Sunday, 9 January 2011

"Red Len" and the Mail on Sunday's fight against reds under the bed

The Mail on Sunday has revealed, with considerable alarm, that "Red Len plots petrol strike by militant fuel tanker drivers to cripple UK." "Red Len" being Len McCluskey, leader of the far-from-radical Unite Union, transformed into a dastardly Commie supervillain by the paper's hysteria.

Most of the article is entirely predictable tabloid hyperbole. Strikes "will bring fresh misery to Britain’s 36 million motorists, already hit by VAT and fuel tax hikes." The ongoing dispute "risks endangering the economic recovery amid fears that fuel shortages could lead to profiteering by garages." Yup, once more, those darned unions are going to wreak havoc upon the "vulnerable" people of this country. Who, of course, aren't being hit by an aggressive class war from a government which represents the ruling class, and shouldn't question their betters by daring to combine and fight back.

But it is not just the looming spectre of workers refusing to take the shit launched at them that scares the Mail. For in Red Len, who "likes quoting Communist guerilla leader Che Guevara," they have found a perfect hate figure. After all, he "masterminded the British Airways cain crew walkouts last year" (if we overlook the  inconvenient fact that the members were actually far more militant than the leadership) and "supports mass strike action." The blaggard.

Criticisms of the fact that he "is understood to enjoy a pay and perks package of more than £100,000 a year" would be valid from, say, myself. After all, calling for a rank-and-file led movement rid of bureaucrats and overpaid leaders is a consistent anarcho-syndicalist position. But that's not the Mail's angle. They're looking for a stick to beat the organised working class with and, as they pay Richard Littlejohn over £1m for doing nothing more than repeat the editorial line with no independent thought whatsoever, they're the last people to make any point about overpaid mouthpieces.

All of which aside, it is the paper's deliberate misinformation, it's complete misunderstanding even of what trade union organisation is, that gets me.

Take this passage as an example;
The dispute, which could begin next month, centres on demands by Mr McCluskey and his union for Seventies-style national collective bargaining with oil firms, distributors and contractors, who currently negotiate individually and do not pay drivers – who earn up to £40,000 – an agreed national rate.

Employers fear that if they agree to a national negotiating forum, it will give Mr McCluskey – who is understood to enjoy a pay and perks package of more than £100,000 a year – the power to call nationwide walkouts more easily.

Unions are desperate to reintroduce the type of collective bargaining used in former nationalised industries such as coal and steel. It gave unions the power to order their members out on strike, bringing entire industrial sectors to a standstill.

A senior fuel supply industry source said the last thing employers wanted was to agree to outdated collective bargaining arrangements.

The source said this was because most fuel supplies were distributed by haulage contractors which not only tendered for the work, but also negotiated separate wage and conditions deals with their drivers.
It doesn't need stating that the use of "outdated," "seventies style," and "the type ... used in former nationalised industries such as coal and steel" as descriptors is done to instill bias. It is to plant the idea in the reader's head that such notions are archaic, backward, wrong. We don't need to hear the other side, because we've been instructed to think that it's absurd.

In actual fact, the whole purpose of workers combining to form unions is in order to negotiate with the bosses collectively over pay and conditions. It is a recognition of the fact that such negotiations done by individuals were always weighted in favour of the employer, due to the power that their position as capital owners gave them. Working class people have to sell their labour to an employer in order to make a living, and thus it is intrinsically a buyers market - especially within a system which uses a "natural rate of unemployment" to deliberately keep wages low.

Collective bargaining exists as a way to level the playing field, with the withdrawal of labour in strikes and other industrial action being the opposing force to the employer's capital strength.

Moreover, rather than being a relic of the seventies, it continues to exist today in strongly unionised workplaces. According to an Employment Market Analysis and Research report (PDF), 69% of public sector workers and 19.6% of private sector workers are covered by collective agreements. Thus, the idea is far from limited to "former nationalised industries such as coal and steel."

In fact, we know what determines whether such agreements exist - the strength of union organisation. There are more collective agreements in the public sector than the private simply because more workplaces are organised in that sector. This is not because the practice is "outdated," but because the steady process of casualisation is a part of the ongoing efforts to diminish the strength of the working class and maximise profit at our expense.

This is also why it is nonsense for the paper to ascribe taker drivers seeking union recognition to some Machiavelian plot by "Red Len." It simply would not be happening if the membership didn't want it. They, after all, joined the union in enough numbers to precipitate this, and they will be the deciding voice in a strike ballot. Democracy, not McCluskey, is the sinister red hand moving all the pieces.

Ultimately, though, it is no surprise that the Mail is such a fountain of ignorance and misinformation. No doubt its foaming-at-the-mouth rhetoric will please its core readership and set a precedent for similar propaganda as the class struggle continues through the year.