Monday, May 10, 2021

On the High Seas

by New Worker correspondent

Once again workers who man the Woolwich Ferry which has been taking people across the lower Thames since the 14th century are taking strike action. Two years ago they went on strike seeking a pay rise and over safety concerns when the new operators cut staff numbers and set new shift patterns after acquiring new ships.
      Last year the workers won a good deal when they won 100 per cent furlough pay from then operator Briggs Marine Contractors. Now the enemy is Transport for London (TfL). The cause of the latest action is the victimisation of a union rep. The lower Thames ferry’s 57 Unite the union members voted by 97 per cent on favour of eight days of strike action on Fridays and Mondays, this month and next.
     The Union say that the latest episode has been dubbed a ‘Groundhog Day’ dispute as the same problems keep coming up. Apart from the victimisation matter, workers are angry at TfL’s failure to agree a new pay and reward scheme; the excessive use of agency staff; and the failure to provide adequate health and safety training to new employees.
     Unite regional officer Onay Kasab sorrowfully said: “It is a sad indictment of the TfL bosses that they seem to be following the same course as Briggs Marine Contractors which meted out some appalling employment practices to the workforce in the recent past.
    “Our members have returned an overwhelming mandate for strike action at the Woolwich Ferry in support of their victimised shop steward and over a myriad of other employment issues.
     “Hopefully, the ballot result will be a light bulb moment for TfL and the management can get employment relations back on an even keel before strike action begins. To that end, Unite’s door is open 24/7 for constructive talks to resolve all the outstanding issues”. He concluded by warning that “The strikes will cause disruption to car drivers and foot passengers as ferry traffic picks up with commuters returning to their workplaces in the capital following the easing of lockdown.”

...and on dry land

In nearby Greenwich teachers at the John Roan School have taken strike action in defence of Kirstie Paton, a psychology teacher and National Education Union (NEU) rep who faces the sack for mentioning alleged improper use of Covid tests. They walked out just before a disciplinary hearing last Friday and will be balloting for further strike action.
     Her crime was to publish, in December last year, on the NEU Inner London Facebook page complaints about the school being used for pilot testing of Lateral Flow Tests (LFTs) for Covid-19. These tests, which were being supported by the Department for Education (DfE) were to be carried out by school staff. These tests have now been discontinued as they gave too many false negatives. The school was initially keen on LFTs serial testing to replace self-isolation protocols in its schools, but now the DfE has instructed schools not to use LFTs.
     The John Roan School is now one of the United Learning academies, Paton’s opposition to it becoming an academy has obviously not gone unremembered.
     The NEU say that they have been “left with no choice” but to defend their rep. Tim Woodcock, the NEU rep for Greenwich, said they had no choice but to defend their rep for speaking out, or else leave every other rep vulnerable and scared to speak out.
    "UL want to victimise Kirstie so they can intimidate staff into silence and deprive our members of an effective and dedicated union rep”.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Fight for the NHS!

Corbyn says Centene out!
by New Worker correspondent

Jeremy Corbyn joined a protest against GP practices being taken over by a US health insurance company last week. The former Labour leader, along with East London MP Apsana Begum, joined demonstrators outside the London headquarters in Westminster of Operose Health – a subsidiary of the giant Centene corporation –to protest against NHS privatisation.
    Corbyn told the crowd to “fight for the NHS until hell freezes over” at the protest called by Doctors in Unite (DiU), a campaign led by the biggest union in the country.
    Unite, with 100,000 members in the health service, has hit out at “a culture of Tory cronyism that is rapidly enveloping the NHS”, and called for an urgent independent inquiry into the ever-expanding lobbying scandal engulfing the NHS and its impact on the accelerating pace of health service privatisation.
    The call for an inquiry – with its recommendations cemented into law – follows on from the revelation that Tory health secretary Matt Hancock met former prime minister David Cameron and financier Lex Greensill for a private drink in 2019 to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS.
    Doctors in Unite chair Jackie Applebee said: “Ministers and senior NHS executives have repeatedly mouthed the mantra that the NHS is not being privatised.
    “But now we have the case of a huge swathe of English general practice, including the data of nearly half a million patients, being handed over to US health insurance giant Centene – with a breath-taking lack of transparency and openness.
    “Tory politicians and their outriders in the media roll out the tired old trope that all general practices are private, but this is disingenuous and they know it.
    “There is a world of difference between a multinational corporation that operates to make a profit, often by cutting staff and services, so that it can pay dividends to shareholders, and local GPs who are very much part of the NHS ‘family’ and provide services from a budget fixed by the Treasury.
    “The public needs to wake-up to the fact the NHS that they so value and which has been the lynchpin of the successful vaccination programme is being steadily sold off to profit-hungry healthcare companies – in this case one whose headquarters is in America.
    “This is another prime example of the accelerating privatisation of the NHS by stealth and Unite is spot-on to call for an independent inquiry into the wider lobbying scandal engulfing the NHS which emanates from a desire by profiteers to get their hands on lucrative health service contracts.
    “Now is a time to draw a line in the sand to preserve and cherish the NHS as an organisation free at the point of delivery to all those in need. If we are not vigilant, these founding principles of the NHS in 1948 will become pale shadows of themselves.”

Corbyn joins housing protest

 by New Worker correspondent

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was one of 30 campaigners who took part in a protest outside Pentonville Prison last week. The protest targeted a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) decision to sell off two blocks of 28 flats formerly used to house prison staff.
    In his capacity as the local MP, he said: “The Ministry of Justice is selling off a group of properties at the back of Pentonville Prison. The council, quite correctly, tried to buy them in order to house local people in housing need.”
    Their particular objection is that the developer, LGP Wellington Mews Ltd, has submitted several applications for a Certificates of Lawfulness for Existing Use or Development (CLEUD), which would excuse it meeting a target of 50 per cent of the homes on the site being rented at so-called affordable rates.
    Islington Council was close to a deal with the MoJ in 2019 to acquire the flats, used as temporary accommodation for those in desperate need of homes, but this fell through. Now Corbyn says: “The Ministry of Justice upped the price and prevented Islington from doing that. So what are we doing? We’re demonstrating outside those places to say to the MoJ and everybody else: let us solve the housing crisis by filling the empty homes with people that need them.”
    Unsurprisingly this claim was rejected by the MoJ, who insisted they were put out on the open market and that they were not trying to blackmail the council.
    Private ‘affordable housing’ is of course nothing of the sort. On Monday, a search of local estate agents for one-bedroom flats had nothing under £500,000.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A subbotnik for the Soviet memorial

by New Worker correspondent

Russian expats returned to the gardens of the Imperial War Museum in London on Saturday to give the Soviet War Memorial a spring clean as part of an international subbotnik in honour of the 80th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War when Hitler’s hordes attacked the Soviet Union in 1941.
     Members of the Victory Volunteers movement and volunteers from the Russian House cultural centre spruced up the monument in south-east London that commemorates all those from the countries of the Former Soviet Union who died during the Second World War, also known as the Great Patriotic War in much of the former Soviet Union. Funded by public subscription in Britain and the Russian Federation, the memorial has become a focal point for people from all over the former USSR and the UK. Unveiled in 1999 the bronze abstract figure, designed by Sergei Sheherbakov, holds aloft a bell which will forever remain silent in memory of those who died.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Pickets out in force in London!

By New Worker correspondent

Pickets were out in force at RATP’s London United bus depot in Harlesden last week after peace talks broke down over proposed attacks on conditions and real terms pay cuts.
    The London United dispute is a result of RATP seeking to use the coronavirus pandemic as cover to slash the pay and conditions of drivers. Following four days of negotiations Management made an offer for the outstanding pay increases for 2019 and 2020 and also sought to introduce new contract clauses. The pay offer fell well below the expectations of members and the proposed changes to conditions had not been previously discussed, and as such Unite was unable to propose the offer to members at this stage.
     London United is owned by RATP which is RĂ©gie Autonome des Transports Parisiens, a French state owned company which has branched out from running most of the public transport in the Greater Paris area where it carried about 3.3 billion passengers per year before the pandemic.
     It presently operates in 13 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States, notably Texas, with 64,000 people, claiming to be the world’s fourth largest public transport company. Despite claiming that last year was one of successive crises the company’s turnover was £4,700 million. Christine Chardon, the chief executive of their London based operation, saw her pay dramatically increased from £196,000 to £363,000. Three cheers for equal pay!
     Originally both Stamford Brook and Hounslow Heath depots heavily voted for industrial action but turnout was too low to legally join the action already underway at London United’s five other depots at Fulwell, Hounslow, Park Royal, Shepherd’s Bush and Tolworth garages. These five depots were on strike on Wednesday and will be joined on the 16th by the two latest recruits. As a consequence they had to be re-balloted.
     Unite the union say negotiations broke down last week when the company’s proposed pay offers to resolve the 2019 and 2020 pay claims were well below expectations and at the same time Management also attempted to alter drivers’ contracts.
     Unite regional officer Michelle Braveboy welcomed the result saying: “This is a significant and welcome development, the strike action will now intensify.
     “The drivers who have been considered key workers throughout the dispute are rightly asking how on earth RATP believes it is acceptable to cut drivers' pay in real terms and undermine their conditions, when they have gone above and beyond the call of duty to keep London moving”.
     She concluding by lobbing the ball into RATP’s court by saying “If increasing disruption to bus services is to be avoided then RATP must make a significantly improved pay offer and end its attempts to undermine its workers’ conditions”.
     Other RATP subsidiaries such as London Sovereign have seen drivers reluctantly voting to accept a pay rise of 1.25 percent and a one-off payment of £500 which is only 0.5 per cent bigger than the first offer. Over at Quality Line drivers voted in favour of a pathetic one per cent pay rise. Why does Unite not coordinate its action across the whole of London or better still across the country?


Sunday, March 21, 2021

The deadly cost of austerity in the Royal Borough of Grenfell

Jeremy Corbyn with Emma Dent Coad
By Theo Russell

Former Labour MP for Kensington from 2017 to 2019 Emma Dent Coad, known locally as "the people's MP", was the star speaker at the online AGM of the Hammersmith, Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea Trades Council last week. There she spoke of the massive inequality in the borough and the many unanswered questions about Kensington & Chelsea council's £50 million Grenfell Recovery Fund.
    The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC) has now pledged to produce a report on its Grenfell-related spending for the first time since the fire in June 2017 in which 72 people died.
    Dent Coad, who is also a current RBKC councillor and a member of the Audit and Transparency Committee, said it was “hugely frustrating that it has taken so long” to have these details made public.
    The Grenfell survivors and bereaved have so far seen very little of the funds, with many still not rehoused nearly four years later, and very little to show of the support services promised to them.
    In 2019-20, almost 60 per cent of the £4.5 million Grenfell budget for the year was staff and council property costs. Last year a council spokesperson told the London Evening Standard that £601,000 was spent on two managers - now denied by the council.
Dent Coad said people involved in the disaster regularly stop her in the street to express their frustration     with the distribution of recovery money and the lack of transparency. “I get asked about it all the time, it's not just that people are angry about it - people are hurt by it”.
    She said that “there is no leadership in the council” and described the current Tory MP Felicity Buchan as “appalling” and “a nodding dog for Boris Johnson who never stands up for her residents”.
    Current and former members and officers of the council, including the council leader, will be appearing before the Grenfell Inquiry in April, and Dent Coad said huge sums had been spent on legal advice and preparation.
    The inquiry is due to finish in spring 2022 “after which the police investigation, which has been ongoing, will spring into action - we hope”.
    “We expect to see arrests, but not to see anyone go to prison. The police can't afford to make mistakes, so they're going to be super careful”.
    Dent Coad recalled that “on the day of the fire two senior Tory councillors were overheard on an ITV report saying 'We offered them sprinklers and they refused' - a completely false claim”.
    The former Labour MP also spoke about the report by Kensington Labour Party Research Unit published last autumn, The most unequal borough in Britain, which she said had “changed the perception of Kensington and Chelsea as a playboy princes' playground”.
    `"RBKC", the report says, "the borough of princes, Sultans, plutocrats and billionaires, was our beautiful borough 'the most unequal borough in Britain'?
    ` How, in what one Councillor called “the richest borough in the universe”, with three billion pounds in reserves, could 72 people burn to death in a fire which, even in the earliest days, was blamed on 'cheap cladding'?"
    The borough has the highest life expectancy in the country, but across the borough the gap in years lived is a massive 27 years. Even more shocking, since 2010 - when a decade of austerity began to pay for the 2008 banking crash - average life expectancy in Golborne Ward fell by six years, the worst decline in the country.
    So a Moroccan man on the Wornington Green estate in North Kensington can expect to live to 64, while a white British born man near Harrods can expect to live to 91.
    This is the real impact of a decade of austerity and low pay on peoples' lives, while in London, across Britain and indeed the whole capitalist world, the rich accumulate ever more wealth, year after year.
    The report shows that by 2020 inequality was far worse than in 2014. In England's richest borough, according to Trust for London, in 2020 38 per cent of children lived in poverty, higher than the London average of 37 per cent! So the borough sees Britain's greatest concentration of the rich, side by side with its worst levels of child poverty.
    While some households have an annual income of £1.8m, while a few miles away whole communities are getting by on £18,000.
    We are not talking about the unemployed: three quarters of poor children have working parents, either full time or with at least two part-time jobs. What we're talking about here is low pay, insecure employment, daily worry and stress.
    Emma Dent Coad lost the December 2019 Westminster election by just 130 votes, after winning by 20 votes in 2017 after three recounts. But she has no intention of giving up the fight for the Grenfell community and for social justice. And despite the current difficulties and divisions in the Labour Party under Starmer's leadership, she stressed the need for a united opposition to take those struggles forward.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Support London bus drivers!

Picket of Park Royal garage
 by New Worker correspondent

London bus drivers took industrial action following the break-down of talks between RATP and Unite the union last week. Drivers working for RATP’s three subsidiary companies, London United, London Sovereign and Quality Line, went on strike over pay and conditions. RATP, a French state-owned transport company, is trying to impose new contracts that would cut drivers’ wages by some £1,500 a year.
    The fresh strike action follows a number of strikes held in February in protest at RATP’s “modernising” proposals. In a divide and rule approach, RATP is attempting to treat workers in each subsidiary differently and play one set of workers off against the other.
    Directors and shareholders line their own pockets while expecting their workers to take pay cuts lying down. Picket placards point out that the company’s highest paid director got £363,000 last year (an increase of £167,000 from the previous year), and £1,800,000 in dividends were paid out to shareholders.
    Support for the strike is solid in London United’s depots. With only nine out of 200 buses in operation, they are causing significant disruption. They’re also receiving lots of support from the community and notably from Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon.
    Unite regional officer Michelle Braveboy said: “Bus drivers at RATP are resolved that attacks on their pay and conditions will be abandoned and that they will secure a meaningful pay rise.
     “It is simply disgraceful that RATP is using the cover of Covid-19 to try to force through these cuts.
     “London’s bus drivers have kept the city moving through successive lockdowns but have also suffered a terrible penalty, through very high numbers of Covid deaths, as a result of their dedication and sacrifice.
     “This strike action is being taken as a last resort. This dispute is a direct result of RATP failing to treat its workers reasonably and fairly.
     “RATP is attempting to boost its profits by cutting workers’ pay, either directly or in real terms. Further strike action can still be avoided and Unite is prepared to enter into negotiations to resolve this dispute at any time”.


Sunday, March 07, 2021

Putting the boot in

by New Worker correspondent

One of Britain’s oldest and most effective trade unions recently secured an important legal victory which could pave the way for workers they represent securing huge pay rises. The ruling overturns an attempt by the bosses to impose caps on workers’ earnings.
The issue in question was actually that which led to the creation of the union in 1907. For the union is the 4,000 strong TUC affiliated Professional Footballers' Association.
    Originally founded as the Association Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union (AFPTU) in Manchester’s Imperial Hotel it succeeded a short lived Association Footballers’ Union (AFU) formed in 1898 and dissolved in 1901. The AFU had tried and failed to relax restrictions on players moving from one club to another and to prevent bosses introducing a maximum wage of £4 per week for players in the Football League.
    Two years after its foundation, bosses, in the shape of the Football Association (FA) withdrew recognition of the Union, a threat of strike action in response was met by the FA banning altogether players belonging to the union. Membership fell as players put their jobs before their union card, but Manchester United players stood firm, forcing the cancellation of a 1909 match. A prominent player, Tim Coleman of Everton gave his support shaming the FA, which encouraged members to return to the union and forced the FA to allow bonus payments.However, a later botched court case on the transfer question nearly broke the union.
    During the slump in 1922 clubs arbitrarily cut the maximum wage from £9 to £8, a move successfully opposed by the union. But major successes had to wait until the 1950s.
    When Jimmy Hill, footballer and later commentator became secretary of the Players' Union in 1956, it became the PFA. In 1957, the League’s maximum wage of £20 was scrapped, and the first £100 a-week player came in 1961. The age of footballers making the front pages for their drunken antics in sunny climes and tumbling out of nightclubs at 4 am finally dawned.
    In 1963 the PFA won a High Court case which declared that the “retain and transfer” system was an unreasonable restraint of trade. The commercialisation of sport clearly has its downsides, but unions are primarily there to get good deals for their members.
    Never very militant the union registered under the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which caused its departure from the TUC, but it returned in 1995. In the late 1990s it found itself in court for banning a woman football agent from its annual dinner. The case eventually cost £200,000.To compensate it now actively promotes women footballers so that they can in future misbehave in posh hotels just like the men.
In the same spirit of promoting inclusion, last month the PFA pointed out that although Asian and Asian British people make up almost 7.5 per cent of the British population, in the 2019/2020 season just eight players made first-team appearances across the Premier. To remedy this it launched its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme (AIMS).
    In November 2018 the PFA had a revolt from its members over its management practices,which is presently unresolved with the much complained about CEO still in post.
    On the matter of the present dispute PFA’s CEO, Gordon Taylor OBE no less, said: “We were disappointed that the EFL decided to introduce salary cap proposals, which were voted through without the proper consideration or consultation with the PFNCC. As a result, in August 2020, the PFA served a Notice of Arbitration on the EFL stating the introduction of the new rules were in breach of obligations under the constitution of the PFNCC. We are pleased the panel upheld the PFA’s claim".
Needless to say not all players are in the multi-millionaire category. Comparatively minor injury can end a playing career, which in the best cases comes to an end decades before the pension age. To help get non-playing players it funds several education programmes for ex and current players. One is a physiotherapy degree course at Salford University. Media-savvy footballers can even be taught to be sports journalists.
    In line with ancient trade union practice it provides medical care including paying for injured players to attend the Lilleshall Sports Injury Rehabilitation centre in Shropshire for physiotherapy and sports injury.
    PFA is also a campaigning union. Recently it took up the problem of racist abuse directed at black players. Unfortunately some football fans are like Trotskyites and SNP supporters in the level of abuse they hurl at their enemies. Writing to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter it pointed out that “The language used is debasing, often threatening and illegal. It causes distress to the recipients and the vast majority of people who abhor racism, sexism and discrimination of any kind. We have had many meetings with your executives over the years but the reality is your platforms remain havens for abuse”.
    PFA demands that the social media giants block racist or discriminatory material with an approved verification process for users and they urge co-operating properly with the police in such matters.
    It is also demanded more research into neurodegenerative disorders as the affect footballers, an a issue recently highlighted by the fact that many prominent footballers from the 1960s and 70s have been diagnosed with dementia, perhaps caused by frequent heading of footballs which were much heavier than now. The PFA is now funding such research.