Bristol Politics, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes, Uncategorized

Why we need unions! #HeartUnions

Alice Right to Strike

We are often told that unions have become irrelevant to modern society, or worse that they are in some way negative.

No institution is perfect, but trade unions do amazing work standing up for their members in the workplace and increasingly in the community (see for example the role unions played locally in helping block the environmentally and medically damaging biomass facility in Avonmouth).  Many of us are given negative perceptions of trade unions because of how they are portrayed in the press (usually only ever mentioned if they’ve been forced into industrial action and then only described as militants needlessly causing trouble) and the legacy of the 1970s.

People who are against unions often argue that in the past ‘over mighty union barons’ ‘held the country to ransom’ and would strike ‘at the drop of a hat’. There may be some small germs of truth in this, but this is a gross exaggeration and is in part the result of attempts to undermine the legitimacy of unions and collective action.  Even if this had been the case the situation in modern Britain is so far removed it makes such comparison meaningless.

Today union membership is at a historic low (though it has moderately increased in recent years), as is the power and influence of unions in our society.  They’re even marginalised in the Labour party these days (though this could change under Corbyn).  We already have some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the ‘democratic’ world which are about to get even more restrictive with the governments draconian new strike legislation, making union action very difficult.  Furthermore, no worker ever takes the decision to strike and lose pay lightly (especially with the financial hardship of recent years), and with unions so comparatively weak and increasingly defensive the situation has to be pretty bad before they feel forced to resort to striking.

The decline of union power seen in terms of membership and coverage of collective bargaining agreements

This has been the nature of the industrial action I have been involved in as a steward and branch officer for my hospital’s branch of UNISON.  Continued pay freezes and rises below inflation have seen the value of NHS pay fall by between 10-16% since 2008.  At the same time Government policies – like cuts to community care and other public services – have led to a huge increase in hospital usage (by 10% between 2013 and 2014 alone), whilst we have lost 35,000 staff (and 10,000 beds) since 2010.  Those of us who are left are doing more work, for less money, whilst our pensions are attacked (we pay more in each year, for more years, and get less out at the end) in a health service with an increasingly insecure looking future.

Yet it still took until the winter of 2014 for our unions to decide enough is enough and resort to nationwide strike action.  Even then it was only two 4 hour strikes over two months (and the threat of further action), as they wanted to minimize the impact on patients and were scared of being portrayed as too militant in the press.  A far cry from the irresponsible militant image peddled by the Government and mainstream media.

My above example also highlights the pivotal role unions still continue to play in protecting the interests and wages of their members at work.  By actively asserting the rights of employees to the fruits of their own labour they can act to restrain excessive pay at the top.  Stronger unions advancing the interests of their members provided a strong check on the growth of inequality (which has exploded since the 1980s).  In the 1970s the richest 1% in the UK owned around 5% of all wealth.  Today the richest 1% own more than 15% of all of the wealth in Britain.


The decline of union power was just one of many factors that have seen Britain experience the fastest growth in inequality of any OECD country.  But we should not ignore the important role unions can and do play in the fight against inequality.  Rebuilding the union movement expanding into the precarious industries like social care, temping agencies call centers etc, and giving it the confidence to fight, could go a long way checking the insecurity and low wages so emblematic of work in modern Britain.  It’s doing it that’s the hard thing.

Screenshot (8)

As the number of workers covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by unions has fallen – the pale blue line) income inequality has increased exponentially

That’s why we need to ensure all of us active in political and social movements not only join but also get active in unions in our workplaces.  And if there isn’t one, try and set one up (a hard task alone but local unions and trades councils and unions already organising in that industry elsewhere will be only too happy to help you).  We also need to encourage as many of our coworkers, friends and people we know in general to do likewise.

Unions have always had a larger social role beyond the ‘bread and butter’ issues of jobs and wages. Time and time again their financial and organisational support has been essential for the success of campaigns from the fight to win the vote for men and women to the anti-war and the now the anti-asuterity movement. Increasingly through initiatives like the Campaign Against Climate Change and A Million Climate Jobs Now unions are getting involved in the central challenge of our time; the fight to stop global warming and the destruction of the habitability of our planet.

As individuals we are almost powerless to overcome the status quo and effect change in our society.  But collectively we are strong.  Unions allow us to come together to stand up for ourselves and provide an organisational structure for that collective strength. For all these reasons and more, we need unions and we have to work together to defend them, especially in light of the government’s most recent attack.

Next week the TUC will be launching its #HeartUnions campaign to highlight the amazing work trade unions do in our society.
There’s a fair bit going on in Bristol.  The Trades Council has a list of some of this activity.  If you can, make sure you get involved:

love unions week

Bristol Politics, Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

Social Murder, Health and Safety, and Trade Unions

Early photograph of the last mass Chartist meeting of 150,000 at Kennington Common to deliver their final petition, allegedly signed by 6 million, 1848

Early photograph of the last mass Chartist meeting of 150,000 at Kennington Common to deliver their final petition, allegedly signed by 6 million, 1848

The Chartists were the first mass working class movement in the world. They had local groups across the country; organised petitions signed by millions, and held mass demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands in a time with much more limited communication networks and in an extremely repressive atmosphere.

Their strength came from the general revulsion at the extremely pronounced levels of injustice and exploitation inherent in the early factory system. The average working day was in excess of 12 hours, often in cramped workshops with few breaks and no health and safety standards. The employment of children was widespread. This practice came under increasing criticism from the 1780s but it wasn’t until 1833 that effectively enforced legislation was brought in to regulate child labour.

Boys working in a textiles mill

Boys working in a textiles mill

The 1833 act only outlawed children under the age of 9 (except in the silk industry) from working, and limited them to working 8 hours a day till they were 14 (and then 12 hours till they were 18). Workers received abject poverty pay, had no weekends or holidays, no maternity leave or sick pay or any real rights at all.  After a long day they returned home to squalid slum housing to subsist off of terrible diet of the cheapest food. As in the less wealthy countries of the world today (where the majority of our cheap mass manufactured goods are produced) rates of accidents, injuries and mortality were appallingly high.

The Chartists termed the tens of thousands killed and maimed in the all-pervasive industrial accidents of their era ‘Social Murder’. These were the thousands unnecessarily killed each year by a society structured to pursue profit no matter the human (or environmental) cost. Thankfully, due largely to the efforts of past generations organising in their workplaces, communities and in political parties, we now work in far safer and more humane working environments.

But even today in the UK around 1,500 people die in largely avoidable accidents in the workplace. A further 50,000 die prematurely every year as a result of long term I’ll health acquired at work. Many more are seriously injured. In my branch of UNISON (representing around 1,500 people) sadly in this last year alone one of our members has been left permanently disabled and another with serious long term health issues.

According to our Health and Safety officer Mark, both of these incidents were caused by actions worse than negligent on the part of management.  The drive to cut costs by minimising legislation and cutting corners, that can leave workers seriously disabled or worse, makes this kind of behaviour increasing likely in the UK today.

Rates of industrial accidents have been gradually rising over the last few years as both Health and Safety regulation and the budget of the agency enforcing them have been cut by the Coalitions.  For years now right wing comics and TV personalities – like Clarkson – have demonized health and safety and turned it into a joke. This works in much the same way that media demonization campaigns have paved the way for cuts to the wider welfare state in general. The way health and safety discourses are conducted – couched in the terms of the names and dates of the legislative framework that created it – can be tedious. But it is an extremely important part of workplace safety and the rights that the labour movement has won us over generations of struggle.

Whilst sectors of the media denigrate health and safety legislation, and the coalition government carries out savage cut, employers are going on the offensive. Bristol made national news when revelation of the extensive use of a black list of health and safety stewards and activists by leading Bristol construction companies came to light. To maximise profits by undercutting health and safety standards at least 3,214 health and safety activists (ordinary people concerned about their welfare at work) were victimized and had their ability to work and provide themselves with a living severely curtailed.  The list most famously was in use on the construction of Cabot Circus.

We don’t have to look to the past to see how the all-consuming drive to profit inherent in our economic system, when not tapered by strong unions and health and safety legislation, leads to misery. Our contemporary world is full of depressing evidence. The working conditions in the parts of the world where most of the Wests cheap manufactured goods are produced are atrocious. Rates of injury and death are shockingly high and reminiscent of our early industrial past. Often adults and children work side by side in appalling conditions.

We don’t like to think about this blood involved in the production of our cheap consumables.  Occasionally workplace conditions are so despicable an ‘accident’ of such awful magnitude happens and pierces the veil of silence carefully constructed around it.   As in 2013 when over 1100 people were killed and a further 2500 injured in Rana Plaza Bangladesh when a sweatshop producing goods for a consortium of western companies collapsed. Just before this disaster the building had been deemed safe twice by inspectors working on behalf of Primark.

Rana Plaza just after its collapse in 2013

Rana Plaza just after its collapse in 2013

We may not like to think about these extreme levels of exploitation and death inherent in the international trade system; but the role of western multinationals in setting up this very system to supply our domestic consumption patterns is central and makes us all partly responsible. Rana Plaza is a case in point. In the wakes of the disaster the International Trade Union movement created and signed an accord on minimum safety standards in the garment industries of Bangladesh and Cambodia.

So far only three American owned factories have signed up. We see the violence inherent in the system flare up as Western Corporation repressively extract resources all across the global south. Indigenous leaders are murdered as they try to protect their lands from invasive oil drilling. Workers striking for better wages and conditions are brutalised by police and private guards. The Marikmana massacre of late 2012 is the most vivid and bloody example.  38 strikers were killed and at least 78 more were wounded when security and police representing the London based Lonmin mining corporation opened fire on them. The revelation that most of them where shot in the back whilst fleeing make it all the more horrifying.


Armed police with the miners they’ve just killed

If we want to change this horrifying state of affairs, changing the way we interact with our economic system to become more ethical consumers is a step in the right direction. But small scale individual change is never enough. We need to organize in our communities, workplaces and political parties to protect our health and safety and our living conditions; and we need to push these organizations to restructure the economic system that causes so much global misery.

Unions are especially relevant in this struggle for the role they play in protecting conditions at work; their role in the international labour movements attempt to improve conditions in the global south; and their involvement in community campaign to protect health and the environment. This last point can be illustrated locally by the part played by unions (including UNISON I’m happy to say) in supporting Avonmouth residents successful campaign to stop the building of a biomass energy plant. Large scale Biomass energy production accelerates deforestation and climate change, and emits toxic dust clouds that seriously impact health and can cause cancer.

Finally, to commemorate the victims of industrial ‘accidents’ around the world every year we celebrate International Workers memorial day. This year on the 28th of April we’ll be marking the occasion with a march from unite the union’s Tony Ben house (setting off at 12:30 pm) to a wreath laying in Castle Park, and a talk in the evening. The message is remember the dead and fight for the living. Come along, join and get active in a union, and make sure you use your vote this May (there’s less than a week left to register).

Flyer for the Bristol hazards group International Memorial Day talk

Flyer for the Bristol hazards group International Memorial Day talk

Trade Unions and Industrial Disputes

The Firefighters’ Pension Dispute

On the 9th of December Firefighters in Bristol and across England – but crucially not the rest of the UK – were once again forced to take strike action in their long running dispute with the government over pensions. In all other parts of our semi-federal UK devolved governments had managed to come up with proposals or enter into genuine negotiations that had averted the need for strike action. Only our government in Westminster with its ideological commitment to austerity continued intransigently. Remember that when you hear government spokesmen like fire minister Penny Mordaunt decrying the selfishness of the union taking ‘unnecessary’ and ‘irresponsible’ strike action. That’s right, it was unnecessary across the rest of our country as governments were prepared to listen to the concerns of the unions and meet them in meaningful negotiations. Not in England. Not with the Coalition in power. They irresponsibly plough on with their reforms unnecessarily jeopardizing services and lives.

As Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary has said: “Firefighters in England are reluctantly calling further strike action as a direct result of the Westminster government’s failure to listen and negotiate over pensions’. No worker wants to go on strike, and lose a considerable portion of that months’ pay packet – especially in these grim days of austerity and with Christmas just around the corner. For those of us that provide essential public services, there are moral issues involved in withdrawing our labour and potentially adversely affecting the lives of people who depend on us. It takes a lot of deliberation. It is only the hostility of our government to negotiations (and victimisation of union organises like Ricky Matthews), and the unfair and dangerous nature of their reforms that has forced the Firefighters back to the picket lines once more.

This was the Firefighter’s 48th period of industrial action since the dispute started over three long years ago. We went down to the picket to give out some Solidari-Tea and coffee and show our support. Despite the cold, the long running nature of the dispute and the seeming intractability of our government; spirits were high and there seemed a genuine desire and commitment to fight on against these unfair and dangerous pension ‘reform’ plans. Their local employer joined them in walking out, illustrative of just how wide a consensus there is against these pension reforms. The changes to firefighter pensions are of the same nature as the changes to pensions across the public sector. Pay more each year, work longer, and receive less at the end; all in order to pay off some of the debt incurred in bailing out the banks when their reckless gambling in deregulated financial markets exploded in their collective faces. How firefighers, teachers or NHS staff like me can possibly bare any responsibility for the errors and misdeeds of the deregulated financial sector is beyond me, or any sensible person; but it hasn’t stopped the government from making us pay.

The reform of the firefighter’s pension is probably the most unsafe and least fair. I question the ability of staff in most public services to continue working till they’re 60. For example, I can’t imagine many primary school teachers being able to so easily connect with and relate to their students as they start pushing 60. However, to expect 60 year olds to run into burning buildings is criminal; even more so when you consider that the government’s own research indicates that at least 2/3rds of firefighters won’t be able to pass mandatory fitness tests as a natural result of aging. This leaves many facing the stark possibility of losing their job and/or taking a massively reduced pension. Not only is this extremely unfair, and bad for firefighters health; but it also puts the public at risk by forcing it to rely on aged and less fit firefighters to save their lives. It takes no stretch of the imagination to see the future likelihood of aged firemen succumbing to a cardiac arrest as they carry someone from the flames.

Of course the government doesn’t care about any of this. All they care about cutting public expenditure by any means (well any means that doesn’t cause discomfort to their friends in the elite) and pressing ahead with self-defeating austerity. Firefighters save people, not banks; perhaps that’s why the government seems so bent on attacking their working terms and conditions. As in almost everything they do, once again we see the coalition forcing the cost of the economic crisis onto those that did the least to cause it. When given the chance to exercise our right to vote in May we need to remember this, we have to get this government out of office; and we have to elect representatives prepared to stand up against austerity and press for an alternative. This alone will not be enough. Both Labour and the Conservatives (the only parties able to form a government in our broken first past the post system) support austerity, and electing a few Green (or even TUSC, Left Unity or Respect) MPs committed to opposing it won’t change their minds. If we want to end austerity and protect our public services and communities we need to come together and exert enough pressure to make them listen to us. Electoral politics is a part of this struggle, but it will only be successive if supported by extra-parliamentary pressure. In the meantime I send my full solidarity to our heroic firefighters; and hope by some miracle the government can be made to see sense. They risk their lives on a daily basis to protect us. We need to come together and support them. Their struggle is our struggle.