Saturday 29 December 2007

UNITE (Amicus section) executive nominations deadline

Don't forget that completed nomination forms for the 40 "Amicus seats" on UNITE's first Executive Council have to be received by 11th January 2008, so if you haven't posted yours off yet, please do. I suggest taking a photocopy before you post it and noting when you posted it, in case of dispute.

For more details, see the full timetable or the official pamplet with all the details in.

Indesit follows Electrolux to Poland

Indesit have closed their cooker factory near Stoke, moving production to Poland, getting their closure in before Electrolux and with far less visibility.

The UNITE/Amicus press release is full of the despair that many manufacturing workers and trade unionists feel. Stoke has been hit very hard by the decline of manufacturing. The company I work for, now Fujitsu, used to (when it was ICL) employ several thousand people manufacturing printed circuit boards in the area. The plants were outsourced, downsized and finally closed.

I do think the press release goes too far, however, talking about there being "no manufacturing" left. I hear the same from many trade unionists in Manchester, where I live, but the reality is a bit more complicated. Nearly all the big old manufacturing plants in Manchester are long gone - these are the plants that were the bedrock of the trade union movement in the city for decades until the 1980s. So union activists see none of the old names left and conclude there's no manufacturing left.

What's actually happened is a combination of:

  1. The proportion of manufactured goods produced here has dropped (Electrolux and Indesit being just two of the latest examples)
  2. Productivity in manufacturing has risen rapidly, so UK manufacturing employment has plummeted while many parts of UK manufacturing output has not declined. For example, jobs in car manufacturing have been devastated, but the remaining plants produce more cars than decades ago. These aren't always the plants people think of, many of which have gone, but there are big Honda, Nissan and Toyota plants in the UK.
  3. The factories that remain are generally newer and/or smaller. As union recognition is generally established during periods of high industrial action, a high proportion of workplaces which have been set up since the 1970s are not effectively unionised. Smaller workplaces are also less likely to be unionised than large ones. The effect is that trade unionists are less aware of the factories that are currently operating than of the ones that we've lost.

I think "traditional" manufacturing in Stoke lasted a little longer than in Manchester. You can see from the 2001 census for the Stoke council area, over a quarter of workers were employed in manufacturing at that time, higher than the West Midlands as a whole, and far higher than England. The equivalent table for Manchester (the council area, not Greater Manchester) shows just over 10% employed in manufacturing. That's still a lot more than most union activists would guess though...

This might seem a bit obscure, but I think it's important to know what the problem is if you want to tackle it.

I'm not suggesting there are easy answers, but here are few thoughts:
  • A shift in government policy to see manufacturing industry as an essential component of a viable economy.
  • Better employment rights to make it harder for employers to up-sticks and leave.
  • Better unionisation in manufacturing. Despite the stereotype, most manufacturing workers are not currently unionised (actually, the latest stats say only around 23% are in a union - below the average for the whole UK workforce)
  • Stronger unions would open up more possibilities to fight job cuts, rather than just fighting for better redundancy money.
  • Stopping the thin end of the wedge. Most companies cutting jobs to exploit low-paid workers offshore still require production, marketing, sales, distribution etc in the UK. Uniting those immediately affected with the rest must offer the best chance of success.
  • Campaigning for more local production, linking with the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions.

What do you think?

Friday 21 December 2007

The right to strike under threat

The coverage of the recent European Court of Justice rulings on the right to strike is, to say the least, confusing. Presumably the consequences, which I am sure will be far reaching, will become clearer.

To get a flavour, here are reports from the Financial Times, Socialist Worker and the International Transport Workers' Federation.

The case related to an attempt to re-flag a ship to another country and employ a new crew on lower wages.

My initial reading of this is that the ECJ recognised both the "fundamental right" to strike and companies "freedom of establishment" to set up and operate wherever they wanted.

Predictably, the UK government took the side of the employer, alongside some of the governments of low-wage countries, while most other EU countries took the side of the union.

Some commentators are calling this a "balanced" decision, others a fudge. Whatever you call it, the ruling says that union action to defend jobs and conditions by opposing the reflagging is an infringement of the employer's rights, but that this might be justified in some circumstances.

What I think this means is that the fundamental human right of all working people (who aren't slaves) - to refuse to work - is being "balanced" against the free market principles of the EU. Let this be a warning to all trade unionists who think "free trade" treaties that have legal weight are something we can welcome or ignore.

Wednesday 19 December 2007

Capgemini strike ballot over redundancies

IT workers in the PCS union in Capgemini have voted overwhelmingly for a ballot for strike action against massive job cuts on the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) contract.

It may seem strange that PCS, primarily a civil service union, has members in the IT industry, but this is one of the consequences of privatisation and outsourcing in recent years.

UNITE members in Fujitsu, where I work, will be watching developments closely - many of us work on the HMRC contract, where Fujitsu is effectively a subcontractor to Capgemini.

If the government had an ounce of sense, there would not be cuts in IT provision to HMRC just when the department is reeling from the "lost disks" fiasco.

Construction rally - for direct labour and negotiated agreements

I posted earlier about the abuse of agency labour - if you can get to Manchester on Wednesday 2nd January, please join the rally by Amicus construction workers which is partly on this subject.

More details of the rally are available on the union web site.

Electrolux - the official line

The official UNITE-Amicus press release about the closure of the Electrolux Spennymoor plant makes truly depressing reading.

Is negotiating better redundancy terms while our manufacturing industry is decimated really the best the trade union movement can do?

This plant is in Blair's old constituency. It's current losses are less than other plants in other countries - is this plant being shut because it's cheap, easy and quick to fire UK workers?

The government has no meaningful strategy to protect and develop industry and jobs because it is tied to "neo-liberal" free-market dogma which means the strategy is to have no strategy. Billions of our money are being thrown at Northern Rock - not to protect jobs and housing of working people, but to prop up shaky financial markets which gambled and lost. Even the word "nationalisation" is back in the news - but to prop up profit, not to put people before profit.

Highs & Lows - Pensions & Agency Working

It's fantastic news that the government has finally agreed to compensate the 120,000+ workers who lost out in their pensions when their firms went bust. There is absolutely no doubt that this wouldn't have happened without persistent campaigning.

It's always infuriating to hear people say "there's no point of being in a union". I've lost count of the number of individual cases I've dealt with where members have gained more from their membership over one issue than a lifetime of subs. It's always good to be able to point to collective issues in the workplace where the union delivers gains on a similar scale. This is such a big union win that it even made the national headlines. We can never be good enough at trumpeting our successes.

Meanwhile, when it comes to agency and temporary workers, the UK government is still putting its commitment to free market dogma and sucking up to big business ahead of justice and the needs of working people. The UK government continues to block the proposed EU Agency Workers Directive which would give agency workers rights as employees. I find it particularly sick that agency workers are left open to exploitation with fewer legal rights and often lower pay, while the government still refuses to repeal the Tory anti-union laws that outlaw solidarity action between direct employees and their agency colleagues.

Andrew Miller MP has put forward a private member's bill on the subject, which should at least make sure it gets debated in parliament.

We must keep the pressure up!

Friday 14 December 2007

Electrolux - another blow to manufacturing

As feared, this morning Electrolux issued a press release announcing the closure of its Spennymoor plant, which currently has about 500 staff.

It's telling that Electrolux put this UK plant under review, but didn't do the same to plants which were suffering greater losses in northern Europe. Could this be because of it's so much cheaper and easier and sack people here?

What an indictment for the neoliberal free-market madness pursued by Blair & Brown. The Spennymoor plant is in Blair's old constituency.

Sunday 2 December 2007

Remploy shame

Anyone who has been to a union conference this year will probably have heard trade unionists employed by Remploy speaking out against the threat to close many of their plants.

Ministers made a lot of encouraging noises, but it's now clear that these were no more than attempts to kick the issue into touch until after the conference season.

28 factories are now to close and thousands of jobs for people with disabilities will go with them.

Work & Pensions Secretary Peter Hain is still trying to dress this up as good news:

The proposals will man many more disabled people supported in mainstream employment, fewer factory closures than previously planned and steady improvements in value for money.
All the unions representing members in Remploy continue to oppose the closures. The unions believe that if the current senior (mis-)management of Remploy got the boot, the business could be expanded rather than shrinking.

Strikers get better off

Yesterday's Morning Star included a short report headed "UNISON wins High Court test case". The case (Cooper v Isle of Wight College) related to how much pay an employer can dock for strike action.

According the report, the ruling means employers will have to exclude annual leave and bank holidays when calculating how much pay to deduct for strike action. I've had a quick dig around on the web and can't find any mention of this on the UNISON web site, or anywhere else. Anyone got any more detail?