Thursday, 24 November 2011

The next offensive in the class war

The government is proposing a series of changes to the law as part of a drive to "reform employment relations." In essence, the aim is to make it easier for bosses to hire and fire at will and to give workers far less recourse to defend themselves. The proposals demonstrate just how much we have to lose if we do not stand and fight now.

The most significant change to the law is the extension from one year to two of the time after being hired in which you cannot claim unfair dismissal. If this happens, the inevitable result is a speed-up in the casualisation of the workplace, with ever-more workers placed in a precarious situation and having to look for new work within two years of each job they get. It will undercut wages and conditions, since more a precarious workforce will be less inclined to stand up for itself, and drive more families into a poverty that sees them living hand-to-mouth.

Even worse than this is the proposal to allow firms with less than ten employees to dismiss workers at any time without reason under "no-fault agreements." This effectively removes all employment rights from those workers, since the boss can get away with firing them at any point in their career if they ever press said rights.

At the same time, the government wants to introduce "protected conversations" - essentially a space in which an employer can say as they wish to a worker about their performance without fear it will serve as evidence in a constructive dismissal claim. The consequence here, too, is fairly self-evident. Employers will have greater freedom to bully, intimidate and demoralise staff until they are driven to resign and the worker who has suffered such treatment will have no recourse. Because reducing constructive dismissal claims doesn't, of itself, reduce constructive dismissal.

If a worker does get to an employment tribunal, and this will be harder as alongside the above measures more costs are being piled on the process as an "incentive" against seeking redress, there are still more hurdles to jump. All claims will first be referred to the conciliation service ACAS. Because, of course, if you've been the victim of harassment or discrimination, or forced out of your job by a bullying boss, all you really want is to sit down over a cup of tea and chat about it.

The other big reform on the table is to reduce the consultation period for redundancy from 90 days to 30. This makes it easier for the bosses to sack staff wholesale, and gives workers less time to organise a response. The implications of this in office, shop and factory closures when big firms are cost-cutting really doesn't need to be stated.

All of this will face considerable opposition from organised workers. Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has already said that it's “appalling that this government should concentrate on making it easier to fire people, rather than getting people back to work.” The Citizens Advice Bureau has called the measures “nothing short of a charter for rogue employers.” The plans should be opposed, too, as they represent a rolling back of some of the most significant wins of the British labour movement.

However, the country's strongest unions are currently caught in a winner-takes-all dispute over public sector pensions. The strike on November 30 will be the biggest action since 1926, and from their reactions in the media of late it is clear that the government are worried. But they also know that if they win this fight, then the last stronghold of the trade unions will be broken.

This is no small matter. In the pensions dispute itself, the issue is workers being made to work longer and pay out more to get less when they retire. However, as deputy director-general of the CBI John Cridland has noted, "public sector pensions remain the biggest barrier to the private and third sectors providing public services." In other words, if they win this fight the government can carve up and sell off the welfare state for private profit. Already they are preparing to do this with the NHS, and the lukewarm response from the TUC will have emboldened them to try it elsewhere.

With privatisation, of course, comes casualisation, and a whole extra rank of workers caught by the government's proposed reforms. More than that, with the trade union movement defeated - and laws enacted to neuter any resurgence - they wouldn't have even a fighting chance of taking them on. The roll back would only continue, and accelerate, until all the work of our movement is undone.

This isn't some nightmare scenario, either, but a real possibility. We know that the unions have only come this far because they have been led here with the anger of their rank-and-file members at their back. They will be looking for the first opportunity of a safe get-out, as demonstrated by Brendan Barber running around to private talks with the Tories whilst the workers he claims to represent demonstrated against them. Indeed, you only have to look at the truly appalling pop song they have put out as the "anthem" of this action to know that they haven't a militant bone in their body.

No, if workers want to win this struggle we will have to do it for ourselves. This means re-building the bonds of solidarity that have been broken down over the last thirty years, re-building a culture of mass participation and direct democracy, and giving people the confidence that if they stand together and take action they can win. Some people, myself included, are already attempting to do that and learning the pitfalls as we go. There have even been some inspiring successes, such as the Guildhall Cleaners.

In such a context, November 30 is still only a beginning. Down the official route, it may or may not be followed by another one-day strike in a few months. But there will be a deal, and though painted as a victory much will be lost. From there, we witness the loss of absolutely everything organised workers have ever won.

We all need to stand together on November 30, making the pickets and rallies some of the biggest and liveliest in living memory. But we also need to build beyond them, to restore the solidarity culture that enables us to take longer action and unofficial action on a mass scale. This should happen not just in the workplace but outside it too, from direct actions such as picketsoccupations and blockades to campaigns against attacks on the unemployed such as workfare.

Ultimately, we have to face up to the fact that militant workers essentially have to rebuild a movement here. And to make it effective it absolutely must be built from below and led by the rank-and-file.