Before the pandemic struck the global economy was on the brink of a fresh crisis. Massive speculation, debt and bankruptcies indicated what was coming. The Covid pandemic has provided a convenient scapegoat for the failings of capitalism itself.
Everywhere states have injected trillions into their economies to prevent a complete economic collapse. In the year to April 21 the UK spent £355bn, or 17% of its GDP doing this. From March 2020, 11 million workers were on the furlough scheme where the state funds 80% of their wages. Despite its winding down, 2.4 million workers were still relying on it in July. When the scheme ends in September a large increase in unemployment will result. The furlough scheme and support for self-employed workers has cost the state £107bn. The cost of the pandemic to business itself has been £251bn. In simple language, capitalism is in a real mess. Who is going to pay for all this?
As usual the bosses are saying “not us” and are trying to get the working class to pay for lost profits. Wages, which have been steadily reduced over the last four decades, must now be reduced more. For public sector workers, apart from the NHS, there is a pay freeze for the year 21/22. For the private sector two strategies are being followed.
The first is the standard Keynesian way of reducing wages by offering increases lower than the rate of inflation. The Bank of England expects inflation to be 3.7% later this year so anything less than this is a pay cut. A few examples of this are: Bexley Binmen who were offered 1.5% rise but went on strike after turning it down; British Sugar workers who were offered a 2% rise but voted it down; and, in the public sector, NHS workers, who were offered 1%. Despite this being, we were told, the absolute maximum the Treasury could afford, as the next wave of the pandemic threatened, this was miraculously increased to 3%. However, £500 million of this must be paid for by cuts to the NHS! For those who not so long ago were hailed and clapped as heroes this represents a pay cut and for the NHS another kick in the teeth. The award, which does not even cover all NHS workers, would cost about £2bn. Meanwhile, our rulers are happy to shell out billions to their supporters in the capitalist class: £37bn for useless test and trace, £10bn on useless PPE, etc.
The second is “fire and rehire”. Where workers have a contract, the bosses simply tear it up, fire the workforce and offer a new contract with worse pay, longer hours and fewer benefits. Refusal to sign results in the sack. According to the TUC, 1 in 10 workers have been subject to “fire and rehire” since the first lockdown in March 2020. Unions are accepting it but many workers are not! For example Tower Hamlets council workers, engineers at Brush Electrical Machines, Ealing traffic wardens, workers at GKN Wheels and Auto Structures have all fought back. The problem is each struggle tends to be isolated instead of extending and combining with the many workers in the same boat. This weakness is only increased by unions sabotaging struggles. Two examples illustrate this.
At British Gas the bosses announced they were getting rid of 5,000 workers and told 21,000 workers that they had to accept new contracts or be fired. The new contracts included an extra three hours a week, no increases for working weekends and public holidays, etc. These changes amount to a 15% cut in pay. The response was initially strong, with 7,000 workers taking 42 days of strike action but the ‘defence’ GMB union organised was nothing but a sell-out. As the April deadline for accepting the new contracts approached the GMB actually advised its members to accept the contract and sign! Even so 500 still refused. They were fired without redundancy pay.
Another example is that of Go North West bus drivers. Again the plan was to “fire and rehire” the entire workforce on worse conditions. The drivers struck but following 85 days of strike action, workers accepted a deal which meant they lost paid meal breaks and got compulsory overtime as well as longer shifts while being paid the same. Unite negotiated this and hailed this as a victory because the bosses agreed not to use “fire and rehire” again!
Part of the way forward for workers today was shown by electricians at an Amazon warehouse being built in Gateshead. SSE Enterprise Contracting told untrained workers to carry out dangerous electrical works on-site. Not only did this go against health and safety, it also undermined the skilled trade of the electricians. The workers organised a successful wildcat strike. Fellow workers refused to cross the picket line. The main contractors gave in and hired electricians to do the work. However, another contractor, SIS Systems, then fired 35 electricians who had all been involved in the strike action. But the workers were resolute, and after three more days of wildcat strike action, all the electricians who had lost their jobs were reinstated.
It was the self-organisation of the workers which led to victory here. Moreover, unity across barriers is more important than ever as large contracts today are broken up into many suppliers of labour. Yet another reason why we must take our own steps in organising across the bosses’ divisions. Unions are primarily concerned with protecting their position within capitalism. They won’t risk organising across different contractors or workplaces. By taking action themselves, Gateshead workers were in a much stronger position to actually win their struggle.
Yet capitalism’s relentless drive to increase profits means that halting the bosses’ attacks can only be temporary. Tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, a new onslaught will come. The only real gains can be in understanding ways to organise, and our awareness of the need for a higher form of society. The first means controlling our own struggles through general assemblies and strike committees and widening them to workers in other trades and areas. The second means understanding that we will always be on the back foot while capitalism exists and production is for profit. In short, we need to get political and work towards creating a new social set-up where production is for human needs.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 56) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.