Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Job losses at RBS and why an effective class struggle requires organisation from below

The following story comes from today's Financial Times;

Royal Bank of Scotland is to shed one in seven jobs at its wealth management arm over the next three years, the bulk of which will come from Coutts & Co, its private bank.

The part-nationalised bank plans to cut 500 of the 3,500 staff who work for Coutts, based in London, and Adam & Co, its smaller wealth management division which has its headquarters in Edinburgh, as it moves to introduce a more efficient IT system across these businesses.

RBS has launched a major investment programme to upgrade the technology it uses to service wealthy customers. It said the improvements would enable it to provide a wider choice for clients in its wealth management arm and run the business more efficiently, but at the same time would decrease its reliance on back-office staff.

“We are working hard to rebuild RBS in order to repay taxpayers for their support and having to cut jobs is the most difficult part of this process,” said the bank.

RBS has cut more than 23,000 jobs across its businesses since the start of the financial crisis, just over 17,000 of which were based in the UK. 
This is something that has elicited little to no reaction during the financial crisis.

Bankers have been in the news constantly, and served as a deserving target for public anger. After all, they gambled with money that wasn't really there, built unsustainable bubbles on non-existent funds, and brought us a recession that has cost countless ordinary people jobs and even homes.

But, in the midst of this, it is apparently forgotten that low-level bank employees have been some of the first on the chopping block. Indeed that the cull of staff, working class and taxpayers all, for the supposed benefit of wealthy customers has been touted as part of efforts to "repay taxpayers" is nothing short of obscene. This is the most direct example yet of workers are paying for the crisis created by the bosses.

Unite, which represents RBS workers, has responded with the following statement;
The decision to cut 500 staff over a three year period from the highly profitable wealth division and in particular Coutts & Co, RBS Coutts and Adam & Company will bring much anxiety to the staff in these areas of the business.

Unite does not believe that the introduction of, and investment in new technology should go hand in hand with the shedding of jobs. Instead RBS should focus on ensuring that its staff can continue to give customers the high levels of service they expect from the Queen’s bank.

Our key priority now is to avoid compulsory redundancies and Unite will ensure that RBS continues to work with the union to minimise the impact of this restructuring.
This doesn't offer much hope. It is, in fact, nothing more than polite disagreement. There is no mention of any kind of fightback. Indeed national officer Rob McGregor doesn't even challenge the idea that the loss of 500 livelihoods simply amounts to a "restructuring."

The lesson here is twofold.

In the first instance, there is the obvious fact that fair capitalism is an impossibility. It is inevitable that the profit-motive inspires the greed which sees workers kicked to the curb for the sake of the bosses and a race-to-the-bottom with wages and working conditions. In fact, with bank workers losing their jobs whilst bank bosses quickly settle back into the culture of obscene bonuses, this point could not be starker.

The second point is about trade union structure. It is apt that the union involved here is Unite. The same criticisms can be applied to union hierarchies and bureaucrats more generally, but they are most obvious within Unite.

Its conduct during the BA dispute has been utterly without merit. From Tony Woodley calling the strikes unneccesary to the union taking their time declaring a strike after members voted for it, the interest of leadership has remained with delaying and diluting the dispute as much as possible. They had to be forced to take a more militant position by their members. In fact, it can be argued that this timidity and undermining of the rank-and-file has only encouraged Willie Walsh in his determination to smash the union, dragging them into a stark choice of capitulation or war. As I've said elsewhere, "the former would have rendered all previous fightback efforts void and cemented management dominance over the workers. The latter may well be the path to mutually assured destruction."

In less poisonous disputes, the point is less obvious. But the fact remains that leadership selling out those at the bottom is inevitable as long as we put our fate in the hands of top-down organisation. We need a push for trade unions guided by worker self-organisation and for the dismantling of hierarchy in the broader class struggle.

There are hints, though small, that the consciousness of the working class may be awakening to this fact. We need to continue to make the arguments until these hints erupt into an unstoppable trend towards a more libertarian workers' struggle.