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Unions bluster, then sell out to Brown

28 September 2007

Does anyone remember the revolt of the Union Barons?  Only a few short weeks ago the leadership of the British trade union bureaucracy were breathing fire at the Brown government, vowing to fight the cuts in public sector pay enforced by Brown when he effectively tore up agreed pay awards by awarding them in stages, effectively cutting their value?  The bureaucrats were also to the fore in demanding that Brown hold a promised referendum rather than sign up to a pro-business European constitution that had already been rejected by European voters.

Now the harsh words are forgotten and the union leaderships are the foremost defenders of the ultra-right Brown administration.  Below we carry background articles on these issues, first published on the world socialist web site (

Brown makes election appeal to Conservative voters

Chris Marsden

26 September 2007

Gordon Brown’s address to Labour’s annual conference was clearly a General Election speech. As such it demonstrated that, whenever it is held, the coming poll will be a contest between two Conservative parties—one led by David Cameron and the other headed by Brown.

This alone strips the election of any genuinely democratic content. But Brown’s every action is dedicated to just one aim—to exclude the working class from exercising any political influence and thereby consolidate the monopoly of power exercised by big business through an only nominally Labour government. As well as the policies advanced, this is underlined by the ongoing consideration of holding a snap General Election—a move that would all but prohibit any debate and critical consideration of the government’s record or the manifestos advanced by the major parties.

One did not need to even close one’s eyes in order to imagine that Brown was delivering his first conference address as prime minister to a gathering of Conservatives, rather than the assembled party functionaries and trade union bureaucrats. The event was “true blue”—from a conference backdrop with no Labour Party symbol to his every utterance.

The word’s Britain and British peppered his speech like a mantra—over 70 times—to numbing effect, reinforced by his appeals to patriotism, invocations of the terror threat, law and order and the need for immigration controls.

Brown wrapped himself in the Union Jack just as unashamedly if not more so than his predecessor Tony Blair, who he said was owed a debt of gratitude “as a party and as a country”. 

He spoke of the “resilience of the British people,” citizens “who answered the call of the country” and had left “their mark on this island's story,” the “bravery and heroism” of “our armed forces.” He also staked his claim to be the guardian of Britain against separatist demands, insisting that “there is no Scotland-only, no Wales-only, no England-only answer” to either foot and mouth disease or “terrorist attacks that can strike at any time.”

The church too was roped in, with homilies about the “moral compass” provided by the sermons of his father, the minister.

Brown avoided any mention of his Tory opponents, while pressing all the buttons designed to appeal to their electorate. Labour was no longer the party of “the old equality of outcome that discounts hard work and effort,” but of “aspiration and community.” His answer to crime was to “both punish and prevent”: “There are now 139,000 police officers and 16,000 Community Support Officers—more officers than ever before.” These officers would be provided with “hand held computers...” so that they could “stay on the beat and not waste time” filling out forms.

Immigration control was now imposed by a new “unified border force” and “our new Australian-style points-based approach.”

On foreign policy, too, Brown made clear that Britain would continue to “discharge our obligations” in Iraq and Afghanistan and “do everything to ensure the security of our dedicated armed forces.”

Not content with stealing the Tories’ clothes, Brown wants to deepen Blair’s pioneering work in transforming Labour into a political “Big Tent,” a new home for every right-wing rat seeking to desert the sinking ship of the Conservative Party. His aspirations to assume the role of a bonapartist leader of “the nation” are every bit as pronounced and just as deeply reactionary as those of Nicolas Sarkozy in France.

His was a “new kind of politics,” one “not just occupying but shaping and expanding the centre ground” based on an appeal to “all those who work hard and play by the rules, who believe in strong families and a patriotic Britain who may have supported other parties [i.e., the Tories] but who like me want to defend and advance British values and our way of life.”

Even Brown’s description of himself as a “conviction politician” alluded to his glowing depiction of Margaret Thatcher in the same terms.

That this diatribe met with prolonged applause is the mark of a party that is dead as far as the working class is concerned. This was a gathering that in the past few weeks have seen Brown take tea with Thatcher at Number 10 without complaint, as well as hosting similar meetings with Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani and Lord David Owen, “Doctor Death” himself—one of the original Gang of Four who set up the breakaway Social Democratic Party in the 1980s.

Earlier this week, conference delegates gave Tory defector Quentin Davies a standing ovation when he called on other Conservative MPs to “take the plunge” and join Labour. Citing Davies, Lord Temple-Morris and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward, Deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman pledged a warm welcome for anyone joining Labour’s “cause of social justice” “after leaving another party.”

Brown’s readiness to worship at the alter of the “blessed Margaret”—a women who presided over the destruction of the welfare state, three million unemployed and thousands of miners thrown into prison and who is still hated by millions of working people—speaks volumes about Labour’s real constituency.

Philip Stephens commented on Brown in the Financial Times, “He may once have called himself a socialist.” But now, “The big tent stretches ever further.” The Independent noted how he had “highlighted the traditional Tory themes of respect, responsibility, individual aspiration and patriotism as he pitched unashamedly for their natural supporters while implying the Conservative Party was irrelevant.” The Evening Standard wrote that Brown had “made a remarkable pitch at the Labour Party conference to patriotic Conservatives to jump ship.”

Peter Oborne, writing in the arch-Conservative Daily Mail, stated with grudging admiration that “the message to Conservative voters was much more than clever marketing. There were tough, right-wing policies as well—some far tougher than any David Cameron would ever dare to introduce.

“Brown promised ‘British jobs for British workers’. Had Michael Howard or William Hague ever dreamt up such a phrase, the BBC, Guardian and entire progressive establishment would have risen up in outrage against this lapse into populism and xenophobia...”

He continued, “Most astonishing of all was the Prime Minister’s pledge to repatriate immigrants who sell drugs or carry guns. Award-winning investigative TV reporters would have claimed a scoop if they had secretly filmed British National Party activists making this sort of undertaking...

“His proposals for health and education services were more or less taken lock, stock and barrel from the Tory handbook. Not merely that, he plundered the language used by Cameron in his recent speeches.... The much-maligned Tory leader is entitled to sue for breach of copyright for this wholesale and flagrant theft of phrases and ideas. If David Cameron were a wronged rock star, he would probably win billions of pounds in forgone earnings.”

In contrast to such assessments, the union bureaucracy fulfilled its role as professional liars, apologists for and accomplices of Labour’s anti-working class agenda.

Tony Woodley of the UNITE trade union declared that Brown’s speech “demonstrated he is in touch with ordinary working men and women.... It is the most Labour speech we have heard for a decade.” UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis described it as “a breath of fresh air” and TUC General Secretary Brendan barber said it was “fired with a commitment to social justice and opportunity.”

Simpson and Prentis also admitted to the press that the unions had agreed not to oppose Brown’s bid to end the submission of emergency motions for debate, ending any possibility of the Labour conference voting against government policy. Given the diseased state of the Labour Party, this suppression was hardly necessary. The move to deny their own democratic rights was also overwhelmingly backed by the Constituency Labour Parties.

However, ensuring that there is no debate at conference is not enough. Labour cannot afford any debate on its policies amongst the electorate.

Britain’s press is dominated by speculation as to if and when Brown will call a snap election, either on October 25, November 1 or some other Autumn date. This is normally posed as simply a question of how best Brown can exploit the continuing unpopularity of the Tories and whether a delay will undermine the “Brown bounce” in Labour’s standing.

There is no legitimate constitutional reason for holding a ballot—Labour has only served two-and-a-half years in office since re-election in 2005. Yet no one has raised that it is the British people who are in fact being “bounced”—into giving a deeply unpopular government four more years in office based on nothing more than an elaborate PR campaign and the ongoing endorsement of Labour by the corporate and financial elite. A snap poll would serve to exclude the vast majority of candidates from the smaller parties from mounting a campaign. Labour has its millions from its billionaire backers and the Conservatives say they have amassed a £10 million war chest. Thus the electorate would be presented with a choice of possible governments—Labour or Tory—that is no choice at all.

Brown relies on the complicity of the media in refusing to raise such principled considerations. Ed Balls, the children’s minister, was one of the few to admit the true nature of Brown’s “gamble” in possibly holding a snap election when he noted, “If the public simply thought that this was a political calculation about when to call an election, I think they would rightly stand back and say: ‘Hang on a sec, what we want to know is what is the nature of the choice’.”

Unions responsible for harsh conditions facing temporary agency workers

Julie Hyland

27 September 2007

Tony Woodley, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G), used a column in the Guardian this week to set out his union’s campaign over the plight of temporary agency workers.

The article was a trailer for his speech to the Labour Party conference on the same subject, and private members bill to parliament next month, backed by the Trades Union Congress. Its objective was to portray the trade unions as standing firm against “greedy employers” and super-exploitation. But in so doing Woodley’s comments stand as a devastating indictment of the trade unions, which have collaborated with management and government in producing employment conditions synonymous with the 1930s.

Woodley described the situation facing agency workers—“second-class citizens in the world of work”—as the “single biggest employment issue” in Britain.

“Gone are secure, directly-employed jobs with training, sick pay, paid holidays and a respect for health and safety law,” he wrote. Some one million workers are “denied equal rights in our workplaces.” As permanent staff are replaced by agency workers—on lower rates of pay, without overtime and holiday rights—“we have hire-and-fire, migrants duped into accepting poorer terms, two—and three-tier workforces and a ‘take a cut or take a hike’ approach from the bosses and the gangmasters,” Woodley stated.

As examples, he cited the case of a “63-year-old worker threatened at gunpoint by his gangmaster’s thugs for daring to complain. Or a young, pregnant Polish worker forced to live in a car for weeks after her agency kicked her out of her accommodation, her passport taken by the agency so she can’t even go home.” One leading hotel chain was employing Chinese migrant labour “on £3.75 an hour, paid in brown paper envelopes because, officially, they don’t exist.”

A report earlier this year by the TUC, “Agency Workers: Counting the cost of flexibility,” showed that while temporary work still accounts for just 6 percent of overall employment (and temporary agency work for one percent), it is overwhelmingly concentrated in the poorest paid, most labour intensive sectors and amongst younger, unskilled and migrant workers.

UK employment law, the report explained, distinguishes between “employees” and “workers.” Most agency employment is defined as the latter, serving to exclude agency staff from crucial protections. They have no security of tenure, and can be laid off at any time, despite one-quarter of so-called “temporaries” being employed, often on zero-hours contracts, for over one year.

Pay differentials vary between 60 and 94 percent of permanent earnings—“employers are free to discriminate against agency workers in terms of pay and/or working conditions”—and in many cases, staff do not receive even the minimum wage rate to which they are legally entitled, and can be subject to penalties, such as deductions for food, fares, uniforms, etc.

Neither Woodley nor the TUC’s report addressed how such conditions had been made possible. They are presented as the inevitable product of a globally competitive labour market, which is exploited by a few unscrupulous employers.

Woodley’s article portrayed the problem as one mainly involving migrant labour. “Community cohesion” was being damaged by the use of immigrant labour to force down wages, he wrote, warning that “Left unchecked, these tensions will worsen as insecure British workers blame migrants for driving down their pay,” and the workers themselves would be left “vulnerable at the mercy of exploiters and the right-wing hate-mongers.”

It is certainly the case that almost 700,000 eastern Europeans, mainly from Poland, have applied for work in the UK since 2004. Most of these are concentrated in London, the southeast and the east of England. There are numerous instances—especially in the meat-packing industry in the latter region—where hundreds of permanent staff have been laid off and replaced by agency workers. The Unite union cites the Dawn Pac meat plant in Bedford where it says agency workers, many of whom are Polish, were forced to accept a 20 percent pay cut earlier this year.

The TUC report also outlined the appalling situation in social care and the tourism industry. But the situation is not confined to such traditionally notorious employment sectors. Nor is it specific to migrant workers, as Woodley implies.

A report in the Guardian also earlier this week highlighted the growth of agency labour in more “established” industries.

It cited A&P shipbuilders in the northeast, which recently won a Ministry of Defence contract. The firm employs predominantly Polish workers via a recruitment firm it part owns, where “The workers are paid £5 an hour less than permanent staff and can have contracts terminated with a day’s notice.” Coca-Cola in Wakefield has also “been using an agency to recruit Polish workers to do quality checking for £5 an hour less than local workers,” the report said.

Quebecor World printing, which produces the Observer magazine amongst others, is reported by Unite to have “steadily replaced its permanent workforce in unskilled areas with agency workers. Some 90 Poles and Lithuanians are currently working long shifts for significantly less pay than permanent staff,” the Guardian continued, while at Trinity Mirror printing, “Most of the agency staff at the Newcastle newspaper printing site are African migrants on lower rates of pay.”

At BMW’s engine-making factory in Birmingham, the newspaper continued, two-thirds of the 700 shop-floor workers are local agency staff, “paid up to £5 an hour less than permanently employed workers doing the equivalent job and have fewer benefits. Some temporary staff have more than five years’ experience with the company, according to the union.”

Similarly, at the Cowley plant, Oxford, out of the 4,700 workforce some 1,200 are agency workers.

While union membership in the private sector has declined to less than 20 percent, in many of the examples given above the growth of casual, low-paid work has occurred in unionised companies.

This apparent anomaly is even more striking in the case of the public sector. Here union membership is almost 60 percent, but this sector is a major employer of agency labour.

The TUC report found that some of the larger local authorities employ up to 20 percent of their workforces through agencies. Over the last two decades both Conservative and Labour governments have sought to slash public spending and privatise vast swathes of social provision. As a consequence, entire departments and workforces have been “tendered out” to private contractors.

Earlier this year, it emerged that temporary workers were queuing up outside Salford council depot for work in scenes reminiscent of the docks in the 1930s. From 5 a.m., agency staff gathered outside the building for employment as refuse workers and road sweepers. Agency staff do not necessarily have to turn out—usually they must wait for a telephone call—but in Salford those not chosen could receive a compensation payment of between £10 to £20. One worker told the BBC how he had been standing in line daily for five months, waiting between one to five hours to see if he would be picked. His hourly rate was £6.75 an hour, compared to a council employee’s £8.49.

Woodley’s protests aside, the unions now presenting themselves as opponents of casualisation are the same ones that have directly facilitated its growth. Not once over the last years have they sought to oppose the attacks on workers’ wages and conditions.

The mantra of the trade union bureaucracy has been exactly the same as that of the Labour government and the Confederation of British Industry—that nothing can be allowed to interfere with ensuring a “business friendly” economy.

On this basis, the trade unions have refused to lift a finger in defence of welfare rights—the dismantling of which has been a far more significant factor in the growth of a large reservoir of particularly young workers forced to rely on temporary, low-paid employment than European Union expansion. They have accepted wage freezes, productivity hikes and bargained away employment conditions all in the name of ensuring Britain’s “global competitiveness,” while systematically demobilising any opposition to Labour’s privatisation agenda. In many areas—such as the National Health Service, education and social services—unionisation has been a major factor in enabling the growth of unstable, temporary employment.

Woodley’s article was a cynical evasion of this reality, and yet another threadbare attempt to portray the Labour government under Brown as a force through which workers could protect their interests.

It should be noted that in the weeks leading up to the Labour conference the unions had agreed a deal with the government which effectively bars all discussion on Labour policy at conference. Woodley’s remarks were therefore framed around a “contemporary resolution” presented by the T&G, upon which no discussion was held and no vote taken. It therefore committed the unions to nothing.

In another sleight of hand, Woodley presented the absence of employment protection for agency staff as the result of “European inaction”—thereby covering over the fact that the Labour government has been at the forefront of blocking a new EU directive on agency working that had met with venomous hostility from the bosses’ organisation, the Confederation of British Industry.

Unfortunately for Woodley, just days before he took the podium at the Labour Party conference to deliver his snow-job for Brown, it was revealed that the government had signed a multimillion-pound deal with an Australian-based job agency firm as part of its efforts to drive disabled people off benefits.

WorkDirections UK, run by Therese Rein, the wife of Australian Labor Party leader Kevin Rudd, has won six four-year contracts under the government’s “welfare to work” programme, which has outsourced job search services to private companies. Earlier this year Rein was forced to sell off her Australian recruitment business amid complaints that it would represent a conflict of interests should her husband be part of a Labor government following the general election, and that it had been underpaying some staff.

Rein’s successful bid came after it was advised that Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) regulations—which guarantee existing conditions, such as sick pay and pensions, in the event of a transfer of business—did not apply.


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