Thursday, 17 May 2012

The myths surrounding industrial action and public opinion

 Here are some points about "union power" and "winter of discontent" that seldom get made:

* Unions that are "too powerful" would never need to strike.  A period of lots of strikes is an indication of workers having hard times.  The media prefer to describe "union militancy".

* The media succeeded in convincing the public that unions were "too powerful" and so needed to be curbed.  Millions of people still believe this.  It was never true.  It was true that the public were fed up with the inconvenience of strikes and wanted something to be done. This was ruthlessly exploited by the Right, and continues to be milked for all it's worth to this day.

* Yes, there were masses and masses of strikes in 1979. They were very much a symptom of the economic crises of the times.  They were never the cause!  The media very cleverly painted unions as the "british disease" - the cause of economic woes.   At that time, politicians wrongly believed that collective bargaining caused inflation. Now "wage inflation" is never mentioned and is discredited by economists.  Unions in 1979 did not cause hyper-inflation or stagflation, but did respond to those desperate economic circumstances to protect people.

* The strikes were the fault of the then Labour government.  Labour put in a pay increase cap of 5% at a time when inflation was wild and out of control, sometimes as high as 29%    So yes, one group of grave diggers in one city went on strike - something that makes people feel sick. But what were they to do?  Many were struggling to feed their children.  It was Labour's incomes policy - and that alone, that caused the strikes - strikes that usually featured workers who had never taken action before.  Labour's incomes policy was a well intentioned attempt to get inflation down, but it was so unrealistic it made tens of thousands of people feel compelled to go and stand at the gates of their workplace.   Despite the reported chaos, of 14.5 million union members in 1979, more than 13 million of them took no industrial action that year whatsoever.

* It was astute and ideological of the Tories to blame the Unions.  They knew the mess - and it was a mess -
was Labour's fault. Labour had no political option but to also blame the unions.   Yes there were too many strikes.  But mostly it was weak workers whose pay was getting hammered that took a stand.   Cheered on by a poorly informed, massively manipulated public, workers rights and unions were systematically hammered by successive Tory governments.

* New Labour decided it was pointless trying to convince the public they were wrong about unions. The public had made up it's mind, so go with the script and keep all the anti-union laws.  That way less chance of negative headlines in the Tory press.

* The effects of all the Tory laws are trumpeted by the media as a triumph.  Strike action is massively reduced.  What doesn't get mentioned is that the graph above is very similar in other countries, eg Ireland, despite the fact that union laws remain largely unchanged in those countries.  In other words, the number of strikes was always going to reduce massively as the economic outlook improved.

The main effect of the Tory laws has not been to reduce conflict.  What is has done is massively reduce people's ability to resist profound cuts in occupational pensions, sickness pay, job security and many other important things.  Exploitation is rife again across the private sector. Insecure work is becoming the norm, placing huge strain upon family life.  UK union laws are so bad they breach our minimum treaty obligations under the ILO - just another fact that doesn't get printed in our press

The public have been wrong - dangerously wrong, about unions and union power.  It's time that more of us came out and said so.

Monday, 14 May 2012

The silent scandal of how Amazon is making us all poorer

An "Old Labour" poster....

But the message remains capitalism working for us, or are we working for capitalism?

Consider Amazon, who pay no corporation tax in the UK, despite annual sales over £3 billion.  It is well reported that this unfair advantage is killing our local book shops.

It's difficult to understand why there isn't a huge scandal that Amazon pay no tax in the UK, and have not paid any for over three years.  Only one UK newspaper has bothered to report the story

What is never reported is how Amazon are making the British people poorer.  Let me explain...

Traditional retailers such as Argos are struggling to compete with Amazon.  This is because Amazon have massively lower costs because they don't pay tax.

But other retailers don't complain about the tax.. Instead, in a futile effort to compete with Amazon, they cut costs by driving down pay and conditions for their own workers.  Amazon, who in value are worth ten Marks and Spencers, are such a dominant retailer that they are able to have this massive influence in driving down pay.  Many people don't realise that Amazon is a major employer in the UK, housing seven giant Warehouses. Law-abiding retailers barely stand a chance. After all, reputable British retailers pay corporation tax.  The silence of our tax-abiding companies is the only aspect of this scandal I find difficult to fathom...

The consequences are literally depressing.

This downward pressure on wages reduces tax receipts and job security, and leaves countless workers with less money to spend. Amazon are fuelling recession.

Because it's "online", many people don't realise that Amazon is a major employer in the UK, housing seven giant Warehouses.   It's minimum wage approach to pay is pushing downward pressure onto Warehousing wages across all sectors of the UK economy.  In short, the British people are buying cheap goods from Amazon, at a great cost to society.

But the scandal - and it is a scandal, of corporate tax avoidance means that we simply don't have a model of capitalism that is working for us.

What we have is a model of capitalism that is driving millions of us to the bottom.   Amazon is the main culprit in the retail sector. Most sectors of the economy have a culprit of their own.

Next up for me is what some call "mission impossible" - organising Amazon workers.  I will face extreme aggression in the face of hysterical union avoidance tactics. But like most things Trade Unions do, my work will very much be in the public interest

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Why "open source" is so important to people power and Trade Unionism

Many people assume that we live in a new golden age of communications. In some ways we do. But from a Union perspective, I'd say the golden age of communications was probably the 1950's.

With many thousands of people working together in massive factories, there was a captive audience for Unions. The media was far less fragmented than now.  The nation came together to watch the same things and share the same experiences. In the UK we are now very fragmented in terms of where we live compared to our extended families and work colleagues. Media fragmentation is just another example of a wider social fragmentation.

The new difficulty in bringing people together gives an advantage to the Right.  When I grew up in the 70's and 80's, unemployment was very political and hugely unpopular.  It's not now. This is lazily explained as "politics has moved to the right" - but not because values have changed or because the Right won support.  It's because local communities were tighter knit than the relative fragmentation of today. The devastation of unemployment was felt strongly by a better connected community via stronger Trade Unionism, social clubs and also the simple fact that Tory "de-industrialisation" in the 80's hit large pockets of workers who lived more closely together.  A factory closing today quietly devastates one household on a quiet close - multiplied by the number of workers getting laid off.

I've started taking an interest in "social media", as potentially they are a glue that can help bring us better together. This is why I've started experimenting with blogging, such as this site, Twitter and Pinterest.

Many people think we already have this via Facebook. Unfortunately, we know that the likes of Twitter and Facebook cannot be relied upon to allow people to express themselves when real power is challenged.

I'm discovering that "open source"  alternatives such as Diaspora are so important. As I understand it, these online tools cannot be bought or controlled by capital.  I can post to Twitter and/or Facebook from Diaspora.  More needs to be done to promote the open source alternatives to a Plc world that people cannot trust.