Dirty tricks against assertive workers

First, at Lindsay Oil Refinery an unofficial strike is ongoing as it’s revealed the Engineering Construction Industry Association, the employers’ organisation, is trying to stop a ballot of construction workers for a national strike:

A confidential letter obtained by the Morning Star, sent to by ECIA employment relations officers to bosses at construction firms throughout Britain, brazenly states that “it is in employer’s interests to not act in a way which aids and abets the unions to run a successful ballot.”

The letter continues: “Don’t give names and addresses of your workforce to the unions or shop stewards. Don’t allow full-time officers access to your workforce – unless their intentions are made clear in advance and they are not related to the ballot.”

GMB legal officer Maria Ludkin lost no time in slamming the letter as “one of the most blatant attempts to interfere in an industrial action ballot that I’ve ever seen.”

“The employers’ letter also states that the ECIA ‘will closely monitor the legality of the strike ballot,’ so there is no doubt what their intentions are.”

“But the advice that the ECIA is giving to its members is clearly illegal under the 1999 Employment Relations Act,” she said.

“No employer can deny unions the right to consult with their members and should any construction worker or union rep encounter this kind of obstruction, the GMB will definitely take action,” Ms Ludkin insisted.

Second, James Tweedie reports for the Morning Star on the shocking raid at SOAS:

Students have occupied the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in support of detained and deported cleaning staff.

Nine migrant workers were arrested on Friday at a meeting called by transnational cleaning contractor ISS. Five were deported to their home countries over the weekend and the rest face deportation within days.

One of the detained cleaners said: “We’re honest people, not animals. We are just here to earn an honest living for our families. SOAS management are being unfair.”

The staff were called to the meeting to discuss shift times, sick leave and immigration papers. Staff said that immigration officers had been waiting for them at the venue.

They said that staff were locked in the room for hours and refused water, medical attention or access to their trade union representative.

The arrests came on the heels of a recent victory by cleaning staff organised by public sector union UNISON, in winning a wage rise and four of those detained are members.

The cleaners recently took strike action on May 28 to protest at the sacking of SOAS UNISON branch chairman Jose Stalin Bermudez.

Cleaners and protesters accused the university of collusion with immigration authorities and of victimising the workers taking industrial action.

Graham Dyer, lecturer in Economics of Developing Countries and Universities and Colleges Union SOAS branch chairman, said: “Our fight has united lecturers, staff and students and has rocked SOAS management. Those managers are now lashing out.

“It is a disgrace that SOAS management saw fit to use a seat of learning to intimidate migrant workers. This is their underhand revenge.”

Labour MP John McDonnell said: “The message is that they are happy to employ migrant labour on poverty wages but, if you complain, they will send you back home. It is shameful.”

Middle income workers shafted by super-rich

It used to be known as Middle England, but a few years ago it got changed to Middle Britain (Try the Middlebritainometer to see how you compare.)

Supposedly this Middle was deferential to the rich and looked down on those below. Not any more

Britain’s middle earners have lost ground to the ­better-off and the rich, seen their relative status in society decline and been let down by politicians, the Trades Union Congress argues in a report on Thursday.

Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher first targeted voters in middle England, and 12 years since New Labour made its winning appeal to “middle Britain”, the TUC draws a sharp contrast between the fortunes of that group and those of people on comfortable professional incomes. However, this richer group has increasingly been seen, by commentators and politicians alike, as “middle Britain”

The result is that successive governments have failed to deliver what true middle-earners want – a dissonance that helps to explain outrage about the MPs’ expenses scandal, says the TUC.

The findings may make alarming reading for Labour. The high command is aware it cannot win the next general election without the support of this group of voters – normally termed C1s and C2s by psephologists.

The TUC defines “middle income Britain” as the fifth of the population straddling median income, the level that divides the population in two. Median household income was £377 a week, just under £20,000 a year, in 2007.

Median earners have seen their income rise by less than the average, or mean, income over the past 30 years, the TUC says. The mean is calculated by dividing total incomes by the number of people in the UK.

Since 1979 the income of median earners has risen by 60 per cent, while much bigger increases for the better-off have pushed up mean earnings by 78 per cent, according to the report.

While median income fell behind more sharply under the Conservatives as society became more unequal, the TUC says the gap has grown under Labour. Mean net household income in 2007 stood at £463 a week, 23 per cent higher than the median.

“Middle income Britons” who have jobs are concentrated in white-collar and skilled manual roles, including dispatch clerks, retail managers, information technology workers and teaching assistants.

Their experience of life is likely to be marked by econ­omic insecurity – rather like members of the struggling middle class in the US who have been dubbed “the anxious middle” by economists.

Compared with those just above them on the income scale, median earners are less likely to have had a university education, to enjoy a final salary pension scheme, to hold shares or to have significant savings. They are more likely to have experienced unemployment.

They are frustrated, says a YouGov survey for the report. While they have aspirations for more fulfilling work and better living standards, they feel keenly their inability to fulfil society’s rising expectations. Four in 10 people on median incomes believe their job has a lower status than their father’s.

Stewart Lansley, the report’s author, said one of the big failings of the past 30 years was that the middle income Britain of the 1970s and 1980s had not been transformed into the well-to-do middle Britain of politicians’ recent imagination.

“Maybe because of this, middle income Britain holds noticeably different values than those above them in the income hierarchy. They are more pro-state and strongly support government action to tackle in­equality,” he said.

Co-op movement calls for change at G20

Social enterprise has joined the calls to Put People First and to consider the model of co-operative ownership:

Co-operatives UK is asking members to support calls on G20 leaders, when they meet in London on April 2nd, to put people first by providing decent jobs and public services for all; ending global inequalities of wealth and power, and creating a green economy.

In a week of action in the run up to the G20 Summit, development NGOs, trade unions, faith groups, anti-poverty campaigners and international social movements are uniting to make their voices heard.

Pauline Green, Chief Executive of Co-operatives UK, said: “Co-operatives are founded on values of equality and solidarity and they believe in social responsibility, caring for others and protecting the environment.

“The G20 Summit in London is a terrific opportunity to get our message across that more should be done to end global inequality, provide fair employment opportunities for all and help protect the planet.

“The experience of the world economy over the last few months has highlighted the inadequacies of the financial and economic system and lessons need to be learned. Co-operative businesses, like all businesses, are being affected by the economic downturn and more co-ordinated action needs to be taken by governments.

“This is the best opportunity for a generation to learn from the mistakes of the past and to create a more inclusive global system that offers fairness and opportunity for all. This isn’t the time for retrenchment and protectionism, but for reaching out to create a new global system which rewards self-help and recognises the importance of community.”

Added Dame Pauline: “Co-operation as a business model is recognised the world over as a sustainable and people-centred way of doing business that understands the importance of ‘fair globalisation’.

“It provides a means of helping developing countries maximise their potential and thus helping their people live better lives.”

Co-operatives UK is also supporting calls for change from the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), whose members represent over 800 million individuals in co-operatives around the world. The ICA has issued an Open Letter to the governments of the G20.

Iain Macdonald, ICA Director General, said: “The ICA is particularly concerned that the G20 examines every option in seeking to overcome the current financial crisis.

“We are asking the G20 governments to give serious consideration to the advantages of the co-operative model of business. With over 150 years of commercial success in all economic fields, it is our conviction that co-operative enterprise, with its unique set of values and principles, can provide possible solutions particularly in promoting stability in the global economy.”

Govt response to recession’s mental health crisis is all talk

No, really. Talking therapy.

As the UK economy slides further into recession, the prospect of millions out of work is putting pressure on individuals and families. Health secretary Alan Johnson and the minister for work and pensions James Purnell have announced more funding for mental health services to assist those made redundant by the economic crisis.

But what help is “cognitive-behavioral therapy”? Is it just a way of pacifying people who will be angry and upset that their hopes of prosperity are being ruined by the chaos of the capitalist system?

CBT encourages people to think about what they can do as individuals to improve their situation. Obviously, New Labour types like Johnson and Purnell would not naturally be promoting a therapy that encouraged people to look at how they can collectively overcome social problems – nor acting to prevent a mental health crisis by intervening in the economy to defend workers – but surely the failure of market fundamentalism to deliver “an end to boom and bust” should encourage politicians to think outside the box…

The Mental Health Foundation is calling on the government to treat the mental health epidemic caused by the recession as a public health issue:

The growing gap between rich and poor has caused a “social recession,” leading to low educational achievement, increased violence and poor community cohesion [...]

The Foundation warns that “perpetual stress” and depression linked to public concern over excessive earnings has led to widespread social and health problems.

Radical shift

The charity’s report, Mental Health, Resilience and Inequalities, calls for a “radical shift” in understanding mental health as a public health issue, citing research from around the world that shows that affluent but unequal societies can have many problems.

It also recommends assessing all future public policy for its impact on people’s mental health.

Social problems

The report’s author, Dr Lynne Friedli, said individual and collective mental health and well-being depended on reducing the gap between rich and poor.

“A large divide leads to a mentally unhealthy society, and many associated social problems. In the UK in particular, we’ve failed to acknowledge this link, preferring instead to blame the health and social conditions of those living on or near the poverty line on their own lifestyle choices. This in turn further stigmatises poverty, making disadvantage even harder to overcome,” she added.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said living with inequality had “very real effects on the mind and body,” adding: “Given the huge social costs of poor mental health, it’s vital we begin to treat it as a public health priority.”

Two million unemployed now, three million unemployed later?

The Left Economics Advisory Panel reacts to the latest bad economic news:

Unemployment figures released today show that more than 1.92 million people were out of work by the end of November 2008. This figure is the highest since the year Labour came to power in 1997.

John McDonnell MP, LEAP Chair, said:

“On this basis, unemployment today is over two million. This is a depression not just a recession, and the Government’s measures have failed to protect people and preserve their jobs.

“A lack of planning and radical action makes it almost inevitable that unemployment will hit 3 million with the consequent human suffering.”

Graham Turner, author of The Credit Crunch and LEAP economist, said:

“The remorseless rise in unemployment continues and looks set to accelerate sharply in 2009. In addition to the job cuts, workers are seeing their pay squeezed. Average earnings growth slowed again in November to 2.7% y/y, the lowest increase since February 2003, and well below the headline inflation rate of 4.1% for that month. Real earnings continued to fall”.

“And the recession continues to take its toll on the public sector finances, with the current budget deficit rising from £25.9bn in the year to November, to £33.3bn in the year to December. The rate of deterioration in the deficit number is accelerating.”

Women workers will be hit especially hard by this recession, compared to the last one, reports the TUC:

During the downturn women’s redundancy rate has increased more quickly than the male rate. From January – September 2008 the female redundancy rate increased by 2.3 percentage points, almost double the rate of male increase (1.2 percentage points). It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, leading to an even higher rise in the redundancy rate for women, or whether it will now level off to the same rate of increase as men.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: ‘This is going to be an equal opportunities recession. Job losses in sectors where men predominate such as manufacturing and construction are now being balanced by job losses in retail and hospitality where more women than men work.

“But job losses among men are still more likely to hit the headlines as women tend to work in smaller workplaces where redundancies go unnoticed by the media.

“But with so many households absolutely dependent on women’s wages the Government must ensure that women benefit in full from programmes to help those facing redundancy and the long term unemployed.”

Yesterday’s Guardian had a letter signed by Labour MPs, trade union leaders, and anti-poverty campaigners, calling on the government to increase Job Seekers’ Allowance by 15 pounds a week:

A single person over 25 years old receives £60.50 per week, dropping to £47.95 for those under 25. The UK is near the bottom of the western European league table in comparative rates of unemployment benefit.

The gap between benefits and earnings has widened significantly over the past 30 years because jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) has increased at a rate below inflation. If it had increased in line with earnings, an unemployed person would receive in excess of £110 per week.

Politicians and government advisers argue that higher benefits would be a disincentive to work, but a wealth of evidence suggests that the descent into poverty has been a greater cause of economic inactivity. Benefit rates must be high enough to allow people to live a healthy lifestyle for physical and mental wellbeing. To achieve this, our long-term aim must be to substantially improve the miserly rates paid at present.

The government has rightly made a priority of increasing demand to maintain employment at as high a level as possible, and recognised the importance of measures that will have a speedy impact. Unemployed people, because of their low benefits, are particularly likely to spend any increases they receive as soon as they receive them – pound for pound, raising JSA levels will do more to fight off the recession than any other fiscal stimulus.

The Morning Star gets to The root of the problem:

THE most misleading statements that any government makes regard the problem of unemployment.

Certainly, unemployment is rising at an appalling rate and, given that the figures released on Wednesday relate to the quarter to November, the jobless count is undoubtedly over 2 million now.

And that only relates to those who the government hasn’t managed to sweep under the administrative carpet by reclassifying them, sticking them on makeweight, irrelevant courses in jobseeking or otherwise losing them in the flurry of apparently contradictory figures.

Include them and the jobless figure could easily double.

Add on those who, when they become unemployed, are immediately expunged as being too near retirement to count, allow for those who are forced into McJobs at insulting rates of pay and do not use the skills that they have acquired over a lifetime of work and you could probably double that figure again.

Manufacturing jobs are vanishing at an alarming rate, with 86,000 disappearing in the last quarter.

Around 225,000 people became redundant across the economy in the same period and almost every indicator shows that Britain is not in a recession but a full-scale depression, as MP John McDonnell has pointed out so clearly.

The misleading element comes in several guises. When Employment Minister Tony McNulty attempts to harangue young people about the “half a million vacancies that are available right now,” he fails to add that they are out there because they are either not in the same places as the jobless, do not match their skills profile or are so appallingly badly paid that only the starving and desperate would touch them with a bargepole.

He also fails to point out that, even taking government statistics as gospel, there are now over four people unemployed for every vacancy and that employers are seizing the opportunity to downgrade wages even further.

Nor does anyone in government admit that its disgraceful neglect of the state pension has driven hundreds of thousands of pensioners to continue working past retirement age since that is their only way to keep body and soul together, which cuts job availability even further.

But the worst misinformation is the statement that unemployment is the root problem.

Quite simply, it is most certainly not. It is an effect, not a cause. At the centre of the problem is the lack of finance for business due to the disgraceful conduct of the banks in clamping down on lending so far that it is strangling the economy and any chance of recovery.

And right at its heart is a government which refuses to force the banks into compliance, despite the fact that they are now largely owned by the taxpayer.

As GMB general secretary Paul Kenny acutely observed: “Putting taxpayers’ money into the banks is not working in terms of getting that money to companies. A change of approach is urgently needed to save job losses in the pipeline.

“The government must take control of the banks already in state hands and use them to do this job.

“The lesson has to be learned quickly that banks are just another public utility that the economy requires to function effectively.”

Mr Kenny, we really couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Tax the rich, says public opinion

The real “silent majority”:

Public wants fairer tax and bonus system says new poll

Eighty percent of the public agree that bonuses should ‘reward long-term success rather than short-term performance’, in a new poll for the Fabian Society as part of a research project exploring public attitudes to inequality.

And 70% thought that ordinary employees should be represented on the compensation committees which decide how much city executives get paid, the poll by YouGov found.

While 56% were even in favour of a more radical proposal, to make executives of failed companies ‘pay back their bonuses from the last two years’. The government appears to have captured this popular mood by introducing a new higher top rate of tax of 45% for people earning over £150,000 – a move supported by 76% of the public (including strong support from almost half, at 46%). There is some evidence that the government could have gone further, with almost seven in ten respondents (69%) expressing support for a new top rate of 50% for people earning over £250,000. Poll data also gives some clues as to people’s reasons for thinking the rich should contribute more, with 70% of respondents agreeing that ‘Those at the top are failing to pay their fair share towards investment in public services’.

Only 19% of respondents agreed that taxes on high earners should be kept low so that ‘British companies can attract the talent they need to succeed’.

The public were asked who they felt deserved the salaries they currently received:

* 87% of respondents thought that City bankers were overpaid, second only to premier league footballers at 96%.

Bankers were seen as more overpaid than lawyers, MPs and estate agents: 77% think that lawyers were overpaid; 71% thought that MPs were overpaid, and 55% thought that estate agents are overpaid.

At the other end of the income spectrum, office cleaners and nurses were seen as most under-paid (72% and 77% respectively).

Social workers and doctors are in the middle of the league table. More people saw social workers as underpaid (38%), than overpaid (17%), while 34% thought they were ‘paid about right’. By contrast, more people thought doctors were overpaid (34%) than underpaid (13%), but the most common view was that they are ‘paid about right’ (47%).

These findings are part of an eight month research project exploring public attitudes to inequality and related policy responses, and are based on initial analysis of research conducted by the Fabian Society, consisting of an opinion poll of 2,044 people conducted by YouGov from 28 November to 1 December 2008 and qualitative research.

The research is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and is part of the JRF’s Public Interest in Poverty Issues programme.

TUC calls for a worker-friendly new year

TUC new year message

In his new year message to trade union members published today (Tuesday), TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

‘2009 has to mark a decisive turning point, away from the neo-liberal market-always-knows-best conventional wisdom that brought our economy to the brink of a catastrophic collapse, towards a fairer, more balanced economy delivering sustainable prosperity.

‘This is going to be a grim year. Unemployment will increase every month. Some predict it will hit three million, but in truth no-one knows.

‘First because we have little experience of a recession driven by a financial collapse, and secondly because we do not know how bold our Government – and as importantly, other governments meeting together as the G20 in April in London – will be.

‘Government therefore has three priorities in the year ahead:

* it must take every action necessary to make the recession as short and as shallow as possible;
* it must develop the proper policy response to mass unemployment;
* it must use these and other policies not just to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that led to the financial collapse, but also to ensure that we emerge from recession as a fairer, greener and more sustainable economy.

Action to tackle the recession

‘The Government must be prepared to take further bold action to counter the recession and to save jobs.

‘The roots of this recession lie in the failure of the finance and banking sectors, and while the Government deserves praise for setting the international pace on the bail-out of banks, we do not yet have a banking system that is truly serving the interests of business or household borrowers. Banks are putting building up their own balance sheets and paying back government loans as their top priorities. But they also still hold high levels of ‘toxic’ debts which prevent them from dealing with other banks in a normal way. The Government and the Bank of England must therefore consider injecting even more support into the financial system to get credit flowing again.

‘The Government cannot be expected to come to the aid of every company that faces difficulties but it must be prepared to look at providing short term assistance to strategic companies in sectors vital to the future of Britain.

‘The Government should consider a further stimulus package in the Budget. Barack Obama’s team are already talking of a big package to boost the US economy. The UK should follow suit – and also use the April G20 summit in London to create a coalition of the willing to wage war on unemployment, poverty and recession.

‘As well as bringing forward planned infrastructure projects, ministers should be fast tracking new projects to ensure that further work can start when these finish. The UK is still suffering from a lack of investment in the key infrastructure a modern low-carbon economy requires.

Action to help the unemployed

‘Too much government policy towards the unemployed still tends to be trapped in the idea that there are enough jobs to go round, and that the unemployed either lack the skills or the motivation to get work. While of course with rights come responsibilities, the thousands of people losing their jobs every week throughout 2009 should not be treated as potential scroungers but victims of economic forces well beyond their control. They will need help through benefits and support through training and job search.

‘Despite its tough presentation and some objectionable policies such as workfare, there were some good proposals in the welfare reform Green Paper to make Job Centre Plus services better tailored to individual needs. Mass unemployment will make it even harder for those who normally find it more difficult to get work such as disabled people and those juggling child care and work. There needs to be specific help for such groups – such as an increase in child care, which in turn creates jobs.

‘The TUC has already called for better benefits, higher statutory redundancy pay and a bigger tax allowance for redundancy pay to provide more help for the newly unemployed. We now look for action in the Budget on these issues.

Action to create a fairer, greener and more sustainable economy

‘2009 is going to be tough, but it can still be made positive if it becomes a turning point – the year in which we set out to build a deliberately different kind of economy.

‘That first means recognising the mistakes of the past – made not just by this Government, but by governments and the economic and political establishment almost everywhere.

‘We have given far too much weight to the interests of the finance sector, and began to believe it could create wealth simply by moving it around, rather than through long-term investment in the goods and services that people want and need.

‘The challenges we face are clear. Even before the recession we were scarred by poverty, particularly child poverty. Our society was coming under increasing strain from growing inequality as a new class of the super-rich escaped their responsibilities to pay a fair share of tax. We had neglected important sectors of the economy as we gave preference to financial services. We have failed to do enough to meet the environmental imperative.

‘This challenges us all to put the measures we will need to beat the recession to a longer term purpose of building a better greener and fairer economy that can emerge the other side of the downturn.

‘This will require:

* a new kind of industrial strategy – not a return to picking winners and easy hand-outs, but strategic support to the sectors where we are already strong but could do better. Some will be in manufacturing, but others will be in services and parts of the economy often neglected in such discussions such as the creative sectors.
* A green industrial revolution that recognises that many industries will have to adapt to survive, but that also that the environmental challenge can generate thousands of productive worthwhile jobs, and build on the strength of our science base.
* An intensification of efforts to make society fairer – the recession should encourage the government to speed up efforts to eliminate child poverty.
* A fairer tax system. The government is right to increase borrowing to maintain the strength of the economy. But this borrowing and decent public services will have to be paid for, and 2009 must see a real debate on how to make the tax system fairer. There is a real demand for the super-rich to pay a fairer share. President Elect Obama has been a long-time supporter of a crack down on the tax havens used by multi-nationals and the mobile super-rich to avoid tax.
* A new kind of banking system that no longer threatens international economic stability and instead serves the rest of the economy and society. Britain’s banks already look very different. Some are now state-owned, some have large public stakes and all have received substantial help from the Bank of England and the taxpayer. At the very least we will need new regulatory structures to enforce stability but also to protect the consumer in a sector with less competition.

‘2009 will not be easy year, but it could be the turning point that will make 2010 not just the start of recovery, but the first steps in building a new economy.’

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