Sunday, 1 February 2009

Waterford factory occupation

The question of how to stop job losses is the big one for trade unionists at the moment.

In the USA, workers at Republic Windows & Doors occupied their factory and got so much support that Obama spoke out in their support. This in turn led to the bank offering credit to their employers. The factory is still open.

UNITE members at Waterford Crystal in Ireland are now trying the same approach, and are entering their third day in occupation. It has certainly got a lot of media coverage, though it's hard to get much of a picture of what's going on. The AFP report and the Irish Independent give some background while the Indymedia reports give some snippets with various updates.

What is clear is that by occupying, the workers have put the question of the plants future at the centre of national debate, rather than just being the latest grim statistics on the news.

We can only hope that they get all the support they need to save the factory.

Construction strikes, defending jobs, nationalism

The wave of unofficial strikes by construction workers has sparked widespread debate. The strikes represent the first really major eruption of militant action against job losses in the UK since the recession began. But the central slogan of the dispute - "British Jobs for British Workers" is one that can only lead to division and disaster for working people.

Slogans like "United We Stand, Divided We Fall" have survived many decades because they encapsulate a fundamental truth. To win against employers (and the governments who back them) we have to unite working people regardless of race, nationality etc. This isn't always easy, but it always has to be our aim. A campaign that runs in the opposite direction may seem an easier way to get support in the short term, but we will pay a terrible price if we allow such divisions to take root.

The very fact that the Tory press and the BNP are all over this dispute should set the alarm bells ringing. Since when are they pro-trade-union? Since when do they support unofficial action? Since when do they oppose the anti-union laws? These anti-union forces are sympathetic to the dispute precisely because they want the anger workers feel over job losses to be directed against other workers, dividing us and protecting the rich and powerful.

It is the responsibility of all decent trade unionists to encourage a serious fight-back over the effects of the recession, and to fight tooth and nail against any effort to direct anger against the wrong targets. It is clear that slogans like "British Jobs for British Workers" used by Gordon Brown and, regrettably, some in the trade union movement, have opened the door to this. We have to learn from what has happened and stamp out such slogans from the labour movement.

The issues underlying the dispute are real and serious and need to be tackled.

Construction workers move around the country and the world, following the big projects. This is why they have the sort of networks that have allowed the action to spread so quickly. Big construction projects are organised through chains of subcontracting companies, many of them huge corporations making hefty profits.

The issue in dispute isn't primarily the ability of individual workers to move from country to country in search of work. It is about the ability of subcontracting companies to operate across borders and the rules which govern them.

The neo-liberal free-marketeers want to drive down pay and conditions through what they called the "country of origin principle". This is the idea that a worker or company should be governed by the law of the country they are from, rather than the country they are operating in. This would accelerate the "race to the bottom" in employment law and in pay and conditions. It would in practice mean little or no regulation - who would be enforcing Polish employment law in the UK, for example? The neo-liberals tried to get the country of origin principle enshrined into EU law through the Services Directive, popularly known as the Bolkestein Directive after its Dutch proponent (a former head of Shell). Unions and the left managed to defeat this (you can read the bulletin from my own workplace at the time here).

As usual, the bosses didn't just give up. They used the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to get a series of rulings in the Laval, Viking and Ruffert cases which meant that the right of a company to trade freely across borders was placed ahead of workers rights. This not only helped bring back the country of origin principle, but even worse, suggested that any industrial action which sought to impose higher labour standards from the host country might be illegal even if the workers had complied with all the anti-union laws. UNITE regards these ECJ cases as a more serious threat to workers' rights than all the Tory anti-union laws which New Labour has left on the statute book, and has set up a web site to campaign against them: And if anyone is thinking these cases only affect workers in construction - think again.

At the Staythorpe power station site, the subcontracting company publicly stated they would not employ any UK workers. They claim they pay the normal UK pay rates, but nobody involved in the campaign seems to believe this. The subcontractors have undercut UK firms by a very large margin, and people can't see how that would be possible when you add on travel and accommodation costs. The widespread belief is that the companies are paying much lower wages and are avoiding having any UK workers so that there is no "comparator" for a race discrimination claim for the low wages being given to the migrant workers. UNITE is looking into whether a policy of banning recruits of one nationality is discriminatory in itself - it certainly sounds it.

The practice of the subcontractor company bringing all its labour from overseas is spreading, and workers in the industry see it as a systematic attempt to smash union agreements and slash pay and conditions. Many big construction sites (refineries, power stations) are on the coast and companies are keeping migrant workers in accommodation barges (prison ships?) moored offshore, completely segregated from the community and local workers. This is a recipe for stoking up conflict.

On the news tonight, I heard reports that government minister Alan Johnson is now saying that "if" European law is harming UK workers, it should be changed. This is progress, but it is also rank hypocrisy. These awful laws are not something the EU has imposed on the UK - the "New Labour" UK government lobbied hard in favour of the ECJ rulings, just as they lobbied hard against tightening up the Working Time Directive, improving Works Councils etc. The UK government has been the champion of the free-market and deregulation in Europe - it sent Mandelson to the EU to ram this message home.

What recent events show is that militant mass action can achieve more in a few days than months or years of patient "lobbying".

I hope the strikes result in improvements in workers' rights and the overturning of the ECJ rulings. Contrary what the Liberal Democrats have been saying, this doesn't mean abandoning EU employment law, it means giving it priority over the rights of companies to make bigger profits regardless of the social consequences.

Just as importantly, I hope that union activists learn from this the dangers of giving an inch to nationalism in our campaigns. UNITE proudly claims that "internationalism" is one of the three pillars of its strategy, along with "organising" and its "political" strategy. Internationalism has to mean more than the very important solidarity work we do with workers in other countries. It has to mean a deep commitment to unity between workers in the UK, regardless of their origins. That can be the only sound basis for an effective fight to save jobs or over any other issue.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

UNITE Executive Council, 28-30 January 2009

N.B.This is not an official Unite Report; it is based on my notes of the EC meeting. I believe it to be a fair account of some of the key decisions taken (rather than my views about them), and I will willingly correct any errors upon receipt of official notification from Unite.

This report is far from exhaustive – many more issues were debated and decisions taken over the three days.

Ian Allinson
UNITE EC member, Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT sector

The economic crisis ripping through members’ lives set the context for this Executive meeting.
1. At the November meeting, the council had heard a report about the poor support from MPs for the amendments to the Employment Bill which corresponded to elements from the Trade Union Freedom Bill. A council member had proposed that we write to the UNITE MPs who had not voted for them to ask why. Both Joint General Secretaries (JGS) had supported the idea and nobody had spoken against. Like many other uncontentious matters before the council, it was not put to a vote, but the council member and many of the rest of us believed it had been agreed. At this meeting, he queried why it wasn’t minuted and whether it had been actioned. Charlie Whelan said he didn’t think it had been agreed. This time is was agreed (with a specific request to be minuted) that a letter would go to the MPs expressing our disappointment and pushing the Early Day Motions which are now coming up.
2. In spring 2008 the Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT (EEE&IT) sector had asked UNITE to pledge funding for a research project into the cancer risks from the semiconductor and computer manufacturing industries, subject to this being matched by a number of employers. This had been referred to the Finance & General Purposes (F&GP) committee but no recommendation had yet been made, despite me raising this at every subsequent EC meeting. The EC agreed the funding.
3. The TUC, along with other organisations, has called a major demonstration in London on 28th March, just before the G20 meets in the UK to take key decisions on the response to the economic crisis. The summit will be the occasion for Obama’s first visit to the UK, and will attract massive media interest. The EC agreed that this would be a major mobilisation for the union, with transport etc. I think this is a key event which can be a focus for all our campaigning against job losses etc.
4. A campaign has been building up around the construction work at the Staythorpe power station in the East Midlands. The contractor has openly declared that it will not employ any UK labour, despite there being many unemployed workers with the necessary skills in the local area. It is clear that a number of construction companies are seeking to undermine pay, conditions and agreements in the industry through similar tactics. Many major construction sites (oil refineries, power stations) are on the coast, and contractors are now bringing in accommodation barges so that the workforce do not have contact with the local community. This is hitting the local economy, as well as stoking up hostility. Despite their protestations to the contrary, it seems impossible that the contractors could be paying the proper wages, plus travel and accommodation, and still under-cutting local companies by a huge degree. The union is exploring legal challenges to the contractors as well as seeking to exert political and industrial pressure. It was agreed to organise a major lobby at Westminster to demand government action. The BNP are trying to divert the struggle to focus anger against the exploited migrant workers, rather than the profiteering construction companies. During the EC meeting, an unofficial strike wave erupted from Humberside on the same issue and spread to various areas of the country. The anti-union laws are there to prevent the union backing such action. There is serious concern about the nationalist / racist element of the dispute.
5. The EC agreed to counter the attack on UNITE by the Times newspaper, which was using attacks on the JGSes to attack the trade union movement as a whole. The EC was concerned that the scale of the attack implied that it had been decided on high up in the Murdoch empire and that more would follow. The Tory press want to have a say in the internal affairs of our union, such as the current JGS election in the Amicus section. The EC was assured by the JGSes that the authority to deal with such attacks would not be used against our own members or staff.
6. The EC was informed that one candidate in the JGS election had included untrue statements about another candidate in their election address, that they been given the opportunity to correct them and that though they had made some changes, this had not resolved the problem. The EC was advised that legally the election address cannot be changed without the permission of the candidate, but that a separate statement can be included to correct any untrue points. The EC agreed to do this.
7. The union continues to press the government for more intervention to protect jobs. Some assistance has been promised, but it is not up to the scale of the problems.
8. The pensions dispute at Ineos which led to the Grangemouth refinery dispute has finally been settled. A report on the deal was circulated, and it looks like a real success, keeping open the final salary scheme for new starters.
9. There was a debate about how the organising and 100% campaigns can help strengthen the union’s ability to fight against job losses and offset the membership losses that are likely as unemployment rises.
10. The Irish government is saying that to re-run its referendum on the Lisbon treaty, it requires the inclusion of a social protocol. Disgracefully, the UK government is lobbying against this.
11. The demonstrations across Europe around the Working Time Directive have been put back to May. UNITE will mobilise for the one in Brussels.
12. The union can run “Globalisation Schools” for particular companies. This can be requested via Michelle Gracio.
13. It was agreed that in recognition of the fact that two of the UNITE regions cover two Labour Party regions rather than one, “London and Eastern” and “Yorkshire and North East” would have 6 seats on the National Political Committee instead of 4.
14. It was agreed that the “IT and Communications” sector will not include the Communication Managers Association (CMA), which would go into the “General, Clerical and Administrative” sector, which would be renamed APMS (“Administrative, Professional, Managerial”, I think). A document suggesting closer working between IT & Communications and Graphical, Paper and Media (GPM) sectors on areas of common interest was circulated for information.
15. A set of documents about the new lay member structures were agreed after an extensive debate. (Regional Industrial Committees & Area Activists Committees, Principles for Equalities Guidance, Timeline, Rule 9 Young Members, Rule 10 Retired Members). The EC was assured that the allocation of members to sectors was now complete for the Amicus section and “tantalisingly close” in the TGWU section. National Officers and Regional Secretaries were being briefed on 30th January. During February they are to draw up plans for each sector/region in direct consultation with Regional Councils, Regional Committees, EC members and chairs of National Sector Committees and Trade Groups, with as wide an involvement of activists as possible. These plans will come back to the March EC for approval.
16. The EC approved a Statement on the Situation in Gaza. It’s worth reading to the end, because it includes some useful action points:

Unite’s EC deplores the fact that since Israel’s military offensive in Gaza began on December 24th 2008, over nine hundred Palestinians have been killed of whom 292 are children (UN OCHA Report 12/01/2009). The Government of Israel has ignored the UN Security Council Resolution 1860 (2009) which “calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected ceasefire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.”
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, the United Nations most senior human rights official, has stated that the Israeli military may have committed war crimes in Gaza. The United Nations Human Rights Council (12/01/2009) Resolution on The Grave Violations of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks against the occupied Gaza Strip, calls for an immediate ceasefire and condemns the “massive violations of Human Rights of the Palestinian people and the systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure”. The UN Resolution also demands the immediate withdrawal of Israel’s military forces from the Gaza.
The EC is further appalled that Israel’s blockade of Gaza has now continued for over eighteen months preventing vital supplies, including food and medicine, from reaching the people of Gaza.
The Israeli Government has acted in contravention of the IV Geneva Convention by imposing collective punishment on the people of Gaza. The World Health Organisation and other aid agencies have warned of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and have called for an immediate ceasefire. Furthermore the International Committee of the Red Cross has accused Israel of failing to honour its obligation under international law to treat and evacuate injured civilians in Gaza. The situation has led Amnesty International to call for an immediate humanitarian truce.
The Unite EC therefore resolves:
To demand an end to Israel’s military attacks and immediate withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and for Israel to lift its siege of Gaza.
To demand a halt to the bombardment of Israeli targets by missiles fired from Gaza by Hamas.
To demand that the British government unequivocally condemns the Israeli military aggression.
To demand the British government ends arms sales to Israel noting the sale of more than £18.8 million worth of British arms to Israel in 2008, up from £7.5 million on 2007.
To call for the immediate suspension of the EU-Israel Agreement providing preferential trade facilities to Israel.
To support the demonstrations against Israel’s attack on Gaza, and to encourage our members to attend.
To encourage our members to boycott goods, and especially agricultural produce, produced in the illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.
To investigate Unite’s holdings in companies engaged in building the Wall declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and to divest from them.
To encourage branches to affiliate to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition.
To encourage donations to the TUC Gaza Appeal and other relevant initiatives such as Medical Aid for Palestinians and to agree a donation of £5000 to the TUC appeal.
To agree to make a donation to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to further the objectives of the campaign on Gaza of £1000.

17. The proposal from the EE&IT national officer to contribute to and participate in an IPPR study on “green jobs” will be discussed at the February F&GP.
18. The pay deal for union officers and staff was approved.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

"BBC - Shame on You" - Gaza Appeal

Yesterday I joined the protest outside the BBC in Manchester about their outrageous decision to ban the appeal from the Disaster Emergency Committee for aid for the Gaza crisis.

Extending "impartiality" to being impartial between life and death is a step too far. As Tony Benn pointed out, people will die as a result of this decision.

Benn has been magnificent on this issue, even managing to make the appeal on BBC news when they were trying to interview him about banning it. The clip is below: