Friday, 13 August 2010

In a time of cuts, fighting casualisation is more vital than ever

If, as I've said previously, it's slow going getting trade unions to take effective action against the cuts, there's at least one thing which trumps it in terms of inaction. I speak of the lack of any serious campaign against the casualisation of work or to organise the affected workforce.

In Britain today, only 23.5% of workers are members of a trade union.

A report (PDF) by Employment Market Analysis and Research (EMAR) breaks that figure down across various demographic groups. If the initial figures seemed stark, the picture becomes bleaker once you see the effects of casualisation on workers' rights.

In the public sector, the picture is relatively positive. 58.8% of workers are unionised, 69% are covered by collective agreements in the workplace, and 86.8% of workplaces have a union presence.

It is the private sector which pulls the average down. Just 16.6% are union members. Only 19.6% are covered by collective agreements, the figure dropping even further for part-time and temporary employees, and just a third of private workplaces have a union presence.

Just 21.2% of part-time workers and 10% of 16-24 year-olds are organised.

Despite the flaws of the traditional, top-down trade union model, those who are in unions are generally better off than those who aren't.

The report points out that "the hourly earnings of union members averaged £12.43 ... 16.6 per cent more than the earnings of non-members," but it is more than just pay. Unionised workers are much more likely to enjoy basic employment rights and legal protections than the non-unionised.

One example is the enforcement of the Health and Safety at Work Act, and the various connected pieces of legislation. Without the intervention of accredited union safety reps (PDF), the Act may as well not exist.

Consequently, in a lot of workplaces today, workers have no voice. This is casualisation - and it can kill.

As an Anarchist Federation article explains;
The phenomenon being described must be understood as a product of the class struggle. It is very difficult to disentangle the complex interdependencies of cause-and-effect, as every economic development is a result of the manoeuvrings of both sides. It seems that the process of casualisation is largely a result of three factors:
  • the shift from a manufacturing to a service based economy
  • decomposition of the working class as a political actor
  • increase in investment capital flows
The shift away from manufacturing (with it's traditional high levels of unionisation and strong collective bargaining) and towards services (small workplaces, higher ratios of management to workers, low levels of unionisation) has been a feature of the post-Thatcher era, with an attendant shift of power from labour to capital.

This facilitated the destruction of organised labour, alongside anti-union laws and manufactured set-piece confrontations. A non-unionised worker in the UK gets an average of only 23 days holiday a year, compared to 29 for a unionised worker, and levels of unionisation have consistently fallen. The now full integration of business unions into the capitalist structure has reduced industrial militancy, and consequently the leadership has failed to put up a significant fight to defend their members’ interests. This has been a product not only of the historic defeats of organised labour, but also the collaborationist nature of business unions as mediator between capital and labour.

Accumulated finance capital was used to fund both the investment and development of manufacturing plants abroad and the transfer of capacity to these areas. The ability of this capital to be rapidly extracted and redeployed elsewhere - enshrined in neo-liberal financial policies - has brought massive pressure to bear on any remaining knots of organised labour. Workers’ demands are countered with the very real threat of the outsourcing of their jobs. The bosses have used this to cut back on wage costs, attacking the wages and conditions of unionised workers, and by reducing the number of workers capable of being unionised further decomposing working class power.
Anybody who has worked in retail or sales can tell you the result of this process. In pubs, fast food chains, sales, the gambling industry, and elsewhere, bosses treat their staff as expendable commodities.

They will grind your face into the dirt for as long as they can and when you leave, they will start the whole process over with someone else.

Too often, workers faced with such poor working conditions do nothing. A major reason for this is fear. They believe that nothing can be done and that complaining will only draw unnecessary attention to them.

So how do we combat this? The key is solidarity and grassroots organisation, as with class struggle more broadly. But there are a number of real-world examples of these principles put into practice.

The most obvious, and succesful, one is the IWW's Starbucks Union. They have been able to organise workers across the world, and a Global Day of Action saw actions against the chain in 20 countries globally.

Other examples include the Brighton Solidarity Federation's actions in support of a sacked Subway worker and the short-lived McDonald's Workers Resistance.

However, there remains much, much more to be done, and the mainstream trade unions certainly aren't willing to do it or up to the task. As an illustration, when I worked in Sainsbury's, I was a shop steward for Unite, and it was frustrating to say the least.

They and USDAW have an agreement with the company to carve up the workforce between them on a store-by-store basis, effectively deviding the workers and deflating any chance for serious action. At the same time, they have accepted "consultative rights" based on 20% union density, forgoing even the limited advances that can be won by collaboration and negotiation.

To top it all off, retail workers have no voice in the broader union, despite forming the majority of the membership, and ground-level stewards are left with virtually no central support.

I can well imagine a similar situation in other workplaces. The result is that staff are left demoralised, demobilised, and at the mercy of management. Trade unions thus become mere insurance policies, shop stewards challenging individual disciplinary actions whilst the wider culture only declines.

As a counterpoint to this, workers need to realise that we hold enormous economic power. By our labour, we define the value of the products we sell and we produce the profits which allow our employers to live in luxury without lifting a finger. Taking heed of how to weild that power, even the "casual," part time, and more vulnerable workers can strike back at their exploiters.

But too often, staff in un-organised workplaces are afraid of asserting even their basic legal rights in case it gets them in trouble. If there is a union presence, it serves only as an insurance policy in the case of excessive abuse of individuals. The ever-present climate of fear and submission goes unchallenged.

This is where anarcho-syndicalists come in. Whilst the main concern of trade unions is to add to the membership rolls, ours is educating workers and encouraging self-organisation.

Where they offer representation, we offer solidarity. By sharing experience, information, and support, workers can assert our collective strength and push back because we're sick of being screwed around. The bosses can pick off an individual leader or agitator, but with collective, bottom-up organisation, we hold the advantage.

This cause is even more vital in the present climate. Whilst trade unionists are talking of a fightback, the vast majority of workers are losers by omission. Without organised resistance, their bosses and the government can do as they wish.

This then becomes the thin end of the wedge used to undermine the rest of us. An injury to one really is an injury to all, and we cannot mount an effective fightback until we realise this.