. Workers’ safety is simply too important.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.