Given what time of the year it is many people are turning their thoughts towards Christmas, however for others this has been made more difficult because their bosses have continued to suppress their wages and degrade their working conditions. The ongoing disruption on the transport network is the backdrop to the union action but workers from a number of different industries are withdrawing their labour in the next few days. Although I believe these strikes are justified, I fear that their timing may encourage the government to continue pushing anti-union legislation which has been shelved from a number of months.
One of the headline news items from the last few days has been the continuation of industrial action by ASLEF and RMT workers in London. This dispute has been going on for the last few years after a range of issues with rail operator Southern Rail. The current dispute is regarding the attempt by Southern Rail to roll out driver-only trains as a way of saving money. The unions have long argued that such a proposal would massively reduce passenger safety. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelen was on Radio 4 a few days ago and said that he had been in contact with the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) who made it clear that “we cannot rely upon the technology we are using” to maintain passenger safety. Whelen used this discussion with the RAIB to justify the strikes, arguing that the strike “isn’t about money – this is about safety”.
It would be remiss to ignore the fact that a report from the RAIB published earlier in the essentially argued that competent staff could safely operate driver-only trains. On the other hand rail unions were able to avoid strike action in Scotland over the same issue, which would suggest fault on the part of Southern rather than an irrational rejection of driver-only trains by union negotiators.
As well as railway disruption, it was announced today that Unite workers for British Airways had voted in favour of strike action. The union balloted its members on industrial action after rejecting a 2% pay rise. This is not surprising as their pay has been frozen for many years. According to reports from union officials, cabin crew managers were most irate as many do not have collective bargaining rights and have had their pay frozen since 2010. The dispute is in relation to 4,000 cabin crew workers at Heathrow airport who were employed on so-called ‘Mixed Fleet contracts’. Because of this contractual arrangement BA has been able to pay workers as little as £12,000 per year. Of the 4,000 new cabin crew, 2,500 are members of Unite and of those workers who voted 79% supported strike action.
Unite conducted a survey of the affected workers and the findings were shocking. Approximately half of these Mixed Fleet workers had admitted to taking a second job in order to make their ends meet. Around two-thirds had admitted to going into work when not fit to fly because they couldn’t afford to take the day off. But most unsettlingly, 84% of Mixed Fleet BA cabin crew told the Unite survey that they had experience stress and/or depression due to their financial situation. There is no doubt in my mind that BA workers are justified and workers from across the country should stand in solidarity with them.
Workers at the Post Office are also going on strike in a dispute over jobs, pensions, and the closure of branches. The CWU has warned against job losses particularly in rural areas and the how franchising larger Post Offices would impact customer service. The union has also been vocal about changes to a final salary pension scheme which would leave workers materially worse off in retirement. Workers shall walk out for a total of five days over the course next week in an attempt to stop the Post Office announcing branch closures in the New Year; one of the strikes is expected to take place on Christmas Eve.
Delivery drivers for the large retailer Argos have also announced a round of industrial action over the company’s failure to deliver back pay. Unite members at a distribution centre in Staffordshire have backed a plan to walk-out for three days which will likely affect the delivery of goods in the run up to Christmas. Argos have said that they “would encourage both sides to keep talking with the aim of coming to a swift resolution”. I would argue that the need for publicity is most needed in this case as the dispute is not about what could happen in the future but about back pay. Argos owes these delivery drivers money plain and simple, and given that their business couldn’t function without drivers up and down the country, I firmly believe that they should be shamed into action.
The final group of workers going on strike over the Christmas period are employed by Philip Green’s Arcadia Group. 120 workers at a DHL-run warehouse in Solihull are walking out after management refused to pay employees the national living wage. GMB, the union representing the workers, have also said that those going on strike have expressed concerns about deteriorating working conditions. Specifically GMB have said that the workload has increased without compensation and that management has begun to frown on employees speaking to one another when on shift, which has reduced morale. Arcadia have tried to get out of blame by saying that pay rises are managed by DHL, however GMB have correctly pointed out that the pay structure for workers at DHL-run plants are approved by Arcadia on an annual basis.
This slew of pre-Christmas action is justified in my eyes but it is likely that the wider public may not be as sympathetic to plight of these workers. The government may then to seek to take advantage of this public sentiment towards the unions and push through stricter anti-union measures. In the wake of the new round of Southern Rail strikes Transport Secretary Chris Grayling updated the Cabinet on what the government’s immediate response should be. However I personally believe that in the New Year the Tories will seek to railroad the Trade Union Bill through Parliament, particularly if there is widespread public anger towards unions for disruption over the Christmas period.
Because of this threat to workers rights, it is more important that the Labour movement is united against the Tories. I’m not just talking about the Labour Party uniting to oppose the government, but also all the other smaller socialist parties, the unions, and civil society. Anyone who claims to be in the Labour movement who puts factionalism before a fight with Tories seeking to undermine the rights of workers to collectively bargain should be ashamed of themselves. These workers need our solidarity but also need our action. There are a long list of issues that will make headlines in the coming months, and so we cannot allow the Tories to undercut workers whilst everyone is distracted. This industrial action is justified but people need to be ready for what the Tories may decide to do in 2017.