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Catalyst #29 (Feb 2012)

In this issue

The great workfare scandal - thousands forced to do unpaid work for their benefits

Resisting, questioning, creating - 101 years of International Women's Day

Victory for the Sparks - Electricians beat back BESNA cuts to pay and conditions

Interview - John Foley, the man behind the 'RyanAir don't care' campaign

Plus: your basic rights at work, pensions 'sell out', letters, international round up and much more.

 

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The great workfare scandal

There is little evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work. It can even reduce employment chances by limiting the time available for job search and by failing to provide the skills and experience valued by employers. (…) Workfare is least effective in getting people into jobs in weak labour markets where unemployment is high.

 

Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) Research Report No 533

Workfare means doing unpaid work for your job seekers allowance (JSA) of up to £67 per week. The government claims workfare helps the unemployed and create jobs, and yet their own report says this is not true, especially when unemployment is high (see quote above).

There are two main workfare schemes. The ‘voluntary work experience’ scheme offers job seekers work experience placements. However if they change their minds after a week, they cannot pull out without losing their JSA. This means they effectively become unpaid workers for a host of private companies, including Tesco, Holland & Barrett, Asda and more. Sainsbury and Waterstones have already withdrawn from the scheme under public pressure.

The second workfare scheme is the mandatory Work Programme. On this, jobseekers are referred from the Job Centre to one of several private workfare agencies. These include multi-million pound companies like Avanta, Reed and A4e, where four arrests have recently been made in a fraud probe. These companies arrange mandatory full time work placements. Failure to comply can lead to JSA being stopped.
There is also a new policy that could mean disabled people on employment and support allowance (ESA) could be compelled to undertake unlimited, unpaid ‘work experience’ for charities, public bodies and high-street retailers.

Workfare doesn’t help the unemployed, and the government knows it. According to the Brighton Benefits Campaign, the real aim is simple: “What boss would want to employ a worker they have to pay, when the government will give them someone off the dole to do it for free? The aim of workfare is simply to drive down wages.”

Employment tribunal rules agency worker's blacklisting is legal

Despite rhetoric that the new EU agency worker regulations will ‘stifle business’ and ‘cost jobs’, the extent to which the British government will go to use agency work to attack hard-won legal rights and undermine working conditions is becoming increasingly clear.

A case-in-point is the recent decision by the Central London Employment Tribunal that Dave Smith, a union activist and blacklisted construction engineer, is not entitled to legal protection against blacklisting because he was employed through an agency. This is despite Carillion, the firm who ultimately employed Smith, admitting in a signed statement that their managers had supplied the blacklist with information about Mr. Smith.

The blacklist is maintained by the Consulting Association and contained Mr. Smith’s photograph, address, national insurance number, work history, car registration, information about his family, and pages of documentation detailing his union activity, including his raising concerns about asbestos on building sites. Evidence from Mr. Smith’s file also shows that company spies had been attending union meetings and gathering information on Smith’s activities outside work.

The blacklist, which has long been known about and has even been the subject of parliamentary  discussion, was shared by 44 of the UK’s largest construction firms before being exposed and shut down. Companies paid a fee to the Association each time they checked up on a prospective or current employee.
Mr Smith, for his part, states that he “will be taking our case to the European Court of Human Rights.” However, this is a lengthy process and justice is no more guaranteed there than in the Central London Employment Tribunal.

Regular updates on the case can be found the website of the Blacklist Support Group:
www.hazards.org/blacklistblog

Interview: John Foley, the man behind ‘Ryanair Don’t Care’

When a man handcuffed himself to the goalpost during Everton’s premier league match with Man City, little was known about his cause. In 2008, John Foley’s daughter was working as an air stewardess for Ryanair. Her contract was suddenly terminated during a shift, leaving her stranded abroad with no money and no way to get home. It soon became clear that this was happening to a significant number of Ryanair’s cabin crew before their probationary period had finished.  The airline, however, were still demanding a €3,000 training fee off these former employees, earning Ryanair a tidy profit out of sacking staff.

John began a direct action and information campaign against Ryanair, which has included gatecrashing its 2011 AGM and staging a protest on the roof of Liverpool John Lennon Airport. Ryanair’s management all know John by name and his presence is anticipated at events involving the airline. Ryanair has also been logged visiting the campaign’s website on a regular basis. Catalyst spoke to John about the campaign.

Can you tell us briefly when the campaign started and why you set it up?
The Ryanair Don’t Care campaign was set up on 26th November 2008 to inform young students about the dangers of working as Probationary Cabin Crew at Ryanair. I have aimed to do my upmost to inform others what can happen at a young people working for a capitalist bully like Ryanair.

Three years on, what motivates you to carry on campaigning against the airline?
My main motivation is stopping young students joining Ryanair as Probationary Cabin Crew as I know the abusive, profit-driven practises of the airline towards these young students damages them forever. This motivates me to carry on campaigning against Ryanair week by week, month by month, year by year.

What kind of activism have you done against Ryanair?
In the last three years, my direct action protests have included running on the field of play with a banner at the England ashes cricket test match 2009, a roof top protest at the Ryanair  cabin crew training camp in London 2009. Last year, I staged a roof top protest at Liverpool Crown Plaza Hotel 2010 were Ryanair held a recruitment day. This year, I did a roof-top protest at John Lennon Airport and climbed up the RTÉ radio mast in Dublin and placed a 14-ft banner highlighting exploitation by Ryanair. During the company’s AGM this year, I got access to the room and interrupted the meeting, even though police and 5 extra guards were in place. Peaceful and Direct Action protests will continue in 2012.

What sort of support have you received?
I get a lot of information and support from pilots and cabin crew staff. I can’t say too much regarding help from Ryanair staff I know the management keep an eye on everything I put into the public domain. I cannot thank SolFed enough for their support and help in spreading the word.

Finally, what would do want the campaign to achieve in the end?
My end goal comes in two parts. One is for shareholders to sack the whole board at Ryanair and for the airline to adopt a different employment, recruitment and termination module, without the abuse. I want Probationary Cabin Crew to be treated with respect and dignity. Secondly, I want all the people in authority in aviation, as well as the Irish and UK governments and others, to be named and shamed for turning a blind eye to this injustice.

To read more about the Ryanair Don’t Care campaign visit: ryanairdontcarecrew.blogspot.com

Electricians beat back BESNA

Firms drop proposed 35% pay cut after direct action campaign from ‘Sparks’

Electricians are celebrating a major breakthrough in their battle to stop a co-ordinated attempt by some of Britain’s biggest construction firms to deskill their jobs and impose pay cuts of up to 35% after main players Balfour Beatty and NG Bailey threw in the towel. A source told a trade magazine that “one thing is definite, BESNA is finished.” The news was later confirmed in Construction News.

The employers had wanted to kill off JIB, an industry-wide agreement on pay and conditions, so it could be replaced with the vastly inferior BESNA plan. This would have let contractors raise and lower hourly pay rather than maintaining a standard wage for skilled work. For some electricians this would have meant a fall in hourly rates from £16.25 to £10 – a 35% cut.

The victory comes after months of campaigning from ‘Sparks’ within the industry which saw grassroots organisers bring out hundreds of electricians on weekly protests for months and culminated in wildcat strikes last year after the Unite union backed down on an official strike due to threatened legal action from the employers.

In September a group of around 1,500 electricians at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire walked out to join demonstrating electricians and November saw one of the largest nationwide wildcat strikes of 2011.

Unite union negotiators announced the withdrawal and suggested that “high-level talks” are now going to take place on the future of industry’s pay formulas. While Unite officials have talked ominously of sharing Balfour’s desire ‘modernisation’, normally another word for cuts, one Spark said that “the winning of this war is a long way off yet but we are constantly winning battles.”

Resisting, questioning, creating

International Women’s Day (IWD) is marked each year on the 8th of March, to signify the economic, cultural and political achievements of women and more importantly, all that still has to be achieved in the struggle for women's liberation. 2012 is the 101st anniversary of the day.

International Women’s Day first emerged from the women’s labour movement at the turn of the twentieth century, in North America and Europe. In 1908, in the United States of America, a three month strike of almost 30,000 garment workers, composing mainly of migrant women, almost shut down the garment industry and won most of the workers’ demands, including the right to organise, to bargain collectively, and improved wages and working conditions.

On the 8th of March,  15,000 of the women workers marched through New York to protest child labour, sweatshop working conditions, and to demand the vote for women. A year later in 1909 the first national women’s day was observed when the Socialist Party of America designated March 8th as “Women’s Day” in honour of the garment workers.

In 1910 at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen,  German Socialists, inspired by the actions of US women workers, proposed the establishment of a Women’s Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women’s rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women. 

The motion was passed unanimously by over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and on 18 March, 1911, International Womens Day was marked for the first time, mainly in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies and demonstrations.

In Vienna, 20,000 women demonstrated, carrying banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. They demanded voting rights, the right to to hold public office, the eight-hour day, an end to discrimination on the job, the reduction of grocery costs, the legalisation of abortion and the prevention of the approaching First World War.

In Petrograd in Russia on International Women’s Day, March 1917, the working women of the city launched the February revolution. Despite being urged by the Bolshevik leaders not to strike, on March 8 the women of Petrograd stormed the streets, angrily denouncing the Tsar and protesting food prices and bread shortages. Food riots, political strikes and demonstrations followed and within a week the Tsar had abdicated.

International Women’s Day was adopted as an official holiday in Russia after the revolution and as a result was predominantly celebrated in communist and socialist countries. It was celebrated by the communists in China from 1922, and by Spanish communists from 1936.

A few months after the first Women’s Liberation Movement Conference in Ruskin college in Oxford, on 6 March 1971 International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in the UK. 4,000 demonstrators marched through London carrying on their banners the four basic demands of the womens liberation movement: for equal pay, equal education and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand, and free 24-hour nurseries.

In 1977 the United Nations General Assembly designated March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace and since then IWD has been observed as a significant and popular event all over the world.

In 2007 International Women’s Day sparked violence in Tehran, Iran when police attacked hundreds of men and women who were planning a rally. Last year, an International Women’s Day demonstration was attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. More than 200 men charged  the female  demonstrators, attacking, groping and sexually harassing them, as police and the military stood by.

In 2005 the British Trades Union Congress passed a resolution calling for IWD to be designated a public holiday in the United Kingdom, however it it is still not a official holiday in the UK. Despite its radical and socialist beginings, IWD in the UK is usually represented by many cultural and political events, public ceremonies and conferences, alongside organised activity by the women’s movement, such as the Million Women Rise march, which have helped to popularise the day.

Though much of the turbulence that surrounded its early days is gone and despite its many ebbs and flows, International women’s day continues to be a day that helps to push women’s issues onto the political agenda and many women continue to see IWD as an important opportunity to review, reflect and act on the political, economic and social struggles of women.

The economy of making women care

The supposed ‘solution’ to the economic crisis is premised on cutting costs. It is therefore important to highlight the role that women’s subordinate position in the economy plays, as this will allow - and is allowing - for many activities to continue on an unpaid basis.

History has already shown how women are used differently at different economic junctures. Whereas the war economy of the 1920s and 1930s put women to work, it sacked them in the 1940s to give their posts to the soldiers coming home from the front. The ‘marriage bar’, that is, the prohibition of married women to enter certain better-qualified professions, which was in place in some industries until the 1960s, kept women in low paid jobs. According to Maria Angeles Durán, 2/3 of the total working hours today are unpaid caring-type of activities - done almost entirely by women.

In this process, men remain the rightful workers and economy managers whereas women’s involvement in the labour market is dependent on their caring-burdens and market needs. A 2007 research paper by Aguiar and Hurst shows that in industrialised countries full-time working women spend an average of 23 hours per week in unpaid housework and between 6 and 12 hours in unpaid childcare, this latter being between 2 to 4 times more than what men do.1 In the UK, this can be up to 60% of the total activities women do.2

According to the latest data on occupation by gender in the UK 69.4% of the cleaners, 81.5% of the social workers, and 87.7% of the nurses, are women. But women only make up 6.8% of engineering professionals.3 Women overall earn about £90 less per week than men. As such, women do the bulk of unpaid caring activities, they represent the biggest percentage of care-type jobs, and of the lower-paid professions.

Keeping care as an unpaid or poorly paid activity not only allows for huge savings to the economy, but also it creates an economy based on competition, the market and growth, rather than on need and affection. More importantly, these parameters allow “the economy” to be defined quite apart from many activities relevant to our lives, such as childcare. This tends to assign responsibilities and value through constructed social hierarchies, ultimately giving privileges and control to heterosexual white rich men.

Looking at the economy of care brings up that ‘caring’ is not so much something that women do because they are born to do so, but because of very precise and at times coercive economic measures. It is on these bases that our feminism needs not to aspire to the privileges men have but to attack and subvert the social hierarchies that sustain capitalism. 

1. Aguiar, Mark and Erik Hurst. 2007. ‘‘Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades.’’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 122(3): 969–1006.
2. Office for National Statistics. 2006. The Time Use Survey, 2005. How We Spend our Time, London: HMSO. Table 4.4
3. Office for National Statistics. 2011. Emp16: All in Employment by status, occupation and sex. Quarter 2 (Apr - Jun). http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=...

The 1976-78 Grunwick strike

The Grunwick dispute started in August 1976 in a film processing plant in Willesden. It lasted for nearly two years, the SPG (riot police) were used for the first time in an industrial dispute, and it involved mass pickets, over 500 arrests, strikers run down by cars, hunger strikes outside Congress House, and ended in defeat. At Grunwick nearly all the workers were Asian women. In the 70s large numbers of women from the subcontinent worked in manufacturing and in the years before Grunwick there were big strikes in the midlands involving mainly Asian women, such as the Imperial Typewriters dispute in Leicester in 1974.

Conditions in the factory were awful, the workers were subjected to constant speedups, pay was very low, at £25 a week, and there was a colour bar in operation. The dispute was sparked when a worker was sacked and three others walked out in support. This started a mass walkout and picketing, and the workers went to the CAB to ask how to join a trade union and joined APEX. The strike was made official at the end of August and two days later all 137 strikers were sacked by the company. In November the postal workers union, at the time the UPW, voted to refuse to handle mail to Grunwick, which would have been very effective as the company got sixty per cent of its work from mail order. However the union backed down after a threat of legal action in exchange for a pledge that the company would have to co-operate with the arbitration service ACAS, which it was refusing to do.

The strike was backed both by the TUC officially- they received full strike pay from APEX- and by a massive rank and file mobilisation for pickets, with busloads of Yorkshire miners coming down to support them for days of action. However the strikers were encouraged to look for a victory from the ACAS report and union recognition rather than stopping production at the factory.  The support they really needed was blocked, and when postal workers stopped deliveries again they were suspended by their employers and fined by their union. The ACAS report was not complied with by the employer and most of it was overturned in a further court ruling.

After this the strike moved slowly towards defeat, with some of the strikers holding a hunger strike outside Congress House (TUC HQ) to protest the TUC withdrawing support. The strike ended in July 1978 after 693 days without the workers winning their demands. However, the dispute remains an inspiring battle by working class women and a caution against the trade union bureaucracy’s complicity in the quelling of rank-and-file militancy.

Industry focus: 'Phantom Ofsteds' at a London Academy

An interview with ‘Mike', a London education worker, about the phenomenon of ‘phantom Ofsted' inspections, casualisation and mass dismissals of agency workers.

In London there is a local authority which claims to be the richest in Europe. Despite this, one-third of children in the borough live below the poverty line. In contrast, half of school age children in the locality are privately educated. This means that students left in the state system are overwhelmingly from the local estates. A sizeable percentage of them come from recently settled immigrant families. It is against this backdrop that this particular council began a program which has seen nearly all of its comprehensive secondary schools converted into academies.

Mike worked at one of those academies. Sponsored by a wealthy executive and specialising in “international business and enterprise”, the school boasts of “a strong commitment to education and business in the area”. A link to the Youth Enterprise Program is displayed prominently on the school’s website—which also offers the building out for “corporate hire”.

Having recently completed university, Mike was hired as a graduate support teacher. “My first impression of the place was pretty good. The pay wasn’t great, only sixty pounds a day, but that’s pretty standard for agency work in a school. But the hours were reasonable and the job was rewarding.”

While Mike was critical of the academy model before beginning work there, the conditions were okay. He didn’t feel the school environment was especially warm, but staff got along with each other.
When asked how the permanent staff related to the agency workers, Mike responds, “Well, there was no resentment or anything”. But there was no discussion of the implication of the academy’s widespread use of agencies, either.

As far as Mike could tell there was no active union presence. “Although since I was only there a short time, I can’t really say. I was never asked to join the union and, if there was a rep, no one told me.”
On November 30th, the day of the mass pension strike that brought out just about every union in the education sector, Mike’s school was shut for students. “Management told the agency staff there’d be no point in us coming in” and, as far as he knows, none of them did. No permanent member of staff approached him to discuss the strike or ask him to participate. “If there was a picket line, I wasn’t told about it.”

The entirety of the student support—graduate teaching and learning support assistants—was comprised of about twenty staff, all from various agencies. Mike’s contract was only secure on a month-to-month basis and there was never any talk of moving to a directly employed post. Yet, when management announced that all support staff agency workers would be let go, it still came a shock.

At the time, the official line was “finance”. The school was in debt and couldn’t afford the luxury of so many support staff. So, after three months service and with only three weeks notice, agency staff were informed they’d be again entering the harsh world of the credit-crunch job market. Shortly after, the rumours started.

The first went like this: when Mike and his co-workers had been hired in November, the academy thought it’d be facing an Ofsted inspection that year. However, it was later discovered the school would be spared the pleasure of having the inspectors round. Management’s original plan to move from “satisfactory” to “good” by beefing up support staff no longer applied.

The second rumour involved the new EU agency worker directive that came into effect October of last year. The new rules state, in short, that after twelve weeks of continuous employment agency workers’ pay and conditions must be the same as if they were directly employed. Mike and his co-workers were let go after eleven weeks. Since then, there’s been talk of the same positions again becoming available, presumably on the same inferior contracts.

Citing his insecure contract Mike says his dismissal “didn’t come as a total surprise”, but that the entire experience has left him “bitter” and even more critical of academies.

“I was lucky, I found work quickly”, although it was another agency position, this time in a state school. “But for other people, especially those in the special needs department, they had more invested in the job. It’s what they wanted to be doing long-term.”

And how were the students affected by this mass exodus? Students who get learning support tend to develop a close bond with their support teachers. These are often those most vulnerable in the education system and trust does not often come easy.

“The students were the main reason I didn’t want to go”, says Mike. Even in three months they’d developed a strong attachment to him. Before he left, students made cards expressing their sadness that he’d be leaving. In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter why Mike and his co-workers were sacked.

The combination of factors—Ofsted (and the phenomenon of the “phantom Ofsted” familiar to any education worker), agency contracts, and work at an academy—left the support staff at Mike’s school in appallingly precarious employment. No clear explanation was ever given for the mass dismissal and that’s the entire point: management didn’t need to. And that’s exactly why employers use agency workers in the first place.

Letter: Throwing in the towel, trade union style

A healthcare worker writes about the recent pensions ‘sell out’, with the union capitulating to pension cuts.

It was less than three weeks following the Trade Union Congress’ (TUC) much-vaunted ‘day of action’ against the assault on public sector pensions when we heard the news that some of the unions had reached initial agreement with the Government on the proposed changes.

TUC General Secretary Brendon Barber appeared on national media crowing that the action at the end of November had brought ‘a new atmosphere’ to the negotiations and that in the local government and health sectors there was ‘a strong sense that some real progress has been made’. Although Barber was keen to stress that ‘at this stage, no agreements have been reached’ it was clear that this statement signaled the leaders of the major unions scurrying to the heel of the establishment.

True to form, public services union UNISON behaved in an appalling Stalinist fashion, giving its branches only a few days to consult with their membership in relation to the proposed ‘heads of agreement’. The published opinion accompanying this consultation was about as balanced as a cup tie between Barcelona and Northampton Town.

The proposed deal, which in reality amounts to little more than a handful of concessions designed to divide those affected by the changes, was presented in such a way that left you with the impression that a great victory had been won and all that was required was a rubber seal. Who on earth could possibly oppose this?
The ‘executive committees’ of the union, liberally populated by individuals more concerned with their next conference expenses claim than any serious organising, didn’t bother to find out by asking its membership. Instead, in a manner befitting of a scene from the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, they agreed with each other that this really was as much as we could hope for and we should be thankful to have a pension (or a job) at all.

The surrender of branches to this propaganda was greeted enthusiastically by regional officers, heralding ‘a green light’ for negotiating the finer details of their capitulation. Any opposition was dismissed as external political interference and the union’s executive officers skipped off to sell out its membership yet again, safe in the knowledge that it wasn’t their own pensions at risk. Union reps were left having to explain to a bewildered membership that the union had done a deal without even bothering to ask them properly.

Now, we’ve been here many a time before and rather than endlessly slate the unions for selling us out and lobbying for a change of policy we should look to the fundamentally undemocratic nature and structures of the social democratic unions.

The power lies far away from the workers and this severely dilutes militancy and enables the politics of social partnership. ‘Let’s all make sacrifices in the interests of Great Britain PLC!’ they cry. Yet again we’ve been reminded that the hands on the levers of power may be few but they are manipulative and without organisations directly controlled by the workers charged to resist them they can feed, co-opt and satisfy their supposed opponents with ease. ‘Sell outs’ like this are inevitable so long as we don’t take matters into our own hands.

Rogue letting agents back down

Three tenants discovered that it is illegal in Scotland for letting agents to charge tenants fees apart from rent and deposits. Their letting agent, Martin & Co, had charged the three of them them a substantial £250 ‘check-in’ fee before they had even paid their deposit.

They first submitted an official complaint but received only the receipt listing the fees they had paid as a reply. The charity Shelter advised them that they could go to the small claims court, but the court fee would have been £65 with no guarantee of a win.

So instead, on 3rd February, they and 15 friends from the Glasgow Solidarity Network delivered a letter in person to the head of the Martin & Co West End office (to the amusement of other staff) giving the company two weeks to return the money.

They left quickly, took a picture outside for posterity, and dispersed. The manager must have called the police, because two officers came by the flat on Saturday to talk to them. However, thanks to helpful information from the Scottish Activist Legal Project, Solidarity Network members know their rights, and the police left without even taking names.

On Tuesday 7th February, just four days later, the tenants received a cheque for the money in full, without any further action or the cost and time of legal procedings.

Rough sleepers up 23%, set to rise more

The latest official statistics show that on one night in 2011 there were 2,181 rough sleepers in England, up 413 from 1,768 on the same night the previous year. London and the South East had the highest number of rough sleepers with more than 400 in each region.

The news comes as mesures to criminalise squatting continue to progress through Parliament. The plans have been pushed by Hove MP Mike Weatherly. In Brighton & Hove last year there were 368 households classified as homeless, but 3,655 empty homes.

Howard Sinclair, the chief executive of the Broadway charity, told the Guardian: “do I think that the figures will get worse? Yes, I think this is the start. As people get into debt, as the benefit changes take effect, as people get evicted, this problem will become more acute. Yes, the government has kept the homelessness grant. But most prevention and support services are funded out of Supporting People budgets, which have been cut by 20% by local authorities.”

About Catalyst

Catalyst is the quarterly freesheet of the Solidarity Federation. If you want to get hold of a copy, get in touch with your nearest SolFed local, or email catalyst@solfed.org.uk. If you would like to distribute Catalyst, please get in touch with the Catalyst collective.

Other Catalyst issues

Catalyst #28 (October 2011)
Including articles on the limits of a trade union-led response to the cuts, a feature on three London education workers under austerity, victories for cleaners, international news, resisting NHS privatisation in the West Country, letters, and more.
Catalyst #27 (June 2011)
Featuring articles on striking against the cuts, a centrefold feature on the history and purpose of strikes, victory against Office Angels, international round-up, a focus on 'modernisation' in the postal service, letters, and much more.
Catalyst #26 (March 2011)
Featuring articles on the cuts, a centrefold feature on austerity Britain, victory in Levenshulme, international round-up, basic rights at work, opinion, and much more.


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