Jump to Navigation

Catalyst #22 (Winter 2009)

In this issue

In this issue: Crisis, cuts and class struggle; Interview with a Tower Hamlets College striker; Cleaners struggles; Lewisham Bridge school occupation, Know Your Rights and more!

 

Download Catalyst

Click here to download the issue as a PDF file. You can also get in touch with us to get paper copies : catalyst@solfed.org.uk.

Crisis, cuts and class conflicts

2009 has seen a wave of workers’ struggles against the effects of the recession.
Firstly, workers at Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) in Lincolnshire staged an unofficial walkout over claims that foreign workers were being used to undermine a national agreement on pay and conditions. Solidarity walkouts rippled across the country at 13 refineries and power stations from Longannet in Fife to Milford Haven in South Wales to Langage Power Station near Plymouth, involving in total upwards of 4,000 workers.

While the media were quick to pick up on the slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ that some strikers echoed back to Gordon Brown, the reality was the demands of the LOR workers reflected working class solidarity - making no reference at all to ‘British workers’ and calling for assistance to migrant workers.

Not only that, the refinery strikers openly defied the laws banning solidarity strikes with impunity – and won – providing the latest example that ‘direct action gets the goods!’ Shortly after the refinery strikes, laid-off employees at Prisme Packaging in Dundee occupied their plant. They suceeded in re- opening the factory as a workers’ co-op, securing the income of the nine workers after bosses had tried to withold even redundancy pay.

Following hot on the heels of the Prisme occupuation, workers at Ford-Visteon in Belfast responded to being laid-off with only 6 minutes notice and no redundancy pay by occupying their factory. As news spread, workers at Visteon’s two other UK factories in Basildon and Enfield followed suit.

Occupy! Resist!

The Belfast occupation was maintained for over a month, ignoring union ‘advice’ that the occupation was illegal (it wasn’t) and ceremoniously burning court possession papers granted in favour of Visteon.

When the dismissed Visteon workers began preparing a delegation to visit Ford’s UK factories to encourage solidarity strikes, bosses suddenly returned to the table (as union bosses tried to call-off the delegation). A partial victory was won, although some issues, such as pensions were left unresolved.

Coinciding with the Visteon occupations, several schools in Glasgow and South London were occupied by angry parents protesting against closure plans. The occupation of Lewisham Bridge primary in South London was inspired by the ongoing Glasgow ‘Save Our Schools’ campaign and the Visteon occupations.

Workers from Visteon visited the school and spent some nights on the roof in solidarity with the occupiers. Charlotte Turner primary in nearby Deptford was also occupied after the council ignored a sham ‘consultation’ exercise which returned 296 out of 297 responses opposed to closure. Lewisham Bridge was a resounding victory, with parents forcing the council to abandon their plans to demolish the school.

Profit before planet

Another high-profile occupation began in July after 625 workers at Vestas Blades, a wind turbine manufacturer in the Isle of Wight were laid off in similar circumstances to the Visteon workers earlier in the summer.

Around 20 workers responded by occupying the plant, pointing to the farce that the closure of the UK’s only wind turbine plant came just hours after the government announced plans to build 10,000 more wind turbines as part of its green energy ‘commitment.’ Vestas had had no problem pocketing several million pounds in government cash just before the redundancies were announced.

After resisting management and police attempts to literally starve them out – one worker was taken to hospital with low blood sugar levels but supporters risked arrest to break the siege and deliver much needed supplies – the workers ended their occupation after nearly three weeks.

Whilst the occupation did not achieve its goal of keeping the factory open, it highlighted the severe lack of jobs on the island and drew attention to the fact that despite the rhetoric, the environment will also be made to pay for capitalism’s crisis.
There have also been ongoing official and unofficial postal strikes up and down the country before voting overwhelmingly, for national strikes (see page 8), disputes including refuse workers in Leeds, Edinburgh and Brighton, and an indefinite strike over cuts by education workers in Tower Hamlets, London which secured a partial victory guaranteeing no compulsory redundancies.

Back to the future?

This resurgence in working class militancy has already got sections of the ruling class scared. The ‘favourite think tank’ of Tory leader and likely next Prime Minister David Cameron has even warned of a “new age of militancy.” From Page 1 Against this backdrop, the BBC’s economics editor writes that “the crucial difference between Labour and Tories is not so much the scale of spending cuts - but the timing.” The Liberal Democrats say no public services should be “ring-fenced” from cuts.
The political consensus is clear: drastic cuts are on the way, with talk of spending being slashed by at least 10% over the next three years.

Reportedly the favoured model is Sweden, where major cuts were made following a budget crisis in the 1990s. According to the BBC “even though it was a Social Democrat wielding the axe, it was Sweden’s over- arching welfare state which received most of the cuts.” With an election looming all the politicians will deny it, but there’s no doubt they intend to make the working class pay for the crisis.

The last years of the ‘economic boom’ saw numerous workers’ struggles against sub- inflation pay offers and deteriorating terms and conditions, which came following years of real-terms decline.

Then when the recession hit, workers were urged to tighten their belts for the good of the economy, as unemployment rocketed, pay was slashed and home repossessions reached record levels. Now there is talk of economic recovery, politicians of all stripes are already planning how best to make workers pay.

This underlines a simple fact absent from most mainstream commentary: it is not the health of the economy that determines workers’ living standards, but our ability to collectively impose our needs on the bosses. Without this collective power, economic growth is simply accumulated by the bosses as profit, and economic crises have their costs passed on to weak and disorganised workers.

By contrast, when workers take collective direct action, they are able to improve their conditions regardless of whether the economy is in boom or bust. Sections of the ruling class are alert enough to fear this; it’s up to us to make their fears into reality.

Rise of school occupations

To the dismay of head-teachers everywhere, this year has seen a marked rise in parent militancy in response to closures and handovers to private companies.

The agenda of handing community schools to private interests means less accountability, selection procedures, job insecurity, and a focus on grades to the detriment of education and care. Facing closures, academies and foundation schools, people up and down the UK have resisted with grass-roots campaigns and, in several cases, occupation.

The first occupations occurred in Glasgow where twenty-two schools are threatened with closure, as part of a council plan to plug a £6 million overspend. Wyndford, St Gregory’s, Our Lady of the Assumption and Victoria primary were occupied in April and Wyndford was subsequently reoccupied in June. Soon after, Lewisham Bridge primary school in London was occupied by parents after the council voted to demolish the site and hand the school over to the medieval Leathersellers livery company as an academy school.

In early May parents at Charlotte Turner, a primary in Greenwich, took the building to fight a planned closure. In all cases there had been a ‘consultation’ resulting in overwhelming majorities opposed to the changes and in all cases these were ignored. With official lines of negotiation an obvious sham, direct action became the only weapon left to the parents.

Of the occupations, only Lewisham Bridge has achieved some of its goals; the children will be returning to the school in November, the building remains and it is still not an academy school. Although this was nominally achieved by an English Heritage listing, the force of the campaign and the media attention it got undoubtedly played a big part.  Even without victories (Wyndford and Charlotte Turner have been closed), the occupations have brought self-confidence to participants and bolstered campaigns frustrated by officialdom. There is a new willingness to take action for our schools and every occupation is an example to the next.

With coming cuts in education and the onwards march towards privatisation, we should expect more campaigns and more occupations. Both main parties plan to attack education after the next election. Labour’s Ed Balls’ claims of savings in education can only be achieved by merging schools and making them ever bigger. The Tories intend to take more schools out of local authority control and into unaccountable companies.

With a pay freeze on the way, education workers will be involved in their own struggles. If the school campaigners and workers can act together we could see more victories in this academic year.

The workers will be able to draw confidence from the support of parents, so long as parents are actually able to speak to staff, something that the unions have tried to block in some cases. However, the student occupation at SOAS in support of detained and deported cleaners demonstrated the solidarity links that can be made, as did the vociferous student support at Tower Hamlets College (see pages 4-5).

Prescription heroin 'cuts crime'

When it comes to drugs, the state’s policy has traditionally been hard-line; blanket prohibition and the criminalisation of users. However a recent government-backed study has cast doubt on the wisdom of this approach, by showing that prescribing heroin to addicts both drastically cut the use of street drugs and markedly reduced crime.

Drug-related crime is a major problem in working class communities, with former colliery areas in south Wales and the north of England having some of the highest rates of heroin addiction. Research suggests that between half and two thirds of all crime is drug related. The Randomised Injecting Opioid Treatment Trial (RIOTT) reported over a two-thirds reduction in crimes committed by the participants.
Professor Strang, who led the RIOTT programme, said that the aim of the trial was to determine whether prescribing heroin or similar substitutes could help turn addicts’ lives around and prevent the cycle of crime and imprisonment. “The surprising finding – which is good for the individuals and good for society as well – is that you can,” he said.

Will the evidence influence policy? Or will the upcoming election see another futile contest between politicians to appear the most hard-line on those already at the bottom of capitalist society? While the government has indicated it will “roll out” a supervised prescription program, concerns have already been raised about the £15,000 per person annual cost. However, compared to the £25,000 per person annual cost of imprisonment that seems like a bargain – even in the crude cost-benefit terms of government ministers. That’s before even taking into account the broader social costs of widespread heroin addiction.

Why did we risk it all? Because we won't go down without a fight

While the recent media spin is suggesting that we’re ‘on our way out of recession’, the reality on the ground is that workers are still facing attacks across sectors in the forms of job cuts and community provisions. Education has been one of the sectors worst hit in this period, with £65m slashed from higher-education (HE) budgets, schools closing left, right and centre, and jobs to go at approximately 100 of the 150 HE institutions in the UK . The situation is as bleak as ever.

In August, around 250 members of teaching staff at Tower Hamlets College (THC), East London went on indefinite strike over threats of compulsory redundancies, and cuts in provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses. Catalyst spoke to Rachel, a member of the striking staff, about the background of the dispute, the issues at hand, and the feelings after the strike came to an end in late September.

We began by discussing the background to the strike, going back to June of this year, – “There was new management, a new principal, new senior managers … and in June they issued a document ‘Securing the Future’.” The nature of this document turned out to be a plan for “very brutal cuts in provision and jobs, and on June 5 there was a 30 day notice for consultation”, with the projection in June being that “40-60 jobs in THC would be cut, while approximately 50% of ESOL course places would also be lost, and some in A-level teaching.”
Prior to the attack on jobs and provision, Rachel said that she had experienced “good working conditions with a strong union … we were comfortable”. But that all changed, and with a suddenness typical of many disputes, the plans to cut jobs and ESOL provision were an aggressive assault on the workers and students. Management were strategic in their timing – “proposing to do it all at once, and at the end of term so it was hard to do anything about it… coming up to exams, most of teaching finished for the summer” – indeed the choice of timing had put the workers in a more difficult position to fight back, but they had no choice.
          
Campaign against cuts
“A campaign started against the cuts, they were talking about 60 people being made redundant but they offered voluntary redundancy and a lot of people took that – which was unfortunate but meant fewer compulsory redundancies”. The campaign began right away, and on 27th June in Bethnal Green, a demonstration of workers, students, and supporters marched to Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel.  In addition, staff and students were writing letters in anger at the proposed job and course cuts, but it was clear that direct action would be the only way of fighting back if the workers were to have any hope of defending themselves.

In early July, the attempts to formalise the redundancies had become more concrete. Rachel told us of a “letter sent by courier at night” which targeted 19 people at that stage for compulsory redundancy, which had made a ballot for indefinite strike action all the more vital. In the meantime, over the summer weeks, some people accepted voluntary redundancies, and some appeals had continued between July and August.

Strike ballot
The teaching staff, who were members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), decided to step-up the fight-back. “We balloted for strike action in late-June and we had a series of one-day strikes toward the end of term”. While feeling that in and of themselves they were ineffective in combating the cuts, Rachel says this was a useful process; “it was a way for people from the different sites to meet and discuss things… we then had an unofficial union action – we refused to take part in a staff development event that we had been required to do- this brought people together”. The same day, staff voted for indefinite strike in September.

The strike was due to start on 27th, August, before students began to enrol for the new academic year – “were we going to be able to carry it out from first day of term?...we had a union meeting first day of term” and they affirmed the strike from then on. Rachel described some of the debates and internal dynamics involved – “some people thought we shouldn’t do it during enrolment because of students, since the college has competition from other 6th forms, but we decided to do it anyway”.

Student support
From the beginning of the campaign students were on-board with the staff action – “students did show support…at Poplar [another THC site] students respected the picket line and on the adult sites they mostly didn’t cross the picket line. We took great pains to make sure they could understand. The students knew us and they knew what it was about.”

The initial demands of the strike at that point were solely around the issue of compulsory redundancies. “We were down to 13 compulsory redundancies because others had won appeals or taken voluntary redundancy under pressure. Other things were dropped… saving some of the jobs did save some course provision.”

The strike
During the strike Rachel says feelings of solidarity were high - “morale was fantastic… there were so many on picket-lines and doing other things and people feeling good… busking, collecting, daily meetings, not much problem with scabs”. The busking and collecting helped the strikers to support themselves financially during the month they were out.

“We got strike pay from national union (UCU), but we don’t quite know how much for full-time staff. There were 250 people on strike; we were able to collect a lot of money, about £20-25k, through colleges and workplaces, especially FE colleges, and places like local fire station. There was a hardship fund and any striker can say ‘I need this much money’ on the basis of trust and solidarity.”

Mixed results
“In the end officially there were no compulsory redundancies, but in a few cases I saw them as compulsory because certain people were selected through a scoring process, put through a meat-grinder, going over summer, in the end offered redeployment/demotion or voluntary redundancy.” Basically some had been forced into taking ‘voluntary’ redundancies.

“Six teachers got their jobs back… seven people I believe took voluntary redundancy. Nothing else was included in negotiations about what happens next.” Rachel was very honest about the shortcomings, but she does feel that the gains that had been made, which were mostly in confidence terms, are worth building on. Despite the feeling that they could have achieved more, she says, “we are strong going back, heading to more of a shop-steward model. If we keep that going where we can meet and continue the feeling of strength.
“I think people thought we couldn’t stay out too much longer. If we carried on we’d be divided. I think people want to feel good about it and we did accomplish a lot. It could have been much worse without our action.”

So was it a ‘victory’?
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Rachel had written on the class struggle website libcom.org that “this deal was sold through with the most outrageous manipulation of the mass meeting where discussion was suppressed before and during the meeting as far as possible, with members being shouted down by union officials.

“In the short time there was for debate, many people spoke against accepting the deal but in the end there were 24 votes against, many abstentions and the clear majority voting to accept and go back to work. (though the meeting was of course smaller than our usual weekly meetings).”

Having had a few days to reflect on the outcome by the time we spoke, Rachel was acknowledging that there were positive elements in the outcome. While compulsory redundancies were defeated, and this would also mean some ESOL provision would be saved (though not nearly as much as the 1,000 places under threat), Rachel and many of her fellow strikers are not getting carried away in the euphoria expressed by some on the left and higher up in the UCU.

“It was quite a bittersweet thing. A lot of people don’t wanna talk about it as a victory – we could have done more heading back to work , but we feel great about what we did… I think at Poplar you’ve got an SWP branch, they were the ones that kind of ended it when it ended. They wanted that result and got it in the mass vote – ‘This is  a great victory lets go down to the Brighton Labour party conference.’ But cracks have started to appear very quickly in those celebrations.

“People feel it’s a mixed bag. It’s not just me – 24 of us voted against going back. I didn’t think we could stay much longer, but the vote wasn’t done in the spirit that other meetings had been done.”

The action by teaching staff has had a ripple-effect in terms of other staff – “the Unison people were promised no compulsory redundancies because we were on strike.” So despite the mixed feeling concerning the outcome, the are definite positives that should not be under-emphasised.

Rachel made clear that while she felt the THC workers could have held out for more, it was only through taking their action against the bosses that they were able to make the gains they did. A feeling among many of the THC staff that were on strike is that they learned the value of fighting back and standing side-by-side in solidarity with each other – had they allowed these attacks to go unchallenged, they’d certainly have been in a considerably worse position. While there are many lesson to be learned from the strike, Rachel felt that many of her colleagues gained a sense of confidence in what they could achieve when they took collective action, and in times when indefinite strikes are almost unheard of, the THC workers have set an example for workers everywhere.

The fight-back in education is on, and there have been glimmers of hope. From THC to the victorious parent-led occupation at Lewisham Bridge Primary School (see page 3) winning an education for their children, examples are being set for workplaces and communities under attack: the only way we can defend our interests is to fight for them. One of the lessons learned has been that it was not the union that ‘won’ this ‘victory’ for the Tower Hamlets strikers; it was the collective action and solidarity of the workers themselves.

In a support leaflet for the strike, the London Education Workers’ Group said, “The Tower Hamlets strikers have set a fantastic example for the rest of us in education to follow. Through their direct action and solidarity they have shown [principal] Michael Farley and all those seeking to make cuts in education that we will not go down without a fight.”

Rachel has been very honest about the shortcomings after the strike, but the most important thing coming out was the sense of confidence and solidarity they felt going back to work, and no-one can take that away from the Tower Hamlets College workers.
Catalyst thanks Rachel for taking the time out to chat about her experiences.

Take the public sector and squeeze

May 2010 will see a general election where the main parties will compete with each other in promising cuts in public expenditure and attacks on public sector workers pay and conditions.

This offensive is egged on by the media and parts of it are fast becoming accepted wisdom - even if the supposed facts underpinning this version of events are wrong.

While the media like to talk about public sector bureaucracy, the vast majority of public sector workers do things that are useful – nurses, doctors, street cleaners, library assistants, meals-on-wheels drivers, carers, teachers – are just a few examples. Whoever gets in after the next election, these groups of workers are a prime target for cuts to balance the State’s books after the multi-billion pound bank bail-outs. The bureaucrats will for the most part not be the victims of these cuts, but those doing the cutting.

The attacks will be three-pronged – straight cuts in numbers of workers doing a job, cuts to pensions and speeding up privatisation. Pensions have been demonised in the press. A decade ago many workers in all sectors had final salary pensions. Most private sector bosses have now closed these, whether for new starters or all workers, and if replaced, it has been by inferior ‘money purchase’ pensions, where the individual worker takes more of the risk and the company pays less.

All the media talk of ‘gold-plated’ public sector pensions is part of the agenda to drive down workers’ wages across the board through divide and rule. It turns out the average public sector pension is about £7,000, but many have pensions of less than £5,000 per year. This is hardly ‘golden’, and is low enough that many pensioners will qualify for additional benefits because their income is so low.

All main parties are also committed to selling off more public services on the pretext that the private sector is more efficient and cheaper at providing services. This is just free market dogma. Privatisation is about cutting both pay and conditions of workers, and the level of service received. Sometimes, under accounting scams like the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the cost is actually higher and the service poorer, with examples such as a £75 fee to change a light bulb at a PFI hospital.

But the political consensus of pay cuts, attacks on pensions and privatisation need not go unopposed. Workers in other sectors have already shown the way with a wave of direct action from strikes to occupations putting a stop to bosses plans for cuts. Public sector workers can do it too – but there are obstacles to overcome.

One of these is that even within one place of work in the public sector workers are often divided up into two, three or more different trade unions. For example a typical university campus will have academic staff in UCU, administrative staff in Unison and perhaps cleaners and manual workers in Unite. When we consider the whole public sector, this problem is magnified. Each union organises independently of the others, and none of them organise with those workers who are not union members – but who also have a class interest in opposing cuts.

A first step to overcoming this is to open up workplace meetings to all workers. Getting members of other unions as well as non-union staff to discuss the cuts and how to resist them shifts the discussion from sectional trade interests to united class interests; united we stand, divided we fall. Against the cuts agenda, we should be pushing for coordinated strike action by all public sector workers. We cannot rely on the trade unions to do this on our behalf – workers need to network, agitate and organise to make the solidarity we need to resist the cuts a reality.

Know Your Rights: The stuff your boss doesn't want you to know

Regardless of work status (temporary or permanent, agency, full or part-time) or our contracts of employment, most of us have certain basic rights. These include:

1. The right to be told in writing how much and when we are to be paid.
The Minimum Wage for those over 22 years of age is set at £5.80,.  For 18-21 year olds it is £4.83 and for 16-17 year olds it is £3.57. For agency workers, wages must be paid on the agreed day, even if the hiring company has not paid the agency.

2. The right to at least 28 days paid leave per year.
Any employment contract should set out leave entitlements. If it doesn’t, then 28 days must be given (which can include public holidays). All workers, agency workers, homeworkers, trainees, so-called casuals and most freelancers are included in this. Holiday entitlement starts immediately, e.g. on day 1, we get 2 days leave, and, after 6 months, we get 14 days (for part time workers it is less, and it applies to jobs started since October 2001).

3. The right to breaks of at least 20 minutes after each 6 hours of work.
We are entitled to at least 11 hours’ rest in each 24 hours and a minimum of a day a week off. Rest breaks for under 18s are minimum 30 minutes every 4 1/2 hours.

4. The right to refuse to work any more than 48 hours each week.
We cannot be forced to work over 48 hours per week unless we have agreed to it in writing (note that this is averaged over any 17 week period, so we can be forced to do more in any one week).

5. The right to sick pay when we are ill.
We are entitled to statutory sick pay if we normally earn over £77 per week and we have been working for over 3 months (or are deemed to have been in continuous employment for 13 weeks).

6. The right to maternity/paternity leave when we have children.
From April 2003, most mothers are entitled to 26 weeks’ paid maternity leave and an additional 26 weeks’ unpaid leave. To get maternity pay, we must earn over £77 per week and have been working for over 6 months by the time the baby is 15 weeks from being due. For the first 6 weeks, this should be 90% of average earnings, then a flat rate of £100 for 20 weeks. If pay can’t be claimed, Maternity Allowance may be claimed from the DSS. Fathers/male partners get 2 weeks’ paid paternity leave (subject to the same qualifying conditions as for maternity).

7. The right to be free from harassment.
We are all entitled to a workplace where there is no racial or sexual harassment, bullying, prejudice or discrimination. Agency and part-time workers have the same rights as full-time workers.

8. The right to defend ourselves.
We all have the right to protection from dismissal for asserting our statutory employment rights. We also have the right to join with our fellow workers and organise ourselves collectively, and to join a trade union.

9. The right to refuse work that is unsafe or where training is not provided.
We all have the right to refuse to work if we find ourselves in imminent danger. Also, laws governing agencies mean they should not send us to jobs for which we are not qualified, and they must ensure that proper training is provided.

Are you safe & healthy?

The Working Time Regulations
The basic rights and protections that the Regulations provide are:
- a limit of an average of 48 hours a week which a worker can be required to work (though workers can choose to work more if they want to).
- a limit of an average of 8 hours work in 24 which nightworkers can be required to work.
- a right for night workers to receive free health assessments.
- a right to 11 hours rest a day.
- a right to a day off each week.
- a right to an in-work rest break if the working day is longer than 6 hours.
- a right to 4 weeks paid leave per year.

Health & Safety Basics

Employers should:
- Provide safe and healthy working conditions;
- Provide proper information and training for everyone in all types of workplaces;
- Draw up and circulate procedures for dealing with risks at work;
- Inform all workers of Health and Safety agreements, policies and practices before we start work.

Health and safety in the workplace costs money and time and hits profits, so bosses inevitably try to avoid their legal responsibilities. By law, they have to provide health and safety for all workers in their employment. Remember, you have a legal right to walk off the job if you feel in imminent danger.

Grievance procedures
Since 1st October 2004, all employers have had to have a disciplinary and grievance procedure, and to notify their employees of it. However since 6th April 2009, the statutory disciplinary and grievance procedures have been repealed. Although any ongoing disciplinary or grievance (here after D&G) started before that date are still covered. The original intention of making D&G procedures statutory was an expectation that claims for unfair dismissals would be significantly reduced, in fact the reverse happened with year on year per cent age increases ( last year by about 15%).

So instead ACAS have produced a Code of Practice that sets out what the features of D&G procedures should contain. The code is not legally binding and a failure to follow it will not make any dismissal arising out of a disciplinary matter automatically unfair. However the recommendation set out in the code (not applicable to redundancy dismissals or the non-renewal of fixed term contracts) will be taken into account by tribunals. Specifically, an employment tribunal will be able to adjust the amount of compensation (by up to, plus or minus 25%, which is down from the 50% previously) if it has not been reasonably followed.

Employees facing disciplinary action should be given adequate time to prepare a defence, and should have the opportunity to give and call evidence and to call witnesses. You have the right to be accompanied and for you to chose either a full-time union official (whether or not the union is recognised), a certified lay official (someone the union has trained to accompany individuals to hearings) or a workplace colleague. The worker and companion have protection against any detrimental act or dismissal in connection with excising this right of accompaniment. Hearings must be heard within a reasonable time period. The guideline steps are as follows:

1. Written  statement
You should set out your grievance in writing (often called a ‘step one letter’). Your employer’s grievance procedure should say who to send your letter to. If that’s the person causing the problem, or if they’ve ignored previous complaints, send it to the HR department or to the person’s boss.

2. Meeting
Your grievance should be looked into in a fair and unbiased way. Your employer should invite you to a meeting (sometimes called a hearing) to discuss the problem and you should attend if you can. If there is someone else involved, they might also be there (but you should tell your employer if you are uncomfortable with this). If you ask your employer beforehand, you have a legal right to take a ‘companion’ (who is a colleague or trade union representative) to the meeting with you.

3. Appeal meeting
If you’re not satisfied with the decision, or you think the procedure followed was seriously flawed, you have the right to an appeal. Your employer should give you enough time to appeal. If they don’t, make your appeal anyway, and say that you’ll provide more information later. If you are considering taking your issue to an Employment Tribunal you may want to appeal even if it seems pointless, because a tribunal award could be reduced if you don’t.

Further information on workers rights can be found at www.stuffyourboss.com

Anarcho-syndicalism at work

There are political and economic assumptions in the way the existing, social democratic unions organise. They think workers and management have common interests, and that it is in their best interests to form partnerships. For example, to win the support of bosses in catering for the National Minimum Wage, in 1997 Labour allowed them to include workers’ tips in calculating it, in spite of the NMW being a key election manifesto point.

Workers’ interests are considered to be those of the Labour Party or the union bureaucracy. Representation, where politicians, union officials, or lay representatives deal with management works to resolve problems without harming the latter’s interests. Business is seen as the goose which lays the golden egg, but we think that wealth is created not by business but by workers. In contract cleaning, for example, cleaners create the wealth but are sidelined by both unions and management.

Anarcho-syndicalists reject the idea that workers and management have common interests, and with it the idea of social partnership and the method of union representation. Many of us are members of the social democratic unions, but we try to organise at work in a different way. Anarcho-syndicalist workplace organising is based on six principles: class struggle; direct action; workers’ control; industrial unionism; internationalism; social revolution.

Class Struggle
The class war is the process by which workers are put in our place by management. The result is that workers are reduced from being human beings to being mere production units, and the product of our labour is owned by those who produce nothing. Employment law restricts or qualifies the rights of management to sack and exploit workers both because we are valuable to the business, and because replacing us is costly. Union representation is the application of this law to regulate management relations with workers, in the interests of the management. We want to end the exploitation of our labour to benefit parasites, and to be treated as human beings not human resources.

Direct action
Direct action is action taken by workers on our own behalf in our own interests. It is in opposition to the representation of workers by politicians and union officials acting on our behalf in their interests and those of management. It means taking action to force management to concede our demands by causing economic damage to the business. Unlike partnership, it rejects taking the interests of management into account and limiting demands and actions in order to avoid harming them. It can take many forms from boycotting management initiatives, changing working practices to benefit workers, going slow or working to rule, increasing production costs to striking.

Workers’ Control
The immediate purpose of workplace organisation should be to contest control of the workplace with management. When there needs to be negotiation any stewards have to be transformed from being representatives, whose role is to reconcile workers’ demands with the interests of management, into being delegates. Those delegates must be given mandates and decision-making must lie not with them but with the workforce at mass meetings. In order to establish workers’ control over a job, decisions have to be made collectively by the people who will carry them out.

Industrial Unionism
We advocate the industrial union, one union for all grades and trades of worker in an industry. In larger workplaces there are often also different contractors and subcontractors, with different pay and conditions and levels of union membership. Multiple employers make it even more difficult to legally organise effective industrial action. These divisions can only be overcome through struggle; through the giving and receipt of solidarity between different groups of workers and through common struggles in workers’ interests. We think all workers have common interests and, therefore, should act in solidarity with others.   However, the anarcho-syndicalist idea of industrial unionism is not to create One Big Union for all. Rather the union is made up of those workers committed to the anarcho-syndicalist aims and methods outlined here. Such a union would be run on a directly democratic basis, while it organises in the workplace through mass meetings which approach the struggle according to the principle of workers’ control.

Internationalism
Rather than demanding “British jobs for British workers” we have to act in solidarity with workers in other countries, and also with the migrant workers of many nationalities in Britain. Many migrant workers are working illegally, or semi-legally; their employers know this and use it to victimise them if they try to organise. The system of immigration controls undermines the ability of migrant workers to organise to improve their conditions. Allied to the scaremongering about immigration in politics and the media this reinforces the idea that they are second-class workers who should be paid less, and therefore allows bosses to undercut the pay and conditions of British workers.
 
Social Revolution
The underlying purpose of workplace organisation should be social transformation. Workplace organisation should not leave “politics” to political parties, but should address them itself. That means producing propaganda which doesn’t restrict itself to “bread-and-butter” issues like pay and conditions. It also means unions which organise geographically across industries on a federal basis, and use that geographical organisation to tackle social issues outside the workplace. Decision-making power must always rest with the membership of the union, or with the working class, as a whole; those who are delegated to carry out those decisions must always remain in possession only of a mandate and hold no power to make decisions on our behalf.

Who are the Solidarity Federation?

Solidarity Federation (SF) believes in taking control of our lives where we live or work, rather than leaving things to the dictates of politicians, managers and so called ‘experts’. Through solidarity and acting together, we can deal both with our local problems and at the same time work to change the bigger picture, and change the system that means power and profit for the few.

We believe we should apply the same principles to actions we take around local issues to those we take at work. Across industries, we organise in Networks; geographically we organise in Locals, to support each other in our struggles and to fight for our interests, both in and out of the workplace. We are part of the International Workers Association, organising with like minded people across the world.
Because our organisation comes from the bottom up, what Locals do is the basis of our activity, towards our goal of building a libertarian solidarity movement.

Members of our London locals were heavily involved in the Lewisham Bridge school occupation, struggles by London Underground cleaners and the Visteon and Vestas factory occupations. Brighton were also very active in supporting the Vestas struggle. They made collections, which were used to buy some of the food that was broken through the blockade and helped found the Brighton Vestas Workers Support Group. As well as supporting the Vestas workers, the Liverpool local has also been involved in supporting a refuse workers strike at Enterprise Liverpool, while the West Yorks has been active supporting the Leeds refuse workers’ indefinite strike.

In London and Brighton, members are actively involved in the disputes of RMT London Underground workers and Unison local government workers respectively. Locals in London and Brighton are also involved in the National Shop Stewards Network, while the Education Workers’ Network has members from Manchester, West Yorkshire, Liverpool and Brighton who distribute ‘Education Worker’ across their respective areas.

Our London Locals have also organised two pickets of the Serbian Embassy in solidarity with the Belgrade Six. The London groups have fairly regular discussion meetings and regular socials, and also have links with the Goldsmiths college group Autonomy and Solidarity and the Anarchist Federation (AF) in London. The latter has been the basis for a joint meeting on the crisis, a May Day social and a new group, London Education Workers Group, for those working in the sector.

We are also involved in anti-fascist activity. Liverpool SF are very involved in the local anti-fascist group and have helped organise several successful protests against the BNP in Liverpool, most recently around the court appearances of a prominent local BNP member who is charged with assaulting an anti-fascist. The Manchester Local have been involved in similar activities, such as opposition to the recent ‘English Defence League’ march there, while the Brighton Local helped prevent the BNP launching a public branch.

In Manchester, London and Brighton, Locals have organised numerous public meetings on topics such as the economic crisis, anti-militarism, combating the far right and anarchism and sexuality. In Liverpool, the Local regularly leaflets political events, and recently attended the James Larkin commemoration and a Peace & Ecology fair in the city in July for this purpose.

West Yorkshire SF have done stalls in Bradford city centre and attended events such as the Stop the War Naming the Dead ceremony in Leeds. Brighton SF organised the English end of an international day of action for Natalia Szymanska, who was sacked at Subway in Belfast for being pregnant. The Local also attended the Smash EDO May Day and Labour Party conference demonstrations. Brighton SF have also established the monthly Brighton Class Struggle Forum, originally with Brighton AF and set up an embryonic workers group at Sussex University.

As a national organisation we meet at least twice a year.  Our conference decides our positions and priorities, we make space for debates at a weekend school. We also meet regularly regionally.

Organising on  the job
We believe workers’ organisation has to be based in the workplace, and must involve all workers, regardless of which union they are in - or whether they are in a union at all. Pay rises, job safety and control over how we work will not be won by representation, but by workers taking action for themselves, independent of their bosses or any would-be representatives. “Workers rights” will only be won by direct action, or by negotiations backed up by the credible threat of direct action, regardless of legislation. To act in our interests as workers we must build effective organisation in the workplace.

When equality means cuts

In 1997, councils across Britain came to an agreement with unions to undertake ‘Single Status’ job evaluations to end the discrepancies between manual and white collar jobs. Parallel to this, claims made about the historic pay discrepancies between traditionally male and traditionally female jobs were won at various Employment Tribunals. Historically, workers in female dominated jobs (such as those working around childcare) have been paid significantly less than those in jobs usually seen as ‘men’s work’, such as refuse collection.

Since the Equal Pay Act in 1970 these pay discrepancies had been open to legal challenge, but Single Status was supposed to be an across the board solution that would see every job within the councils evaluated and regarded equally based on the content of the job. In theory, this was of course a good thing.

However, perhaps predictably, things did not go so smoothly. Many councils ignored this, and those that did look at it spun the process out for so long that they are still ongoing 12 years later. A few councils attempted to lower men’s pay rather than raising women’s. The results of this differed across the country – in some places it was accepted by unions with little protest, in Birmingham there was unsuccessful strike action against the re-grading, while Greenwich UNISON ran a largely successful campaign demanding “Equal pay, not low pay”.

Fast-forward to 2009, and several councils are now attempting to force through far more punitive settlements, often using the recession as an excuse. In several places the level of pay cuts demanded have been so great that unions have been unable to ignore it. Perhaps the most militant response has been in Leeds, where at time of press refuse collectors have been on strike for over a month, after wage cuts of thousands of pounds per year were demanded from these already low paid workers.

The strike began on 7 September and has so far been largely solid, with a demonstration of over 200 marching on Civic Hall on the first Friday of the strike. On the 15th September, 16 bags of rubbish were dumped at the home address of council leader Richard Brett’s home. On the 16th, six workers were arrested for repeating this, allegedly under anti-terrorist legislation! The council has bussed in strike breakers from the Preston-based firm Noblet Municipal Services, but the majority of the city’s rubbish has remained uncollected.

Similar disputes are appearing elsewhere in the country, for example in Brighton, refuse workers have balloted for strike  action after they were told to take pay cuts in some cases up to £8,000 per year. The Brighton bin workers have a long militant tradition – in  2001 launching wildcat strike action and an occupation against the private firm who held the tender, forcing the council to take refuse collection back in-house.

They have made it clear they are not prepared to take these attacks and announced in no uncertain  terms that they will strike if the council attempts to implement them. Other workers facing pay cuts are also pushing for a ballot for strike action against these attacks. Desperate to avoid what happened in Leeds, the council has unsuccessfully attempted to divide the GMB refuse workers from those in UNISON by offering separate negotiations.

In Edinburgh, UNITE refuse workers are on overtime ban and work to rule against similar cuts, with the council threatening redundancy if they are not accepted. Scabs have been brought up from Liverpool to cover the work. Responding to this, several lorries have been blockaded by supporters. Other manual workers affected look set to join the action, as UNISON also rejected the deal.

These disputes show that bosses are prepared to use any possible opening to attack workers’ wages. Taking progressive demands such as equal pay and turning them against the working class is a New Labour hallmark. The unions, who pushed for the deals in the first place have frequently been impotent now they have been turned against them – such attacks can best be resisted where workers take control of the struggle themselves, and do not allow a union backroom deal to sell them out.

They also show that legislative solutions offer no answer for the working class - if we are not strong enough to defend our gains and back up law with industrial strength, then such attacks will continue to be made against us.

Direct action not legal action is the terrain on which to fight. While the principle of equal pay is something that must be supported and fought for, it needs to be won on our terms. We must fight to ensure women’s pay is raised rather than the state’s preferred option of attacking the pay of male workers

Mail strike's roots in unfinished business

Workers at Royal Mail have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over management plans for job cuts. 76% of workers who responded to the ballot voted in favour of industrial action. The roots of the dispute go back to the settlement that ended the 2007 national postal strike.

At the time it was announced as a victory, but in fact the CWU union agreed to management plans to cut jobs. The ‘victory’ was that the CWU and Royal Mail management would negotiate the details of the cuts at a local level. Now postal workers are unhappy with the results of those negotiations. One trigger is the Royal Mail’s refusal to “Pay for Change.” In unilaterally imposing such changes by so-called ‘executive action’, Royal Mail have reopened the dispute.

Other issues behind the strike include ‘absorption’, where workers are expected to take on the workload of those that lose their jobs for no extra pay, and the increased levels of bullying and harassment that have accompanied such attacks. A further issue is pensions. First the final salary scheme was closed on the grounds of expense, now the replacement scheme is due to suffer the same fate. Royal Mail are demanding year-on-year 10% cuts to expenses.

The pretext for this is to enable Royal Mail to compete with rival private firms. However, this is a cleverly devised scam. The government has opened all of the profitable areas of the business up to private competition, whilst retaining control of the costly ‘final mile’ delivery which delivers 99% of small letters. Then the government says this ‘proves’ the inefficiency of the public sector, justifying further moves towards privatisation, attacks on workers conditions and service levels.

Government privatisation plans were only shelved in July after they were unable to find a buyer in the current economic climate. In 2007, as soon  as the strikes began to exert serious pressure on Royal Mail management, the CWU called them off for “meaningful negotiations”, the outcome of which was the ‘victory’ at the root of today’s dispute. Postal workers have already shown a willingness to fight this summer with a series of local official and unofficial actions. There is also a widespread realisation that far more than their immediate terms and conditions is at stake.

Freedom for the Belgrade 6!

Six anarchists from the ASI, Solidarity Federation’s Serbian sister organisation are currently imprisoned by the Serbian state.  Tadej Kurep, Ivan Vulovic, Sanja Dojkic, Ratibor Trivunac, Ivan Savic and Nikola Mitrovic are accused of  attacking the Greek embassy in Belgrade remain imprisoned, with (at time of press) no charges yet levelled at them.

The six have been targeted by authorities because of their politics and visibility, and face the ludicrous prospect of international terrorism charges - on the basis that as the embassy is sovereign territory, the attack had crossed an international border. The attack itself caused negligible damage, and has even been claimed by another group.  If international terrorism charges are brought, the Six face over 10 years in prison.

October 4th marked thirty days of detainment, at which point charges would normally have to be made or prisoners must be released. However, as the charge holds a sentence of at least ten years, they can be held for a further 6 months, before they even get to see charges.
Anarchists from across Europe have held a series of demonstrations demanding that their release, with demonstrations held at Serbian embassies and consulates in several countries, including Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Norway and Holland.  In Britain, members of the Solidarity Federation were joined by comrades from the Anarchist Federation and others for a series of demonstrations outside the London Serbian embassy.

This repression unfortunately demonstrates the lengths the state will go to the attack those it sees as a threat, and is a chilling reminder of the depths the state will sink to.  Unable to repress the work of the ASI in a conventional manner, they are forced to resort to an obvious fit up.  However, the situation does demonstrate that the work the ASI do is perceived as a danger by the Serbian ruling class.
Until the ‘Belgrade Six’ are released, it is important to keep up the pressure on the Serbian government, and not let this attack go unchallenged.  Further updates to the situation, and ways you can support the campaign to release them can be found at: http://asi.zsp.net.pl/

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 #25 (December 2010)
Featuring articles on the student protests, housing benefit cuts, an interview with a French striker about the movement there, redundancy rights, opinion, a centrefold poster on direct action and much more.
Catalyst #24 (Summer 2010)
Featuring articles on the emergency budget cuts, analysis of the welfare reforms, know your rights: beating the bailiffs, international news, academy schools, killer cops and more.
Catalyst #23 (Spring 2010)
In this issue: Vote for change?; Battleground higher education; Climate change; Net pirates, Know your rights and more!
Catalyst #21 (Summer 2009)
Featuring articles on the cleaners' struggle at SOAS ; Posties and the CWU ; strikes at Manchester College and on London underground ; renewed wildcat action in the construction industry ; and our rights when it comes to Immigration checks.
Catalyst #20 (Spring 2009)
In this issue: The Visteon occupations ; action against Subway ; Know your rights: Maternity leave ; Mitie cleaners ; Post office sell off and more!
Catalyst #19 (February 2009)
Decent jobs


Main menu 2

Solidarity Federation