Workers walk off the job! Union officials walks them on again!
8 April 2020
The callous self interest of companies determined to carry on without taking even the most basic of precautions against the Coronavirus has produced a response by workers worried about infection. The demands that are being raised by these workers are in line with the recommendations made by health professionals worldwide on cleaning and hygiene but while 'essential' workers struggle to protect themselves by complying, companies are dragging their feet as feeble directions are issued by Stormont that they “may” be prosecuted, hurriedly followed by the caveat that “we don't want to have to fine people”! Coming from an institution that is generally perceived as institutionally corrupt that is precisely the point, they really don't “want to”!
The response by the union bureaucracy has also been, unsurprisingly, woefully inadequate. To date workers at three companies were forced to walk out in protest at the lack of the most basic sanitation measures. Moy Park chicken, ABP meats and Linden Foods.
At Moy Park the workers' walkout was limited to a 15 minute (tea break) protest by the union regional secretary and the workers were forced to return to work despite that same official's demands being “dismissed” by management.
At ABP also workers had to return to work with nothing except soundbite press releases from Unite despite the fact the company was refusing to maintain social distancing regulations or to deep clean the work-stations of workers who were self isolating because they were displaying the symptoms of Covid 19.
At Linden Foods according to a Unite regional officer “there was no social distancing ... on the boning line, in the canteen, in changing areas or at entry and exit points”. Neither were there any “additional wash facilities” nor any attempt to “stagger breaks.” Yet the workers ended up returning to the same dangerous working conditions on the strength of a promise by the company to do better.
The notorious Go-Ahead bus company which gained a substantial swathe of the privatised Dublin Bus routes have fired drivers for protesting against the conditions they are forced to work in and unease is also reported to be growing in public transport in the North where management have refused, with the alleged connivance of the Unite branch chair, to place protective screens on all buses to protect the drivers. Workers complain that no rigorous cleaning discipline has been put in place and deep cleaning occurs only rarely.
The food industry protests were held outside the plants by the workers involved and their local shop stewards but the issue was “resolved” by union head office in the traditional way - by getting the workers back to work. In all the companies the protesting workers walked back in to exactly the same conditions they had walked out of on the basis of, in the union bureaucracy's own words, “assurances” by management.
What are these “assurances” worth when doctors and nurses have been put in the desperate position by the British NHS management that they have to care for patients without sometimes the most basic PPE. Health workers are dying! Although generally management in 'essential' work categories are coming under some social pressure to comply, what are the vacuous assurances, designed only to restart production, worth? But more importantly, what is the real relationship between the union bureaucracy and the bosses when such a level of one sided “trust” exists?
These appalling failures at local level are symptomatic of the general malaise afflicting the entire leadership of Irish trade unionism which shares entirely the political, social and economic perspectives of the ruling class. Apart from public statements designed to maintain their own role as arbiters ICTU sees only the potential for social partnership and 'national unity'. The Dublin Government has been allowed by the ECB to stave off economic collapse by expanding the budget and spending both to support the economy and to avoid a social backlash and ICTU, Trump like, claims it as a victory they achieved just by asking for it. If only victories were so easily won! But the test will come when the State say's we want our money back, as the banks did not so long ago, and ICTU as usual replies yes!
The initiative taken by the food industry workers in the North has particularly exposed the impotence of the Northern committee of ICTU who in response to the walkout did nothing but issue platitudes like workers, “deserve to be safe at work”! The same tired mantra in dramatically altered circumstances, but this crisis is not ending any time soon. There is much talk about the peak coming around Easter. Possibly, but that does not mean that either the threat or the social restrictions are over. It could continue until a vaccine is found, and that could be 18 months or more. Then the application of a vaccination programme will take more time. Workers will continue to work under the threat of this virus for up to two years and if the employers think the peak is passed the pressure to “get the economy going” will only increase despite the continued danger to workers.
Assurances are not enough! There are reports that “negotiations” are taking place with the food companies on the possibility of slowing production lines, using less operatives at the same time and leaving space for social distancing. This is not a matter for negotiation, it requires a Yes/No response and immediate stoppage if the response is “no”! There can be no glib “understandings” with the employers on what risks their members will take with their own and their families health. We are not “all in this together”, shop floor workers lives are literally in danger and they must ensure that they have the last say on whether the measures proposed are adequate!
These protests, and the unease in a variety of workplaces are arising from groups of concerned shop floor workers, sometimes organised by individual employees and in some cases by shop stewards who are not just drones for the bureaucracy. These workers are raising demands which, because of the huge stakes involved, confront sharply the normal concession bargaining between the bosses and the union bureaucracy, except in this case the concession is that you take a chance with your health. This wave of protest locally comes at a time when workers are in dispute over the exact same issue internationally and despite the relative fragmentation their actions indicate the way forward because it is precisely these spontaneous surges by shop floor workers that must strive towards conscious self organisation.
This tendency towards spontaneous action is putting the union bureaucracy under pressure but to be successful it must produce a united approach and a programme of common demands that arise from the conditions workers face whether in the hospital, on the shop floor, distribution or the transport infrastructure. The most basic demands have to some extent been already posed and partially demobilised by the union bureaucracy but workers on the ground must continue to demand that;
Any lack of PPE, cleansing facilities and sterilisation material must result in an immediate stoppage across the entire industry. Unity is strength and every dispute must be generalised to the widest extent. Workers themselves should oversee and police these measures – in a small way this has appeared among concerned groups of workers in some workplaces amid huge concerns for health and safety.
Social distancing must be maintained rigorously, it should not be based on “assurances” for future practice and proper screens must be fitted to all workstations to minimise contact!
Work shifts for people dealing with the public or those working with possibly contaminated material must be shortened, with no loss of income, to minimise exposure to a potentially high “viral load”!
Job shares with no loss of income must be arranged with other essential service workers to lessen exposure time to possible contamination and instead of relying on 'volunteers' more workers should be employed on full wages!
There must be no loss of earnings for ill workers, those put in to quarantine or for all laid off workers.
There must be a massive expansion of testing. This means immediate and repeated testing of all key workers beginning with health workers. Testing should rapidly roll out from health workers to include the workers who interface most frequently with the public, food production and retail workers, bus drivers, refuse recycling workers, essential maintanence workers etc.
Socialised production or overspill morgues?
The response to the crisis has shown the inadequacy and inhumanity of the capitalist system. Although it is in damage limitation mode every sinew is strained by the capitalist State machine to extend its powers, protect itself and protect profits!
The shortage of medical equipment can only be solved in time to save many lives by the socialisation of the productive forces involved. The State sees the logic of harnessing this productive power but are protecting corporate interests by forming temporary relationships with them based on public/private partnerships and lucrative contracts but without sequestration and immediate large scale expansion of productive capacity they will not produce the quantity required quickly enough.
Companys producing test kits and ventilators already exist in both States and produce high quality equipment. These production facilities need to be immediately socialised, expanded, and production rates increased exponentially with the equipment and test kits to be distributed where need is greatest and not for profit, both nationally and internationally!
This is a task that can only be carried out by the working class, the capitalists will furiously resist, but all rank and file trade unionists and workers organisations should demand the immediate seizure of all private health companies profiting from the crisis along with the medicines and medical equipment industry. Seizing the means of production is the revolutionary alternative to capitalism's drive to build overspill morgues! The price paid for maintaining the profit system is that many thousands nationally, and millions globally, will pay with their lives.
This crisis is making the corrupt and destructive nature of capitalism completely clear. It is part of an ongoing economic crisis that has degraded the environment making it dangerous for human existance and it will not end with a subsidance in the rate of deaths from this virus. The underlying economic crisis means the capitalists will try to drive workers back to work no matter what the danger! We must prepare to fight and that begins by following the example of, and expanding upon, the courageous initiative shown by the workers who walked out, protested and picketed against the callous attitude of profit hungry companies both here and globally!