unions

#IWMD 16 – 28 April Remember the Dead:Fight for the Living

It’s 6.00 am and the radio alarm wakes you up to start another day, you shower, think about the day ahead.

Think about what was discussed at work the day before, think about what you have to do before you get to work. Perhaps you have to drop-off the kids at school, get a birthday card, make an appointment to get that boiler fixed.

Time is getting on,  breakfast, if there is time, say your good byes and then you are on your way to work.

Planning out what needs to be done, where you have to be and hoping that this is the day you get around to that task that’s been on your list for what seems like forever.

Then, the phone rings and there is the start of one of the most difficult conversations that someone has ever had ‘Could I speak to….., I’m sorry to tell you….’

I don’t know if that is how the day began, or how someone received the news that their loved one, partner, husband, wife, father, mother, friend or relation had gone to work and wouldn’t be coming back.

But I can imagine that such conversations took place.

Figures published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in the year up to 2015, 142 people died in the course of their work.

Behind these numbers we can see that most fatalities took place for those working in construction where 35 people died, in agriculture 33 people died, in manufacturing 16 people died and there was one death in mining and quarrying.

Although, in most sectors the figures have stayed the same or are improving the figure for services, which includes deaths associated with railways is increasing with 51 deaths which is 21% higher than the rate for the past five years.

The figures produced by the HSE also include those for members of the public who died in relations to accidents connected to work and show that there are 123 people who died including 21 (17%) occurring on railways. Suicides are included in this figure but the way that suicides are reported has changed.

The increase in deaths for those working in services underlines concerns recently expressed by the TUC.

Over a ten-year period 2009/10 to 2019/20 the HSE will see its budget almost halved.

Such a cut in funding casts real doubt that the HSE will be able to achieve what it sets out in a new strategy called “Helping Great Britain work well”.

Once again workers will come to rely on Union Health & Safety reps to ensure that their places of work are safe environment to work in.

That is why this Thursday,  on International Workers Memorial Day around the world many of us will gather to remember those who have died in the workplace and to pay tribute to the work done by Union Health & Safety Reps.

I will as I have for the last few years be attending the memorial event at Bonnyrigg, Midlothian.

But, this year I will be attending an additional event on Sunday 1st May at the Miners’ Memorial in Danderhall where a plaque will be unveiled to remember those that died at the Woolmet Colliery.

47 people died at Woolmet including on 12 April 1918, Christina Clark who was 16 year old.

At both those events I will take a few minutes to reflect upon those who left for work, thinking about the day ahead, but never to return.

The details of the events I have mentioned above are:-

Bonnyrigg

Thursday , 28 April, 12.30, Michael McGahey memorial, George V Park , Bonnyrigg, EH19 2AD. Commemorative address will be given by Ryan Boyle, Vice-Chair of the STUC Youth Committee

Danderhall

Sunday, 1 May, 1.00 pm, Miners’ Memorial, Danderhall. More information can be found here.

International Workers Memorial Day Events

A number of events are taking place around the UK and can be details can be found here.

 

 

 

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Back to The 80’s

There has been a lot of talk recently that politics is moving back to the 1980’s, most of this has been in relation to the Labour Leadership elections.

However, for me, the party that really looks like driving things back to an era of 1980’s style industrial strife are the Tories.

In their Trade Union Bill we see an attack on Trade Unions that seeks to marginalise and limit their ability to represent and protect their members.

The Bill seeks to introduce turnout thresholds on ballots and to allow employers to draft in temporary workers to cover for striking workers.

Whilst these proposals grab most of the headlines the bill also includes measures that will have an impact on how unions collect their subscriptions, the information unions will need to give to employers about plans to strike and restrictions on peaceful picketing.

All of these proposals risk creating an atmosphere and climate in industrial relations last seen during the miners strike and when union membership was banned at GCHQ.

Things have moved on from the mid-80’s.

Since then we’ve seen unions take forward workplace learning through the introduction of union learning reps. I’ve seen at first hand how they’ve assisted workers in gaining new skills, helped to break down the barriers between different grades through arranging courses for learning languages and built up the confidence of individuals so that they go on to take on new roles.

Unions also play a key role when it comes to Health & Safety and in many workplaces take the lead in promoting a positive safety culture which leads to the reduction of trips, slips and near misses and workers having to take time off a win, win situation for both employees and the employer.

The majority of my time spent as a union rep hasn’t been about going out on strike, its been about helping people with different issues and negotiating policies with management.

When strike action is taken, it is usually because there is very little alternative.

Take for instance members of my own union the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

PCS members at the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) are currently involved in a dispute that is essentially about fairness and trying to get a level playing field for everyone working there.

The background to the dispute is that NMS management arbitrarily imposed a change to a weekend shift rate,  which means that if you were employed after January 2011, you won’t receive a weekend shift rate that can amount to between £2000 and £3000 a year.

In effect there is a two-tier workforce, these are low paid workers and therefore this shift rate makes a massive difference to those working there.

Disputes like this where the union involved are fighting for fair terms and conditions for all will be more difficult to organise should this bill be passed.

The Tory party have never been friends of the trade union movement but when even David Davis MP, a former Tory leadership candidate describes elements of this bill as being like something out of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, then it should be really time for them to think again.

If you would like to sign a petition against this bill you can do it here.

 

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The Spirit of 1937 – Workers’ Memorial Day 28th April 2015

In 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier was published, this was George Orwell’s vivid account of working class living conditions in Lancashire and Yorkshire prior to World War II. In one section Orwell sets out what happens to a miner if he becomes injured and is unable to work. Back then it was left up to the company that the miner worked for to pay the miner a disability pension, in recognition of the injury that he had sustained.

If the company went bust then that was the end of the pension.

Fast forward a few years to the post World War II Labour government which embarked upon an ambitious programme of social reform, to tackle what the Beveridge Report saw as the five giant evils facing Britain at the time Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness.

The key role Aneurin Bevan played in that government is well known and I’m sure that Bevan’s background in the pits of Tredegar played a part as that Labour government set about tackling Want by introducing a number of reforms, including an industrial injury benefit, as part of its 1946 National Insurance Act.

No longer would those injured at work be dependent on the vagaries of an employer funded injury benefit scheme.

Or, so you might think.

Fast forward again to now – April 2015 and Britain in the midst of one of the most unpredictable general election campaigns ever.

In March, The Guardian carried a story about a leaked report, which set out a range of welfare benefits potentially facing the axe should the Conservatives win in May.

One of the cuts mentioned is the scrapping of industrial injury benefits, in future the cost will be passed on to employers.

Those companies that don’t have an insurance policy will become members of a default scheme and pay a levy to fund it.

It was reported that getting rid of this scheme could save £1bn.

So, in 2015 we could be heading back to the scene Orwell described in 1937.

The most recent official figures show that 629,000 people are injured in the UK as a result of work.

As we approach another International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on the 28th April, the focus of the trade union movement turns to those who have lost their lives or been injured as a result of a workplace incident.

This year the theme is removing exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace and union health & safety reps will be highlighting risks relating to asbestos, occupational cancer and other risks linked to biological exposure.

Where I live in Musselburgh and Midlothian there was a long tradition of mine working,

I stay a few minutes walk from Prestongrange, now an open-air museum, but up until 1962 a working pit and in Midlothian at Newtongrange, there is the National Mining Museum, on the site of the Lady Victoria Colliery which closed in 1981.

The very nature of long hours spent working underground with exposure to coal dust, meant that there was a risk of developing Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis (CWP) sometimes called ‘Black Lung’. This disease can take a long time to develop, up to 10 years from first exposure before someone shows symptoms and although the pits around me closed some years ago, in 2011 there were 265 newly assessed cases of CWP recognised under the Industrial Injuries and Disablement Benefit Scheme.

Other diseases linked to exposure to coal dust such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema are recognised as prescribed diseases for coal miners and some figures suggest that there could be around 4,000 occupational COPD deaths currently each year in Britain.

So, although the coal industry in this country is now largely in the past, we should not forget those affected today by their time spent working underground, nor the valuable role that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) continues to play in supporting and representing former miners in winning compensation.

Of course the daily struggle to improve working conditions in the mining industry continues around the globe.

Come the next IWMD, we’ll be nearly a year into the first term of the new government elected this May and my hope is that there won’t be a need for any latter day George Orwell’s to be writing a new version of On The Road to Wigan Pier, where a Tory government has been elected and is systematically dismantling what Nye Bevan helped to create all those years ago.

There are a number of events held throughout the UK on 28th April to commemorate  IWMD including Edinburgh, Glasgow and the event I’ll be going along to in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian for a full list see here.

Do The Right Thing

The Beatles sang about it, the Rolling Stones left the country and the Who apart from Keith Moon, seemed to hang about and get on with paying them.

What am I talking about?

Tax.

I’m an avid listener of music and reader of rock biographies, many of these about bands from the 60’s and 70’s and in a week when I’ve been reading about the Who, tax avoidance and tax evasion has been hitting the headlines, which all goes to show that taxation has been a long running political issue.

I think it was a couple of years ago at an STUC conference in Edinburgh, about how to create a fairer Scotland that thanks to Stephen Boyd, STUC Assistant Secretary, I learned that UK tax rates in the 70’s reached 83% under Labour and then the top rate was reduced to 60% under the first Thatcher government.

The issue of taxation has come to the fore again as we have learned about HSBC and the extent they may have been involved in facilitating tax avoidance schemes.

With less than 100 days to go to the general election, tax has again become a major political issue. Both the Conservative party’s view on tax avoidance and David Cameron’s judgement on the appointment of Lord Green as a minister have been called into question.

This week we discovered that HMRC had secured 1 conviction and £135 million in unpaid tax, on the face of it this appears to be less than impressive when compared to the performance of the French tax authorities who have reclaimed £200 million from 3,000 named accounts and the Spanish £180 million from 2,900.

I am no expert on how the tax authorities are resourced or staffed in France or Spain, but as a union activist in the public sector I have seen the cuts that the current coalition government have brought about in the UK Civil Service.

Last year my own union, PCS, commissioned a report by Richard Murphy director of Tax Research UK called The Tax Gap Report. Click here to learn more.

This report highlights that in just over a decade staff in HMRC will have been cut from 92,000 in 2005 to an expected 52,000 in 2016, a cut of nearly 43%.

Cuts on such a scale must surely have an impact on the effectiveness of HMRC to be able to discharge its duties.

And whilst we can urge the companies and individuals engaged in such schemes that there is a moral imperative to do the right thing, all the evidence would suggest that this will not be enough.

It was good to see the Labour Party take the initiative on this issue during the past week, making clear that Labour welcomed proposals from charities and campaigning organisations for an “anti-tax dodging bill”, which would make it harder for big companies to use tax havens and clamping down on tax breaks for big companies.

But, fundamental to this debate is making sure that HMRC has the staff and resources to carry out the work that it needs to and we should not lose sight of that.

The dividing lines and differences are becoming clearer in this election as we see Labour looking to bring tax avoiders to account, while the Conservatives talk about withdrawing benefits, if you are deemed to be obese.

It wasn’t any of the bands that I mentioned at the start of this blog that sang ‘the weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger’ but the Jam in Funeral Pyre, their apocalyptic vision of the future.

Increasingly it would appear that the General Election of 2015 is going to be defined as a choice between standing up against vested interest and the Establishment or about whether we make the UK a fairer society.

A Warning

In his latest book Owen Jones describes how the Establishment have used their power to silence and marginalise those that challenge their interests.

The announcement that the Tories will seek to make it harder for public sector workers to take strike action should they win the next election, underlines the extent to which vested interest will continue to try to silence any voice raised in opposition.

The proposals are that any strike affecting transport, health, fire services or schools would need the support of 40% of eligible union members. This follows on from suggestions that there would need to be a minimum 50% turn-out in strike ballots.

As an active trade unionist I know the challenges that we have faced in recent years and the challenges we continue to face as we approach the general election.

Unions have played an important role during the years of the coalition government in opposing the austerity agenda. Whether its been challenging the 1% cap on pay in the public sector or through opposing changes to the retirement age and pensions.

Wider than this, unions have also been pivotal in organising demonstrations and providing alternative ideas to the government cuts agenda such as through the STUC Better Way Campaign.

It also appears that the general public see unions as having an important role to play with almost 80% of the public agreeing that trade unions are essential to protect workers interests (1).

The main thrust of the Tory argument would appear to be that as not enough members take part in strike ballots then unions should not be able to go ahead with their proposed action.

However, when suggestions are put forward about making it easier for members to vote, for example through on-line voting, any interest in democracy seems to fade.

Even more so when questions start to be asked about what proportion of the electorate support those that are putting forward these proposals.

The GMB estimates that only 15 Tory MPs out of 303 secured the level of support which unions are being asked to command.

All of this means that it is difficult to conclude that these proposals are not so much about making sure that unions reflect the interests of their members, but more about stacking the odds in favour of the Establishment and vested interest from May 2015 onwards.

We have been warned.

(1) Ipsos Mori (2013) Attitudes to Trade Unions 1975- 2013