|Volume 50 Number 5, February 8, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Workers' Weekly Internet Edition: Article Index : ShareThis
Defend the Right to Take Strike Action:
Government Plan to "Hobble" Strike Action by Transport Unions
Civil Aircraft Crisis:
Workers Sacked at GKN Aerospace
NHS National Winter Crisis Day of Action:
Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign and Others Hold Events in Support
Since 2018, staff at an increasing number of universities, now standing at 74 out of 130 across the country, have been striking over pensions, pay, conditions and other issues faced by those working in the higher education sector. Most recently, following eight days of strike action in November and December last year involving over 40,000 staff at 60 institutions, which ended without resolution, ballots have been held for fresh strikes early this year.
The latest ballots, which met the punitive 50% turnout legal threshold, have added 14 to that number of universities, increasing the number of University and College Union (UCU) members able to engage in these actions by about 6,000. According to the UCU, 80% supported strikes over pensions, and 76% were in favour of such action over pay and conditions. Although employers made a move on January 27 to set what they called "expectations" over workload, casual contracts, and pay gaps in gender and ethnicity, they refused to address the rejected and below-inflation 1.8% pay offer, a key point of dispute.
"We have been clear from the outset that we are prepared to take serious and sustained action to defend pay and conditions, as well as our pensions," said UCU general secretary Jo Grady, "and these latest ballot results show that members are just as determined as ever."
The UCU announced 14 days of strikes starting on February 20. They are planned to escalate each week and culminate with a week-long strike from March 9-13, said the union. In addition, staff will be taking various forms of action short of a strike.
Simply on grounds of scale, these strikes have been significant. The first wave of action in March 2018 was called "the worst industrial action at universities in modern times" by The Times, affecting over a million students. Student support was nevertheless strong, with students occupying university facilities on a number of campuses.
They are also significant for their scope, bringing together a set of distinct but related issues. One has been the dispute over proposed changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). At the same time, disputes have been developing over what the UCU calls the "four fights": pay inequality, job insecurity, rising workloads, and pay deflation.
The USS has been in place for over 45 years. It is a defined-benefit pension scheme open to all academic staff, typically available in universities established before 1992. It is one of the largest private defined-benefit schemes in the country, though it is, in fact, a hybrid scheme and has a defined-contribution component. The current disputes centre on the sustainability of the scheme and rising costs for members, coming on top of major changes in 2014-15 that left members worse off.
In the context of an increasingly capital-centric higher education system and corporatised form of management and organisation, pay and conditions have also come under attack. While senior management pay has risen markedly, that of the majority of staff has fallen in real terms in recent years. Further, UCU figures show that the numbers of academic staff on short-term or zero-hours contracts have been increasing, and are in fact the majority, standing at 54% already by 2016.
It is not only academic staff who have been affected: the pensions, pay and conditions of non-academic staff have also been under attack over the same period. For example, during the 2018 UCU strikes, cleaners, porters and receptionists at the University of London struck work from April 25-26 that year over casualisation, demanding their work get insourced.
This bringing together of all of these strands into one concerted action has given rise to a significant quality to the struggle of the workers in higher education. These economic issues are intimately connected with the nature of the university system itself and what higher education is for, and for this reason has generated support amongst students.
This is a relation that the government has sought to destroy through the creation of the Office for Students (OfS) on January 1, 2018, immediately preceding these actions. The OfS is described as a "non-departmental public body of the Department for Education", and asserts that it is "the independent regulator of higher education in England". Almost on the eve of the strikes, it said in February that year that "universities that fail to mitigate the impact of the strikes would open themselves up to regulatory intervention".
The method of imposition and refusal to negotiate, combined with the threat of police powers, is to disrupt the formation of an outlook that recognises education workers, whether academic or not, as adding huge value to the economy. The work done by university staff produces highly skilled graduates and postgraduates with a massive productive capacity, and in a more general sense contributes to the cultural level of society; the universities themselves give rise to scientific and technological advances.
It is important that this value is recognised. Not only is it not recognised, it is not realised; that is, its value is not paid for by those that utilise it. Enterprises, particularly big business, benefit directly through their highly-educated workforce and the science and technology they employ, a benefit that takes the form of greater productivity and for which they do not pay. Instead, the issue is obscured as one of tax versus spending, cuts are instituted under the signboard of "austerity", private interests are introduced, and concessions are forced from staff, whose claims in terms of pay and pensions are denigrated as costs. They are not costs, but claims on the vast value that their work produces.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "We have seen more members back strikes since the winter walkouts and this next wave of action will affect even more universities and students. If universities want to avoid further disruption, they need to deal with rising pension costs, and address the problems over pay and conditions.
"We have been clear from the outset that we would take serious and sustained industrial action if that was what was needed. As well as the strikes next month, we are going to ballot members to ensure that we have a fresh mandate for further action to cover the rest of the academic year if these disputes are not resolved."
Workers' Weekly fully supports the university staff and wishes them every success in their actions.
1. For a full list of universities affected,
For further background of the struggle and the actions in 2018, see: http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-18/ww18-09/ww18-09-01.htm
On the importance of the struggle to defend pension rights, see: http://www.rcpbml.org.uk/wwie-18/ww18-07/ww18-07-03.htm
The Queen's Speech, which outlined the government's legislation for this Parliament, announced that "measures will be developed to provide minimum levels of service during transport strikes". The government briefing notes state:
"Minimum Service Agreements will set out the minimum service pattern to be provided during rail strikes, and the minimum number and nature of staff who shall work to provide that service. Any strike against a rail employer shall be unlawful unless a Minimum Service Agreement is in place. If the Minimum Service Agreement is not honoured, the strike shall be unlawful and injunctions or damages may be sought against the union in the normal way."
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps explained that the legislation would be designed to prevent trade unions from holding passengers "to ransom" so that services "continue to operate", while a report in the Transport Network in December stated that "the legislation is set to hobble the impact of any strike action by transport unions".
Once again, this is further evidence that the government's programme offers no solutions to the problems of transport workers and all that remains of their civil society and of public authority is the arbitrary power of the state to settle scores with the workers on behalf of private competing monopoly interests.
In the January issue of the RMT News, Mick Cash, general secretary of the transport union RMT, pointed out how rail workers were taking up their responsibility for society: "Against the backdrop of the General Election our members on South Western Railway stood absolutely rock solid in an unprecedented month-long strike in the fight for a safe and accessible railway for all. They are an absolute credit to our movement and despite everything that was thrown at them by a hostile management and their friends in the media their fight goes on."
He said: "It didn't take long for the newly-elected Tory government under Boris Johnson to show their true colours. Barely had the last ballot papers been counted before the outriders were spinning in the press that they were coming for RMT and the transport sector with a new raft of anti-trade union legislation."
The government tried to claim that it is the railway workers who are holding passengers to "ransom", but it is their corporate-led transport system geared to making maximum profits for the rich that is wrecking the transport system at the expense of passengers and holding society to ransom. Up and down the country, the privatised and fragmented railway and bus systems are in crisis, unable to deliver on-time services and fleecing passengers with high prices and price hikes that are higher than even the inflation rise.
In 2018, Virgin Trains East Coast was allowed to renege on its contract to provide trains until 2023 for the North Eastern mainline services with reports it could not make enough money from the contract, leaving huge costs to be paid for out of public funds to replace the high speed train fleet.
Already this year, South Western Trains' own auditors, London Deloitte, have said that South Western faces "material uncertainty" over whether it can continue operating, leading to government announcements on its uncertain future and whether to take the franchise from the First Group company or give it more pay-outs to keep the company afloat.
Following a year of chaos and cancellations across the Northern network, which runs from Newcastle to Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Manchester and Stoke, and a last-ditched attempt at a fare hike, the government was forced to announce on January 29 that it was to strip the rail company owned by Serco-Abellio of the franchise, again with huge cost to the Treasury.
The truth is, it is the railway, bus and other transport workers, who by fighting to safeguard their interests and never giving up their struggle, are the ones speaking out for the interests of passengers, their safety and a modern transport system that meets everyone's needs. The issue that is posing itself to rail workers and on which they are speaking out is that an integrated rail system operating across fragmented privately-competing parts has reached the point of a sheer inability to function given the demands of a modern socialised economy.
That the government is threatening to use state power against the struggle of rail workers shows that the old arrangements of civil society, which tolerate workers taking strike action, are in tatters, and all that remains of public authority is arbitrary power wielded on behalf of private competing monopoly interests. It also underlines the power that working people have shown in their organised defence of their collective interests. It shows that the resistance of the railway workers to speak out and organise is not only just, but vital in defending their interests and that of the interests of society.
This is a fight to bring into being new arrangements that favour the people, not the financial oligarchs, the monopolies whose rule is tearing apart society's social programmes and infrastructure. What is needed today is a look at how authority and control needs to change. How can decision-making pass to the people who work in the railway network so that it is cohesive, based on the common public interest and not competing private interests?
Dozens of contract workers at GKN Aerospace in East Cowes on the Isle of Wight have been let go as a result of the ongoing issues with the Boeing 737 MAX, which has led to a reduction in non-military production.
Local press on the island were informed that 37 members of the workforce were told on January 22 that they are no longer required. At least a further 25 temporary contract staff could also be at risk. There are no guarantees that permanent workers will not be affected later.
In a statement issued to the Island Echo, a spokesman for GKN Aerospace East Cowes said: "We have been working with our customer on an ongoing basis to address the challenging situation of the 737 MAX production suspension in order to minimise the impact on GKN Aerospace and our related workforce and suppliers. This impact is being managed on a site-by-site basis globally. At our East Cowes site, we have had to take the initial step of releasing contract workers on the programme in order to try to protect our permanent workforce. We are working hard to manage any further impact to the site through normal turnover of employees but cannot rule out additional impact. It remains a key priority for GKN Aerospace to safeguard our capability, to support ramp up in volume at the appropriate time, when production resumes."
The contract workers had been involved in the production of 737 MAX winglets, "composite" wings that are said to be lighter and more efficient. The crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, in October 2018 and March 2019, had killed 346 people, and aviation authorities around the world have grounded the aircraft. Boeing announced in December 2019 that it would suspend production of the Boeing 737 MAX beginning in January 2020. From mid-April 2019, the company announced it was temporarily cutting production of the 737 aircraft from 52 per month to 42 amid the Boeing 737 MAX groundings.
After the announcement, the financial credit rating agency Moody's cut Boeing's debt ratings, thus pressurising not only Boeing but GKN and other suppliers to act. The financial oligarchy is the prime mover when it comes to militarising the economy and shifting towards short-term profitable military, rather than civilian, industrial production. Investment is conditionally attached to maintaining profitability through "cost cutting", productivity measures and "viability" of the company in order to secure adequate return.
With the loss and cancellation of orders, Boeing is taking the decision to lay off workers, showing little or no regard for the workers' well-being. The company is cutting production and blaming it on reports about the safety of its aircraft. As regards GKN, it is shifting its production towards the military market, as a major supplier to BAE. On the Isle of Wight, BAE systems and GKN exist side by side.
Workers employed in non-military sectors are the first to be hit. The workforce is not in control and are not part of decision-making to any extent. Whenever there are cutbacks it appears that the workers are discarded with ease in the peaceful side of production. Skills are lost and cannot readily be recovered if the market changes, jeopardising further production. The fact of the matter is militarisation can only lead to war and destruction.
The militarisation of the economy must be blocked, and the struggle stepped up to change the direction of the economy to one which favours the working people, not the monopolies and the financial oligarchs. Workers are increasingly involved in this discussion, opposing the status quo which is excluding them from decision-making and being in control of vital matters which affect their lives and the fate of society itself.
1. After the first accident, Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018, investigators suspected that the MAX's new Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was omitted from flight manuals and crew training, automatically and repeatedly forced the aircraft to nosedive. Boeing started to redesign MCAS. In December 2018, studies by the FAA and Boeing, publicised a year later, concluded that MCAS posed an unacceptable safety risk. On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 experienced another MCAS malfunction and crashed.
Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) has organised a National Winter Crisis Day of Action between February 13 and 15 throughout the country to highlight the present critical crisis in the NHS and the worst winter crisis on record. Events are taking place in Liverpool, Manchester, Derby, Amber Valley, Nottingham, Newcastle, Stockport, Southport, Leeds, Brighton, Ormskirk, Southport, and in London at Ealing, Islington, Lewisham, Tower Hamlets, Hammersmith, UCLH hospital, Moorfields hospital, and Whittington hospital. (See KONP website: www.keepournhspublic.com).
On Saturday, February 15, the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign (SHLC) will be holding its Winter Crisis Day of Action. In the years since it won its court case in 2013 against the then Coalition government's attempt to close Lewisham Hospital, the SLHC has been fighting to safeguard the future of the health service not just in Lewisham but nationally. It has become a by-word for its successes and non-sectarian mobilisation.
Activists write: "The Lewisham Day of Action will condemn the massive underfunding and mismanagement of the NHS by the government and publicise the massive cuts in funding to the NHS over the years, as well as expose the false promises, lies and deception about the NHS given out by the government, such as the Conservative government's claim to be providing 40 new hospitals and 50,000 more nurses in the recent General Election campaign. It will highlight, through puppet street theatre and music, the horrifying statistics over the past 10 years through government underfunding and mismanagement: 17,000 beds cut, the growing shortage of beds resulting in 88,923 trolley waits, which caused 5,449 deaths between 2016 and 2018 and 88,923 trolley waits in October 2019 alone; £8 billion cuts in social care; 20% cuts in A&Es; 6,000 GP shortages with long waits for appointments; unsafe workloads; and an increase in A&E visits. There are 40,000 nurse vacancies, 10,000 hospital doctor vacancies. Mental health beds have been cut by 30%, causing relatives to have to travel long distances to visit patients. There are ever-growing waiting times for major operations and appointments. The Lewisham Day of Action will also support the fantastic work done, day in day out, by all NHS staff, and their dedication and commitment in the face of their huge and ever-increasing workloads and long working hours."
SLHC encourages everyone to come along and participate!
12.00 noon - 2.00pm outside main entrance to Lewisham Shopping Centre near the market and Marks & Spencer
Opposing the government's "hostile environment"
In recent years, the SLHC has been very active in opposing the government's attack on immigrants by forcing them to pay huge charges for NHS treatment. On April 6, 2015, the Conservative government under David Cameron imposed an NHS immigration health surcharge for "temporary migrants and students".
The SLHC says on its website: "Since the law changed in 2015, many people are no longer deemed 'ordinarily resident' in the UK and are charged for all NHS care at 150% of cost price except for emergency care. This has put many lives at risk and caused great hardship for many of our local residents. Since 2017, this policy has been further ramped up by the Government with more and more pressure being put on Trusts to collect money from those deemed as 'non-resident'."
The SLHC has been very active in opposing charging migrants for healthcare and have been widely distributing their leaflet headed "End the Government's 'hostile environment' in our NHS". On October 23 last year the SLHC organised a vigil outside Lewisham Hospital with the theme of "Docs Not Cops!" in collaboration with doctors and the Lewisham refugee and migrant network. Many local organisations took part in the vigil including people from the SLHC, NHS staff and Lewisham Pensioners Forum.
The SLHC, in explaining why it opposes charging migrants for healthcare, points out: "The issue is not about 'health tourists' visiting the UK getting 'free' medical care, it is about vulnerable migrants - frequently people who are resident but have been wrongly assessed - being charged when they have no means to pay, as in the case of the Windrush generation. People are being pursued by debt collectors and reported to the Home Office if they cannot pay." The SLHC leaflet on migrant charges states that "patients who can't prove their immigration status now face upfront charges of up to 150% of the cost" and that hospital trusts, including Lewisham, "are told to check patient details with the Home Office and report anyone who owes £500 or more".
Following reports published in The Guardian and the South London Press, the SLHC condemned the Lewisham and Greenwich Trust, along with many other trusts, for actively pursuing migrants who had been charged for medical treatment and who had been unable to pay, by using debt collection agencies. SLHC pointed out: "One of the most vulnerable groups are women denied free NHS maternity care, endangering the lives of mothers and children"; it condemned the fact that "our Lewisham and Greenwich Trust partnered credit check agency Experian to target patients likely to be charged for NHS care".
The SLHC explains: "It is part of the Government's cruel 'hostile environment' and the beginning of the end of the principles of the NHS - including universal access to healthcare, free at the point of need." This point is crucial and addresses the fundamental principle - which the government, in all its attacks on the NHS over the years opposes - that Healthcare is a Right!
Weekly E-mail Edition: It
is free to subscribe to the e-mail edition
We encourage all those who support the work of RCPB(ML) to also support it financially:
Donate to RCPB(ML)
WW Internet RSS Feed
Workers' Weekly is the weekly on
line newspaper of the
Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)
170, Wandsworth Road, London, SW8 2LA.
Phone: 020 7627 0599:
RCPB(ML) Home Page
Workers' Weekly Online Archive