Friday, December 19, 2008

Job Losses: Can The Unions Defend Their Members?

Contrary to some opinion amongst the trade union bureacracy, workers join unions not for plastic key fobs and will-writing services, but to defend and improve their jobs. With economic crisis biting and jobs being lost by the shedload, the unions' ability to deliver this most basic of their functions is being put to the test.

And while the unions could and should put up an effective fight to protect workers from the effects of the crisis, the sad truth is that many union leaders are failing this test in quite spectacular fashion.

Faced with the collapse of Woolworths and the loss of 30,000 jobs, USDAW can do nothing more than be appalled, plead with the government to ask JobCentres to help Woolies workers get new jobs, and give us the dates when the stores will close. There is no hint of any effort to stop the job losses, not even a flicker of a fight from a union that to all intents and purposes gave up before such a fight event started.

Could USDAW not even bring itself to suggest to the government that it might take Woolworths into public ownership?! After all, Gordon Brown found £500b to bail out the banks and Woolies is on sale for a quid. Could it not have mobilised workers, their families, and the potentially massive public support? A big march? Local protests? Sit-ins of stores? Dare I say it - industrial action?! Oh no - just sadness at the demise of the shops and their members' jobs.

That sadness - at Woolworths and MFI going into the hands of the administrators - came two days after USDAW had issued one of its frequent press releases in praise of the New Labour government, lauding the pre-Budget statement and claiming that it would relieve the financial pressures that its members were feeling. USDAW's leaders have long been the most obsequious creeps to Blair/Brown amongst the trade union movement (which is quite an achievement) and one of the least effective industrially, two things which are most definitely linked!

So it was pleasing, but not surprising, that there was a hefty vote for a lefty against the sitting USDAW General Secretary in September. Said lefty - Socialist Party member Robbie Segal - is now standing for the Executive and for President, and must stand a decent chance of being elected: although if she is, we can be confident that the bureaucracy will minimise her power and influence on the union. I should also note that Robbie was not too impressive when she was on Newsnight the other night, although at least she was there and speaking up for workers and criticising the government, unlike the union's leaders.

Anyway, I digress. Lest anyone think that USDAW's leaders are the only ones failing to give their members the lead that they need and deserve, the GMB's Paul Kenny has thrown his hat into the ring. Despite his reputation for being on the left of the union movement, of being part of the 'awkward squad', Brother Kenny has called for workers to take pay cuts in order to prevent job losses, and his GMB union has already persuaded members to do this in at least three companies.

Kenny claims that "It is difficult for union officials to stand up in front of members and recommend that they should lose pay. It is much easier just to say 'No, no, no' to employers." Sadly, it seems that many union officials do not find it difficult to recommend that workers lose pay, nor do they find it easier to say 'No, no, no' to employers. In reality, most union officials seem to find these things completely the other way round (except that they might find the 'standing up in front of members' bit hard, and prefer to accept pay cuts behind closed doors). Mind you, since the economic crisis clearly threatens the financial health of unions too, can we assume that Brother Kenny and other union leaders will be offering up their pay to be cut?

Kenny's grasp of history is also poor. In the slump that started in 1920, union leaders such as Jimmy Thomas and Ernest Bevin accepted pay cuts for their members in order to save jobs. Guess what happened next? They got job cuts too.

A dishonourable mention, too, for Unite's Tony Woodley who, while making the case for a car industry bail-out on the telly yesterday, indulged himself in a little special pleading. He suggested that it was OK for the government to let the likes of Woolworths go to the wall, as other shops will pick up their trade and create jobs which the ex-Woolies workers can get. Redundant car workers, on the other hand, will remain redundant car workers, and therefore their employers deserve the bail-out that high street stores do not. Actually, not only is that special pleading of a quite nauseating nature, it is also wilfully ignorant illusion-mongering to assume that if a Tesco store sells a few more rolls of Sellotape on the back of the local Woolworths closing down, it will necessarily create new jobs.

Our urgent priority now must be to demand that the unions fight the job cuts not by sacrificing workers' pay or rights but by waging an effective battle. And if the leaders fail, the rank and file must take up the challenge, for example by occupying shops and factories under threat of closure and demanding they be taken into public ownership and run democratically. In the absence of such a fight, no amount of petitions or proclamations will do the job.

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