As unemployment rockets, union rank & file and unemployed must launch fightback

Nearly 200,000 workers have been laid off since the lockdown, according to the Daily Mail’s survey of 59 top companies. Major companies like British Airways (12,000 jobs cut), Rolls Royce (9,000), Airbus (1,700; 15,000 worldwide) and Heathrow (25,000) are sacking some of Britain’s most highly skilled workers. Each job lost will cost three others in supply chains and among local traders.

The Centre for Retail Research says nearly 25,000 High Street jobs have disappeared already, with many more boarded up, waiting for the end of furlough to wind up completely. Even the 1.1 million jobs in the City of London are threatened by new technology and relocation after Brexit. Mountainous debts face much of the public sector, from the universities, colleges and academies through to local government and public transport, even before austerity budgets kick in again.

The full impact is hard to gauge, partly because of Britain’s opaque benefits and reporting system. The number of claimants for work-related Universal Credit has jumped 126% since March to 2.8 million. Other indicators reveal a barren landscape: employment down 2.1%, vacancies nearly halved, the so-called self-employed, i.e. precarious workers, down by over a million, hours worked down 8.9%.

And partly it is masked by the furlough scheme artificially keeping many employees on the books although they will never go back to work. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised the bankers that this will be run down from August and finish in October, dumping many of the 9.3 million furloughed and 1.3 million “self-employed” on the dole.

The OECD forecasts that Britain will fare second worst among the developed world coming out of the coronavirus crisis, facing an 11.3% drop in GDP this year, rising to 15% if there is a second wave of Covid-19. Added to this are fears that Brexit will disrupt supplies of pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, chemicals and manufacturing parts, causing further decline. There remains precious little time to negotiate a deal with the EU, let alone prepare to implement it. No wonder the UK has unilaterally declared it will not enforce border controls on 1 January 2021.

Slaving under covid

For those remaining in work things hardly look better. The lack of PPE and social distancing measures have cost the lives of thousands of workers, starting with the NHS and care sector, transport and construction, spreading quickly to manufacture, textiles and food processing plants. These workers never stopped – unless covid stopped them.

The ending of the lockdown has put additional strain on these workers, from transport to the NHS, as millions more return to work. Inevitably this has led to outbreaks forcing businesses to close down again. The number of schools forced to shut down after wider opening has risen from 15 to 22 to 44 a week. Almost universally the picture is of inadequate measures to ensure it is safe to return to work until both the infection rate and number is lower, “track, test and isolate” is in place and trusted protective measures are enforced.

The 2 Sisters chicken processing plant in Anglesey, Wales closed for two weeks when at least 216 – half the workforce – have so far tested positive for covid-19. Schools also closed again as it led to a wider outbreak on the island. Further outbreaks in meat processing factories have infected substantial or even larger numbers of workers, many of them migrants, forced to live in cramped and substandard living quarters.

The crisis of the food industry, the effect of deregulation and global supply lines, the drive for profit and monopoly and the insatiable demand from the world bourgeoisie for cheap, mass produced food have been exposed by this virus, but not for the first time. Only the nationalisation of the land, agribusiness, food processing and distribution monopolies under workers control can guarantee safe working conditions, safe food and a safe future for our planet.

The pandemic has also highlighted the illegal working conditions and sub-minimum wages prevalent in the garment trade in the Leicester area. The average pay is £4.25 an hour, half the legal minimum, though it can sink as low as £3 an hour. It is a big business too; market leader Boohoo is valued at £5.3 billion on the stock exchange and its sales of fast fashion soared 45% during the lockdown.

But to meet the demand deflected from the high street, Leicester’s factories ran through the night in continuous production. Without ventilation, facemasks, social distancing or time for sanitation between shifts, covid swept the factory floors. The mostly migrant workers then typically took the disease back to their overcrowded hostels and digs, where they infected others. But even if they got the dreaded disease, workers were ordered to go into work. All for £4.25 an hour, while the bosses are expecting £50 million bonuses.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and Health Secretary Matt Hancock feigned anger and surprise and Leicester was shut into lockdown again, but news of the conditions in the city’s sweatshops that were behind the second wave was relegated to the newspaper inside pages. However, repeated reports, including government ones, investigations by NGOs Labour Behind the Label and the Ethical Trade Initiative and journalists from Channel 4 Dispatches, the Financial Times and The Guardian have been ignored since 2017.

For all the talk of migrants taking British workers’ jobs, they are ruthlessly super-exploited, denied basic human rights and constantly at risk of destitution or deportation. Free movement must not only be retained for EU citizens but for all who wish to come and work here. Their semi-slavery – and in some parts of the economy actual slavery – seeps through the economy depressing all wages. Rather than being seen as an enemy, migrant workers are an essential agent in combatting capitalism as it tries to make the working class pay for its crisis.

Unite and divide

This is not the message Unite the union has been sending out this past month. They, backed by the Communist Party’s Morning Star, have been urging capitalists and consumers to “buy British” as a way out of the crisis, willing the bosses to export the crisis to rival or poorer nations and dividing the working class along national and ethnic lines.

They also actively encourage “short term working”, by which they mean working a three-day week for three days’ pay, i.e. a massive pay cut. But Unite has gone further, as was revealed in a TUC-commissioned report Crisis Support to Aviation and the Right to Retrain:

“The maximum rate of decline proposed by Unite the Union, of 10% of their workforce in this financial year… must be applied to any and all forms of government support extended during the crisis, including any loans extended at commercial rates.”

So here we have it in black and white, the trade union bureaucracy, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady and Unite’s Len McCluskey, conniving behind members’ backs to trade job losses for the workers for government bailouts for the bosses. It was hardly surprising, therefore, to find these two, flanked by other union leaders and Keir Starmer and Anneliese Dodds of the Labour Party, “welcoming” Sunak’s “Kick Start Scheme” and Johnson’s “Build Back Better” campaign.

Johnson would like to compare his programme of capital investments to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but this is sheer comedy. FDR spent 40% of GDP on kick-starting the US economy in the 1930s; Johnson is promising less than 1% – and nearly all the money had already been promised in the Spring Budget.

Sunak’s offer to offset climbing youth unemployment is even more pathetic. The CBI bosses’ union has denounced the £1,000 handout to employers taking back furloughed staff from November for three months as ineffective – if the banks call in their loans, companies will fold anyway. Likewise, the temporary VAT cut and £10 voucher to “Eat Out to Help Out”: gimmicks that will not cushion the triple blow of the pandemic, the economic crash and Brexit.

The Chancellor’s Kick Start Scheme will subsidise employers taking on “apprentices” for at least 25 hours a week on a minimum wage ranging from £4.15 an hour for under-18s to £8.20 an hour for 21-24 year olds. For six months. Then, as under Margaret Thatcher’s Youth Training Schemes, the bosses can fire their “apprentices” and apply for a new one.

The fact that both union and Labour Party leaderships are willing to support the Tories’ carnage in the factories in order to get the wheels of exploitation rolling again is a mark of how deep the crisis of leadership is in our movement.

Tower Hamlets leads the way

The Tower Hamlets three-day strike earlier this month was impressive for a number of reasons. While a fuller report can be read here, it is worth noting that the local Unison branch was able to bring up to 4,000 workers out and mount dozens of picket lines, while in the midst of a pandemic in one of London’s worst affected boroughs. Over 400 attended an inspiring online strike rally.

We can organise strikes against job losses and cuts to pay and hours, as well as occupations against factory and office closures, and they can be effective. Any action to protest or walk away from unsafe working conditions is likely to win support from across the working class, enabling us to take longer, more decisive action.

But we must not rely on our leaders to show the initiative – many of them are negotiating away our rights – we have to lead from below. Key to this strategy is organising militant rank and file trade unionists, independent from the sell-out bureaucracy, and the unemployed into a mass movement to stop the cull on jobs.

Local union branches and Labour Parties should make meeting rooms, computers and activists available to help the unemployed set up organising centres against the coming storm. Like in the 1920s-30s and the 1980s, an unemployed workers’ movement could not only help claimants out with navigating the benefits system and setting up food banks, but also organise protests and pickets to pressure local firms not to cut and workers to resist them with strike action if they proceed.

Unite already allows unemployed workers to join their community branches and other unions should also open their doors to the jobless, however it is vital that unemployed are not hidebound by bureaucratic rules and procedures, but in control of their activities and in command of their own funds. This will of course involve a fight, but there are plenty of allies in the ranks of the labour movement as well as community organisations, who can be drawn into street action – just as the Black Lives Matter explosion of anger demonstrated.

We fight for:

  • Defend every job – no cuts to hours or wages!
  • Workers’ control over working conditions, hiring and firing
  • For a rank and file movement to win control over the unions and over every strike
  • For an independent unemployed and precarious workers’ movement to demand work for all – cut the hours with no loss of pay, not the jobs
  • Nationalise the giant monopolies, the banks and every company shedding jobs, so we can provide work for the jobless and rebuild our communities without the profiteers.