If we want to roll back austerity we need to drop concessions to capitalism and rebuild militant workplace organisation, says Tom Morrison is Communist Party Scottish secretary.
AT THE recent Scottish Morning Star Conference Professor Prem Sikka called austerity a political project — a corporate welfare programme, appeasing and subsidising companies when they are making record profits.
Currently the British state is guaranteeing corporate profits and transferring wealth to the rich to the tune of £85 billion a year in grants, subsidies, insurance schemes, preferential credit and government services.
The European Union gave Tate and Lyle €830 million in agricultural subsidies, despite it not owning any farms, and Nestle €93m. Other beneficiaries included Coca Cola, the Duke of Westminster, the royal family, and the Catholic church.
The British government has given private rail companies an average £4bn a year since privatisation. BP, Chevron, ConocoPhilips, ExxonMobile, Shell and BT all receive subsidies.
But what about the workers?
In 1976 wages and salaries were 65.1 per cent of GDP. By 2014 this share had fallen to below 54 per cent. Now, 5.3m workers are paid less than the living wage, with 700,000 said to be on zero-hours contracts — in reality many more — and 13 million people live below the poverty line.
Throw in foodbanks, benefit sanctions, underemployment, bogus self-employment and you can see the effect of the austerity project on our class, in work or out, compared to the richest 1,000 people whose wealth increased by 15.4 per cent to £519bn in 2014.
In 1980, 80 per cent of workers were covered by collective bargaining agreements. By 2014 this had fallen to 25 per cent. Trade union membership has fallen from 13 million to just over six million over the same period.
But the strength of the trade union movement has never depended entirely on numbers. Far more important is the level of political clarity and mobilisation.
In the earlier 20th century a much smaller movement was able to achieve major political breakthroughs.
Nor has the reduction in union membership occurred in a political vacuum. Partly it reflects the severity of anti-union legislation, partly massive deindustrialisation and partly also a deliberate transformation of the labour force, through casualisation, to weaken or eliminate employee rights. These are class-motivated attacks.
But are they recognised as such?
Politically, in terms of conference policy, the trade union movement has moved significantly to the left — but what about outside the conference hall?
Many activists in Scotland are caught up in the nationalist surge as a result of Labour’s failure to protect working people. Nationalist rather than class politics are seen as the solution with the SNP having stolen the anti-austerity clothing.
This is despite the fact that the cornerstone of SNP economic policy has been cutting corporation tax and support for the European Union, the major driver for privatisation.
Even in the public sector, where union density is significantly higher, the real value of wages has been cut and terms and conditions eroded. 50,000 jobs have already been lost in Scotland.
This is why the issue of political clarity and mobilisation is so important.
In the health sector, so-called partnership working with the employers has been the norm for some time. It is now growing in local government but with little sign that it is effective in stopping the cuts and job losses.
Partnership dampens down militancy in the workplace making it more difficult to build a collective response to the cuts agenda.
It fosters passivity, isolates activists and incorporates unions into the cuts agenda by encouraging members to accept the cuts as inevitable.
One partner makes the other pay for austerity with cuts to pay, terms and conditions, and job losses. It can lead to a lazy approach to organising — why bother with such time-consuming tasks as face to face meetings with members when you are guaranteed a seat at the top table.
It can also lead to an unhealthy relationship, and even collusion, with the bosses by senior stewards and full-time officers combined with the targeting of trade union militants and “trouble-makers.” No less fatally it creates a political divide between trade unions and service users and the wider community.
Concessionary bargaining becomes order of the day, give and take, with workers always doing the giving. Accept cuts in real pay and terms and conditions and it will save jobs, we are told.
It’s a proven myth, a dead end for workers. The employer always comes back looking for more concessions. Areas covered by collective bargaining are removed piecemeal.
The only way to stop the attacks is to demand no cuts, no trading away of conditions — building workplace organisation and militancy along with political campaigning, convincing workers on the ground that they should not have to pay for capitalism’s crisis.
And the workplace is the key. No point being a firebrand at the rostrum if your union density is 20 per cent and you can’t deliver on the shop floor.
In conclusion, are the big corporations that we, the taxpayers, subsidise and appease really the social partners of the working class? Are employers in the public sector who implement the austerity agenda really our partners?
An updated version of the Kevin Halpin pamphlet “The Case for Trade Unionism” is about to be launched by the Communist Party which argues for organised, militant and political trade unionism.
It’s a must-read for activists who are concerned with the menace to our class of partnership working with the employers and who see the danger of the disconnect between what is decided in the conference hall and what is happening on the shop floor.