Workers ask: Whose side are the parties on?

ssp banner and Richie on demo

For real workplace democracy: the SSP wants outright repeal of anti-trade union laws

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser You could be forgiven for forgetting that the working class make up the vast majority of the population, judging by how our interests and aspirations are ignored or trampled on by politicians representing the tiny minority who have grabbed most of the country’s wealth—the 1 per cent.

Then the election looms, so mainstream politicians who hold the working class in contempt suddenly spout nice-sounding promises in a cynical drive for votes. Jobs is one of the critical issues to judge the competing political parties on.

The Tory/Lib Dem Coalition makes hay of falling unemployment. But scratch the shiny surface and you find an ugly reality. Unemployment figures have fallen as a result of 1.5 million new jobs since 2010. But a new wave of self-employed makes up an incredible 32 per cent of these.

Now new research shows 80 per cent of the self-employed are living in poverty! These are mostly people who would rather have a secure job but can’t find one and end up self-employed rather than rely on insecure, part-time and temporary jobs—the main types created since 2010.

As the TUC reported, only one in 40 of the new jobs are full-time and permanent. There are still 80,000 fewer full-time jobs in Scotland than before the 2008 recession.

Many of those removed from the unemployment figures are eking out an existence on low-hour contracts, typically of 8-12 hours a week. This gives all the power to the employers, who can tap into this ready-made pool of reserve labour to do extra hours—but with no premium rates of pay for ‘overtime’—when busy spells in their business demands it. Underemployment has become the new variation on unemployment.

All too often workers rely on two or three different part-time jobs to try and pay the bills. The pinnacle of job insecurity and lack of workplace rights, are Zero Hours Contracts.

An estimated 200,000 workers in Scotland alone are living the cruel insecurity of Zero Hours Contracts (ZHCs). This gives all the flexibility to the employers, all the risk and low incomes to those working for them. It means being contracted to work for a particular employer, but with absolutely no guarantee of how many hours of work you will get each week.

Workers on ZHCs have absolutely no automatic entitlements to sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy pay. They are expected to be on call, unpaid, waiting by their phone or emails to find out when they’re wanted.

And real life experience proves that contrary to the baloney about the flexibility afforded to workers, when people decline a shift offered to them, they frequently aren’t offered any more for days or weeks after, as bosses exercise their power to punish them. These are rife and spreading in every High Street and retail park.

Over 90 per cent of McDonalds workers are on them: 82,000 in total. Boots employ at least 4,000; 80 per cent of JD Wetherspoons staff; Burger King; Dominos Pizza; Sports Direct; Pizza Hut; Subway; Next; Cineworld; universities… Social care relies on a vast army of ZHC workers—including the social care wing of the Church of Scotland!

The Tories and Lib Dems have shown in action they are parties that view cheap, casualised, insecure jobs as a virtue.

Labour has belatedly tried to appease the demands of the working class voters they rely on by promising measures on youth employment. And they repeatedly trot out the same two phrases about Zero Hours Contracts, phrases that should be seen for the cruel deceit they are!

Labour promises to “tackle Zero Hours Contracts”. What the hell does that mean? Why not say clearly they will ABOLISH them?

Their other phrase, especially used when they are targeting trade unionists for votes, is that Labour will “abolish exploitative Zero Hours Contracts”. Unfortunately, that same phrase has also been repeatedly used by the SNP leadership.

Watch out for the deceit in that word ‘exploitative’. Does that mean they’ll keep ‘good, non-exploitative Zero Hours Contracts’?!

The SSP has an honest, simple alternative to the dodgy word-games played by both Labour and the SNP: abolish ALL Zero Hours Contracts. They’re ALL exploitative, so scrap the lot and instead offer secure contracts, with guaranteed hours, whether part-time or full-time.

Jobs are not the only issue working class people need to judge the rival parties on. Pay is equally important. The much vaunted new jobs are overwhelmingly low paid, as well as insecure. Two-thirds of people who found a job in 2014 are paid less than £7.65-an-hour.

The government—and its allegedly impartial adviser, the Low Pay Commission—have the audacity to boast that a full 1.2 million workers will ‘enjoy’ the 20p rise on the over-21s national minimum wage next October, rising to the giddy heights of £6.70 an hour. That should be a source of shame, not boastfulness.

But what do the other parties offer? Labour is trying to work the biggest con-trick in modern times with their pledge cards promising an £8 minimum wage. What they coyly hide from the casual reader or listener is that they won’t introduce it until 2020!

So what do they expect millions to survive on for the next five years? And how much better than today’s £6.50 will that be worth by 2020, if any? And what about the fact they make no promises of scrapping the lower youth rates?

The SNP headline their support for the so-called Living Wage, currently £7.85. For workers on or just above the miserly £6.50 minimum wage, this would be a very welcome pay rise. But apart from the fact it is still too low to be accurately described as a ‘living wage’, it is entirely voluntary, not legally enforceable, which of course allows the SNP to sound good to workers whilst not offending businesses who have no intention of voluntarily paying that rate.

And to underline their stance, for anyone not paying proper attention to the policy of the SNP, they blocked and amended a Motion in the Scottish parliament last week which called for a minimum wage of £10 an hour—not now, but in five years’ time, 2020.

Even that modest plan, put by the Greens, was far too much for the SNP, as well as—predictably—Labour MSPs. By way of contrast with all the pro-big business parties, the SSP has persistently demanded a war on poverty pay by the introduction of a living minimum wage—currently of £10 an hour, for all over 16, abolishing the lower youth rates.

We call for that £10 NOW, in 2015, not 2020 or some other distant date—based on the modest formula of a legally enforced minimum set at two-thirds median male wages in Scotland.

It’s a policy we share with the Bakers’ union (BFAWU) and indeed the entire TUC. It’s time the trade union leaders fought for this fine policy, instead of handing members’ funds—and trying to hand members’ votes—to a Labour Party that has neither a track record nor any intention of seriously banishing poverty pay.

This general election comes just after the 30th anniversary of the 1984/5 miners’ strike. That defeat for the NUM, at the hands of Thatcher and the entire state apparatus, was a decisive turning point in the fortunes of the working class—a defeat that could easily have been an historic victory if the leaders of other unions and the Labour Party had shown an ounce of the courage displayed by the miners, their families and communities.

It is no accident that the 30 years since have been marked by growing poverty and inequality in the midst of vastly increased wealth for the 1 per cent. One of the chief weapons fashioned and used by the employers and their governments to drive down workers’ wages is the battery of anti-trade union laws—devised by Thatcher’s Tories, retained by New Labour during their 13 years in government, and added to by David Cameron, Vince Cable et al since 2010.

Where is the hue and cry about this vicious apparatus for keeping the working class in ‘their place’? In contrast, the SSP shares the demands of most trade unions for outright repeal of these laws.

Laws which price workers out of justice through £1,200-plus fees for Employment Tribunal hearings; make it virtually impossible to recruit openly to the unions in most workplaces; hamper the ability of union reps to function and represent members; and ban united action, including solidarity strikes and those deemed ‘political’.

We want to collaborate with workers and their unions to instead demand a Charter of Workers’ Rights, including the right to join, be active in and organise unions without fear of victimisation; for full, open access to workers for union reps and officials; full legal rights from the first day of employment (not after two years!); the re-establishment of free collective bargaining; the right to strike after a majority vote, including the right to take solidarity action with fellow workers; and ultimately for boards of directors to have a majority of elected workers’ representatives on them, for real workplace democracy.

Jobs, pay and workplace rights are central issues to judge any party by. And on their track record, not just their election-time promises! These issues put them to a central test: whose side are they on? Working people, or the profiteers? The working class majority population will remain when the general election circus moves on after 7 May.

We should put the politicians on the spot, spear their falsehoods and vague words, and resolve to build a mass, working class socialist party that stands up for decent, secure, well-paid jobs and workplace democracy. Scotland’s socialist party, the SSP, is here to stay beyond 7 May, to play our part in that struggle.

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