by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
• The season of major trade union conferences is kicking off, amidst the cacophony of barefaced lies about the Tories’ £7.20 for over-25s being a ‘National Living Wage’. In fact it’s a measure consciously designed to further divide workers, and confuse people’s understanding of what a real living wage is.
Two of these conferences—that of the 630,000-member Scottish TUC, and the UK conference (ADM) of the 430,000-strong USDAW—have Motions up for debate on launching a serious campaign for a real living minimum wage of £10-an-hour for workers of all ages, here and now.
It is critically important that these proposals are overwhelmingly passed and acted upon, in the interests of millions of workers suffering a relentless squeeze on their incomes, with a plummeting share of the wealth they create coming back in wages and social wages, as the share going to profits hits the stratosphere.
Behind headline-seeking pay increases—with employers grinding their teeth and screaming ‘ruination’ as they grudgingly grant the new 50p ‘premium’ on the over-25s’ version of the legal minimum wage—lurks a sinister, unpublicised campaign of real-life pay cuts by the same capitalist profiteers.
And that equally applies to many of those companies basking in the kudos won for signing up to the entirely voluntary Living Wage Accreditation scheme, paying £8.25-an-hour to workers over 18.
Back in 2012, the British TUC commissioned a report that exposed the Great Wage Robbery of the past 30 years, during which time a cumulative total of £1.3trillion was robbed from workers’ wages and stashed away in the piles of profit—including mountainous ‘cash piles’ that capitalist firms refuse to reinvest.
That theft of workers’ wages for profit, on a galactic scale, meant a worker on £12,000 in 2012 should instead have been earning £21,016 if wages as a share of national wealth (GDP) had remained at the level of 1975. Somebody on £15,000 should have been earning £26,276; a worker on £20,000 would have enjoyed £31,299.
The successive governments of Thatcher, Blair, Brown and Cameron have systematically driven down the wage share by use of the blunt instruments of workplace fear, anti-union laws, mass unemployment, zero hours contracts and general casualisation of work.
Too often they were aided and abetted in this monstrous mission by most union leaders turning into quivering wrecks at the mention of the unions’ assets being threatened, under anti-union legislation, if members dared to take strike action in defence of their wages and conditions.
In reality, building defiant, militant action would have emboldened union members and rendered all the anti-union laws on the statute books entirely impotent. In those courageous minority of cases where workers and their unions did take such action, they invariably won; whether (to take but a few cases) that was the entirely illegal mass strikes on the oil refinery sites in 2009, several RMT strikes, or the recent strike of Scottish FE college lecturers.
Poverty pay and insecure jobs stalk Scotland and the UK like a modern plague. That’s in the same UK whose offshore tax havens constitute two-thirds of the globe’s hideaways for filthy, obscene stashes of cash for capitalist crooks and corporations, who then plead poverty when workers ask for a decent wage.
Rage at this robbery by the rich should be channeled and mobilised by the unions and STUC in a campaign to win a minimum of £10-an-hour for all workers over 16, without any loss of jobs, hours, conditions or premium payments.
Some of the heaviest concentrations of workers below the breadline are found in retail, hospitality and the care sector.
Employers in care are squealing like stuck pigs at having to pay £7.20 to the over-25s, with threats of slashing jobs. Driven by shameless profiteering by the bigger privatised care companies, this highlights the case for bringing social care into the public sector, ensuring decent pay (including for travel-to-work time) and reversing the inhumane cuts to contact time with the likes of elderly people.
Taxation of the rich minority could help fund this urgently needed improvement to the lives of children, older and sick people, and the livelihoods of the workers providing the care services.
In the giant retail sector—the biggest single employer in the country—some of the most systematic assaults on workers’ incomes and conditions are being enforced to compensate the profiteers, as they strut the stage with headline-grabbing increases to hourly pay rates.
In particular, premium payments for working weekends, Bank Holidays, nightshifts or overtime are being abolished or slashed—in many cases leading to literal, absolute pay cuts behind the mask of an increased hourly rate.
Morrisons have wiped out time-and-a-half for working Sundays and Bank Holidays, as well as premium payments to cafe chefs and forklift drivers. The Coop did similar. B&Q threatened the sack unless workers signed up to new contracts cutting wages by thousands of pounds, through loss of premium payments and bonuses worth 6 per cent of annual salary.
Tesco slashed double-time for Sunday work to time-and-a-half, and in fact tried to impose plain money. They’ve cut nightshift premiums and wiped out double-time or time-and-a-half for all overtime. All that to help boost their profit margins, and to afford Chief Executive Dave Lewis a mere £4.1million for his first 6 months in the job. ‘Every little helps’, as they say!
Sainsbury’s are poised to shunt 1,900 nightshift staff onto daytime hours in order to save on nightshift allowances.
In fact, premium payments for weekends, Bank Holidays or overtime in retail are becoming as scarce as a skint Chief Executive. And the lack of premium payments for unsocial hours will help capitalist retail giants hound and compel workers into doing more and more work at weekends, for longer hours—because it’s been cheapened—regardless of the destructive impact on family and social life. ‘Business needs’ is the profiteers’ religion.
Policy Motions demanding a concerted, coordinated campaign for an immediate £10-an-hour minimum for workers of all ages have been submitted to the STUC Congress by Cumbernauld & Kilsyth Trades Council and the Bakers’ union, and to USDAW’s UK-wide conference by my own Glasgow no.1 branch and Sussex no.1 branch.
All these proposals are asking unions to do are concrete steps to implement a policy agreed—unanimously—at the British TUC a long, hard 19 months ago (September 2014).
Forums of union reps to arm and equip them for a campaign throughout their workplaces and on the streets. Inclusion of this policy in wage claims. Systematic lobbying of councillors, MSPs, the Scottish government and MPs to implement a voluntary £10 Living Wage en route to it becoming legally enforced. Union material aimed at a drive to recruit non-members around a fight for £10 Now.
And organisation of workers in unions—with rank-and-file control over key decisions—is absolutely critical in the face of the employers’ sneaky retaliation against paying a few pence extra per hour. Their use of the burgeoning curse of zero hours contracts to simply slash hours and therefore reduce the overall wage bill.
Their reduction, or outright abolition, of premium payments for being chained to work on Sundays, nightshifts, Bank Holidays. Their replacement of ‘older’ workers by cheaper under-25s.
Cuts to hours granted to part-time workers, whilst their employers seek to win friends and influence shoppers into giving their custom to companies sporting ‘Living Wage Employer’ banners and logos.
Powerfully organised, active and democratic unions are the best—indeed, only—way to stop millions of workers paying a terrible price for minimal hourly pay increases that make some employers look good to the easily-duped.
In turn that also reinforces the case for the unions to win hundreds of thousands of new members by putting up a serious fight for £10 Now, and to defy and thereby defeat the most vicious battery of anti-union laws in any western state.
The SSP has pioneered the battle for £10 Now! on the streets and in the unions, as well as being fully involved in the likes of the STUC-initiated Better Than Zero campaign against the curse of zero hours contracts.
Union conferences have an opportunity they dare not miss to launch a serious fight on these issues, and to defy and defeat all anti-union laws in pursuit of a radical, irreversible redistribution of wealth from the capitalist crooks and corporations to the wealth creators—the working class.