Waste, lose, or break


I wonder at waste in the workplace, ponder the usefulness of the Trades Union Congress, and the explore the possibility of disaffiliation from New Labour. Oh, and the question of the creation of a unified pluralist workers’ party in England comes up again.

No slacking!
The recruitment firm Office Angels has issued a report claiming that office staff waste thirteen working days a year, costing firms billions of pounds in lost profit.

Same old moaning by the bosses, you might suppose. But it could be considered alternately that without “wasting time” making coffee, sending email, writing blogs, and gossiping by the water cooler, productivity might actually be lower.

See, workers are not machines, they are human beings. Granted, pointless meetings and computer failings don’t do much for the sanity of employees, but without the odd cup of coffee and pointless chit-chat staff turnover might be higher.

The TUC has put out a study on the working conditions of agency workers, the results of which are unsurprising. Most have no awareness of their rights to pay, sick leave, and pensions and consequently have worse working conditions than permanent staff.

Employers are obviously not going to inform temporary workers of their rights – they benefit from workers not knowing their legal entitlements. Thankfully, the TUC do not call for bosses to tell workers what they can claim, they instead request greater legal protection for agency workers.

Obviously, laws can be broken and typically laws protecting workers are not strictly enforced. The TUC should be leading a drive to unionise casualised labour but this wouldn’t go down too well with bosses and the TUC is devoted to business unionism.

Boss up
The tension between capital and labour undeniably exists – a loss for workers is a gain for bosses – but it is not explicit in either report.

If we can generalise a little, the TUC reports tend to have a conclusion, a demand. The bosses’ studies tend to be open-ended, the demand is implicit: workers are too lazy and should work harder. It wouldn’t do them any favours to be blatant about it.

I can’t really complain about the CBI and co. putting out a moan about workers being lazy, it’s to be expected. But I can’t forgive the lameness of the TUC reports on worker’s rights.

If we are to put the failings down to personal short-coming we could talk about Brendan Barber coming across as a weakling, but it’s not credible to suggest that replacing the union leaders with fierce militants would result in a great change.

An economic analysis would attribute the ineffectiveness of the TUC to the fact that the unions are now more like businesses, represent the more affluent workers, and maintain a subservient relationship to the Labour party.

Break up
That members of the Awkward Squad have held back workers’ struggles and are now backing Gordon Brown’s premiership might suggest that the best course of action would be to replace them with people who are genuinely awkward.

I’d love to see Bob Crow clones headed the big unions, but a more measure is getting more unions to disaffiliate from Labour. Rather than fork out millions to get New Labour elected in 2009, unions would be better serving their members interests – and their public profile – if they invested in political parties committed to fighting for workers’ rights.

If there was a credible electoral alternative to Labour, it would be easier to get unions to disaffiliate. The Socialist Party of England and Wales has been running its Campaign for a New Workers’ Party for a year now, with little sign of any progress. The Socialist Workers Party’s Respect front has been the most successful party to the left of Labour, but has not been able to widen its representation across England. In Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party’s split led to the party being wiped out in the Edinburgh parliament.

The second time as farce?
While there’s no point in setting up an Old Labour, I don’t hold much hope in a renewed effort to set up a typical Leninist vanguard party. The SWP obviously share the second sentiment, but not the first – although, I find it hard to think of Respect as a socialist party, let alone an Old Labour clone. As for the SPEW, they appear keen to set up an Old Labour so they can again return to their old policy of entrism.

If I focus unduly on the largest far left groups, I apologise. But in England, the SWP and SPEW have some power and if they worked together could succeed in creating a united yet pluralist workers’ party. The main obstacle is sectarianism, but both groups suffer from a poor understanding of imperialism and an aversion to having a detailed programme. The initial success of the SSP is worth studying – and emulating.

There are people in the labour movement who defend the unions’ link to Labour. It should be recalled however, that the Labour Party was created out of the unions splitting from the Liberal Party. There were people then who argued leaving the Liberals would be a disaster: I’m sure it was claimed that the Liberals still had the support of most workers.

There may not be a new version of the old Labour Party for the unions to fund, but the case for disaffiliation from New Labour is still strong. When Brown takes power and is proved no better than Blair, it will be easier to argue that in future New Labour should only look to its rich supporters for patronage.


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