Communist Party trade union organiser, Graham Stevenson, delivered the following report to the party's Political Committee on September 21:
It’s a matter of amazement to me that some people haven’t been able to grasp that the EU has long been about creating a deregulated and privatised paradise for European bosses. Especially as we see no change here, with a forced march to Euro-Federalism and a European Arm already on the way.
I spent a quarter of a century going to Brussels for my then union, the T&G, for sectoral social dialogue committees, which didn’t receive much attention during the rather poorly informed debate leading to the recent referendum on the EU. For a time, I was Chair of the Road Transport Parity Committee but I have to tell you that, despite much practical force and pressure of spirit, it proved impossible to break down the tightly welded alliance between the employers’ lobbyists and the Commission staff. The state is not neutral, whether it’s at the national or international level.
Whether it was the tachograph, coach safety, drivers’ hours, the principle of cabotage, whereby deliveries can be engaged in a foreign state, or anything else, I can’t point to a single positive achievement. But many negative ones stand out. The all-out strike of European baggage handlers in 1990 that prevented ground handling deregulation for over eight years. Dockers halted traffic in EU ports in 2001 and 2004 to stop the Commission’s plans to open up cargo handling and passenger services to all and sundry. It’s taken them a while but the Commission has restarted its efforts on market access to port services and common rules on state aid.
Still, one clear decision of the recent British Trades Union Congress was to accept that the people of the UK have voted to leave the EU. Attempts to ignore the result, delay negotiations, or hold a second referendum are not now accepted by any serious force in the labour and trade union movement, outside of parliament. But we can’t trust the Tories to negotiate an exit from the EU. They always put big business profit before workers, the people and our environment. Key to a progressive Brexit is a defence of Labour’s left leadership! We need to unite against prejudice and racism but the best way to deal with it to end under-cutting – bring in equal terms and conditions for all.
Our economy remains dangerously dependant on financial services instead of the production of goods and services for home consumption and export. Whilst manufacturing accounted for around 25% of all UK jobs in 1980 it’s now less than 8%. At essence it is the obsession with a loose and deskilled labour market, which has been motivated by class war ideas to make the organised working class weaker.
Our capitalist class has long sought to maximise profits through under-investment in productive industry, socially useful services, science, new technology, education, training and research and development at home. It is a mantra of Tory PMs at Question Time to draw attention to jobs growth in Britain. How refreshing to hear Jeremy Corbyn riposte that a growth in low paid and precarious jobs is nothing to crow about!
The level of self-employment in the UK increased from 3.8 million in 2008 to 4.6 million in 2015 but the growth rate of part-time modes has been much stronger. Part time self-employment grew by 88% between 2001 and 2015, compared to 25% for the full-time mode. Evidence of under-employment is strongest among younger, male workers, who display a greater degree of dissatisfaction.
Britain needs a recovery plan to trade with the world, influenced by our tradition of quality design. That needs quality publicly supported trade and skill training of all kinds for all. But manufacturing is not all big business. There are 130,000 manufacturing firms and the average holds reserves of only a quarter of a million pounds. Thankfully, Jeremy Corbyn and his newly supportive front bench shadow ministers have proposed a way forward by freezing rates for small businesses, clamping down on corporate tax avoidance, and investing in skilled workers.
Today there are only 5,000 people in Britain making shoes. However, the EU’s outward processing trade scheme allows cut parts to be sent back and forth. Supposedly ‘Italian’ shoes are actually made for a pittance in east European sweatshops. European rules enabled goods to be assembled in one place but “finished”, in another. “Made in Italy” means Albania or Macedonia when Geox shoes, mass made for a wage of £34 a week, sell at between £100 and £150 each.
Positively, the annual TUC accepted that the referendum vote was primarily an expression of working class anger and frustration that the political elite do not represent them in matters of employment, education, housing, public services and their overall quality of life. The task for us to ensure that in the exit from the EU we take a turning that makes sense to working people and their families.
In the wake of the referendum, we saw manufacturing exports boosted by a weak pound, making British goods more price competitive on the global market; but inflation has also been restarted. This is nothing like the doom predicted by the Remain camp. You couldn’t make it up, the way that governments are now with trans-national corporations. Take the bizarre situation in Ireland in wake of the Apple Corporation tax ruling, whereby that nation threatens legal action in European courts to enforce its ability to charge low taxes, however much corporations manipulate the facts.
It might be confusing to many to understand what it’s all about until we contemplate how, once again, years after the event, an official enquiry has confirmed that the positions taken by the then anti-war movement in the run up to a war were correct in every detail. As plans were being laid for an attack on Libya, with Cameron and Sarkozy taking the lead, anti-war critics argued first, that the humanitarian case for defending Benghazi would morph into a justification for a wider war and that a no-fly zone would become a bombing corridor. Further, that such an assault would inflame the situation plunging Libya into a crisis which would destabilise the whole region.
A parliamentary report retrospectively confirms all three points. It judges that if the aim was the humanitarian one of securing Benghazi, then that goal had been achieved within 24 hours of the start of a five- month long intervention. There was no proper intelligence analysis, and an unannounced goal of regime change -all charges that closely echo the criticisms of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq.
Now, the air attacks in Yemen seem to be in breach of international law, yet since the bombing began in March 2015, the UK has sold £3.3bn in arms to Saudi Arabia. Fighter planes and components, bombs and missiles do well for our export-based jobs but are presumably less welcome to the citizens and their children suffering from blitz like conditions. Even the Commons select committees for international development and for business called in a joint report for the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia until a credible and independent investigation had been conducted. But the foreign affairs committee and the government have rejected suspension on the grounds that sales should only stop if it ruled unlawful by a court. Have we learned nothing, despite the Chilcot enquiry?
Meanwhile, the government is desperate to divert the attention of the public by inventing new ways to create social division. The latest wheeze to accompany the retro-drive for grammar schools is to completely lift the 50% cap on free schools choosing pupils by religious discrimination. Let’s be clear, this is a drive to bring back secondary modern schools, with all that implies in terms of lower achievement and personal development, with the costs of private 11+ coaching for a year’s course of two hours per week even reaching £10,000 a year.
Schools should be primarily about providing an entitlement curriculum to all children, without selection whether due to direct or indirect financial status. A consequence of that is a wider ranging curriculum, including practical subjects such as design and technology and vocational learning, which were less common or non-existent in grammar schools.
This comes just as the last vestiges of commitment to adult education fade. Those whom the education system failed once had second, third and fourth choices. Those who were turned off education by the traditions of the mid-20th century always had the option of services supported by serious public investment. Arguably, parents studying at home in a “return to learn” culture establish important models for their children. But this is unlikely in a situation where shop stewards’ education is fast fading.
Not that this was high on the agenda at the recent TUC, the agenda of which was bereft of a clear lead to the population of Britain. The General Council’s 2017 campaign plan has the merit at least of some concrete proposals. But the EU Composite could have been much, much worse, at least it accepted the referendum decision and that it was a rebuke to the out of touch elite. It was, however, slightly risible that the Gen Co is tasked with trying to understand why trades union minded communities voted Leave.
Too many motions and composites were marred by calls for "engagement" with government, or even lobbying. Industrial strategy is still fixed on `industrial democracy’, or a `national plan’. Economic problems, it was said, are market difficulties that can be worked out with government. Whilst the movement seems to have accepted that the adult living wage rate is now 25, not 18. Getting the TUC recognised as a `stakeholder’, watering down the worst of legislation, even the anti-union laws, seems to be the nature of co-ordinating resistance, as some see it, with little calls to real action.
But a real plus was a commitment to organise a national anti-racist trade union demonstration but at times even NUT in the midst of a major strike was, in resolution terms at least, looking to lobby government, with the word `strike’ hardly appearing if at all in any paperwork. The sterling calls to action during TUC 2015 against the Trade Union Act seem to have given way to a belief on the part of far too many general council members that some sort of victory was won in the wake of the charge of what many seem to think is now the labour movement’s brigade of guards, the estimable House of Lords. Small gains that may be outweighed in the face of an avalanche of hostile legislation. But watch out for the re-emergence of just those gains in the Statutory Instrument process, as regulations are released.
In contrast, Labour's Workplace 2020 initiative is aimed at boosting the rights of employees and encouraging trade union membership. Jeremy Corbyn first unveiled the idea when he addressed the May Day rally in London - the first time the head of the party has addressed the rally in 50 years.
The TSSA provided much of the robust text in the TUC agenda, with the most ambitious demands, so that the GC is now committed to building a broad based campaign on housing in consequence. Unlikely bedfellows with Unite, USDAW, agreed that congress supports the important concept of a universal basic income, although neither asked the Council to do anything. Whilst it was down to Accord to point out the need for a digital campaign.
The next step is the Tories descending on Birmingham. It's down to the People's Assembly and those trade unions willing to promote protest to give them the unwelcome they deserve. All those who are able to should join us in Birmingham on October 2nd.