Monday, March 30, 2020

Surreal times indeed…

by Oliver New, Secretary
(personal capacity)
Ealing Trades Union Council

It’s a very surreal time, not just because of the threat of infection. A right-wing Tory Government has finally noticed that big Magic Money Tree growing in the yard and they’ve flipped economic policy over from austerity to desperate spending and borrowing, including paying wages of inactive workers.
This wasn’t just made possible by the virus, it’s also because the trade unions and the radical leadership of the Labour Party helped to undermine the failing right-wing orthodoxy of neoliberalism.
Self-interest and the free market are no longer championed as the solution. Overnight, exploited delivery workers are recognised as key workers and previously ignored NHS staff are being extolled (although no pay rise, something we should also demand). There are, of course, many more vital workers who should be valued and paid more, including cleaners, carers, refuse collectors and food workers. Perhaps they could swap places and salaries with the City ‘trader’ parasites.

New Ways of Organising

We are all coming to terms with how we can organise with less meetings. Hopefully as this crisis unfolds solidarity and group support will win over hearts and minds. Community support groups are already springing up to support the vulnerable across communities. Many unions are also organising practical support for members in different ways. There are so many issues. Shop workers and others in constant contact with the public are at risk. Vulnerable zero-hours workers are facing poverty, little or no sick pay, limited rights at work.
Talks with employers are under way everywhere: schools are closed; privatised cleaners on the Underground are to get full sick pay if they have to self-isolate; PCS, the main civil service union, has requested a moratorium on tax office closures; talks have agreed reduced services on rail with safety provisions. Some employers have been good, others need to be named and shamed.
Meanwhile many union branches are starting to organise online with activists being asked to sign up to WhatsApp and especially to Zoom, a free app that enables video conferencing.

NHS Solidarity

Our local hospitals have been under huge pressure (how much worse if the Shaping a Healthier Future closure plans had gone through!). NHS staff at Ealing and elsewhere have been bravely working long hours. The main local hospital dealing with the virus, Northwick Park, became overloaded at one point even though we’re still in the early stages. The lack of protective clothing led to some nurses clothing themselves with bin bags.
Solidarity and support for NHS Staff has to be stepped up, especially the demand for all NHS staff to be tested. Please support the Keep Our NHS Public petition online – or see the Ealing Save Our NHS website.
There is no doubt that the weak response in the UK is heavily down to the huge under-funding of our NHS over the last decade. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, like all weak bosses in a crisis, is trying to give himself draconian powers. From a quick reading, this includes powers to lock up people for reasons of quarantine or mental health, remove the obligation of local authorities to provide care, close ports and airports, and shut down gatherings. He tried to obtain these arbitrary powers for a period of two years without renewal – even longer than the anti-terrorism or wartime powers – but under pressure from the opposition parties and some of his own MPs it was agreed that they will be subject to review every six months.

Friday, March 20, 2020

On the Rails and Down the Tube

By New Worker correspondent

In HG Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, the invading Martians devastated Surrey and London before being defeated not by the artillery regiments, whose shells caused little damage, but by the germs that the Martians have never encountered on their home planet. Likewise, the recent coronavirus has done more than years of campaigning by the transport unions to advance the cause of rail nationalisation.
On Monday the Daily Telegraph reported that the Rail Delivery Group, the rail industry’s trade body owned by Network Rail, HS2 Ltd and various passenger and freight operators, is in talks with the Department for Transport about how they should be bailed out as passenger numbers plummet. This has not been denied by some operators such as East Midlands Railway. The private rail companies want contracts “ripped up and replaced [with] fixed fee alternatives”, which would mean taxpayers footing the bill for the country’s rail network if the contractors flee in the face of declining revenues from people heading government advice to work from home.
So few passengers have been venturing out that the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said there was “no point running ghost trains any more than running ghost planes”.
Responding to Shapps’s comment, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “The Government must now issue cast iron guarantee that as well as protecting transport services, all transport jobs and skills, including those in the supply chain, must be protected. To achieve this government must extend public ownership to the transport sector such as expanding the government operator of last resort already in use on northern and LNER.
“In the good times the privatised operators have squandered billions in dividends instead of reinvesting in staff and services and preparing for any shocks to the transport system, but now we have a national emergency and all commercial considerations must be put aside so transport is managed solely in the national interest.”
On the same day, transport union TSSA announced it was partially suspending industrial action in a dispute about the imposition of a new pay system, which has seen five years of effective pay cuts amongst Transport for London (TfL) office workers, as a “gesture of goodwill” to the travelling public in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes, said: “We recognise that Transport for London is likely to ask office workers to volunteer as ‘ambassadors’ to help give travel advice to the public.
“We expect in return that TfL will offer payments to staff who may volunteer for these shifts and, once the Coronavirus pandemic has been addressed, will come back to the negotiating table to address the concerns that gave rise to this action in the first place.”
Also on Monday, RMT demanded that TfL buck up its ideas on cleaning in the light of the Coronavirus pandemic just as it had been discovered that bosses regard Tube cleaning as a “non-core” activity unworthy of any serious attention.
The previous Tuesday, a TfL press release announced that it was launching an “enhanced cleaning regime” to “improve the already-high hygiene levels on the capital's public transport”.
The union revealed however, that TfL’s contract with cleaning outsourcing company ABM leaves it up to the company, not TfL, to decide how many cleaners are employed and how often they clean the Tube. The union points out that unlike New York, where cleaning is publicly owned, Tube bosses have no direct control over their cleaning regime response to the Coronavirus.
In response, Mike Cash said: “Let’s be clear, keeping the tube trains clean and safe should be just as important as keeping tube trains running especially with the threat of Coronavirus. The Mayor should follow the example of New York and take cleaning under direct public control alongside the rest of London Underground’s day to day activity.”

Uncharitable Charity

By New Worker correspondent

Homeless charity St Mungo’s, which has many branches in London as well as Basildon, Brighton and Bristol, is facing a strike by hundreds of staff opposing a “race to the bottom”. A three-day strike took place on Monday to Wednesday of this week.
Unite the Union warned its CEO Howard Sinclair to “stop blaming staff for your leadership mistakes” as workers began their strike.
The struggle, which has been going on over a year a variety of issues, includes a punitive sickness policy and changes it made to the junior staffing cap, which workers fear opens the door to a cheaper workforce on worse pay and terms and conditions. Safety would also be undermined.
Unite has assured clients that: “Your safety is our priority, which is why we feel so strongly about standing up to defend the services we deliver to you.”
In response to the CEO’s calls for the strike to be suspended because of the Coronavirus outbreak, Unite said that it will follow government guidance and not be bullied by Sinclair.
Unite’s regional officer, Tabusam Ahmed, said: “St Mungo's workers have tried their utmost to arrive at a reasonable settlement with their employer and have been rejected at every turn.
“For our members the safety of their clients is their number one priority and they will take strike action with very heavy hearts, but believe it is the only way to defend the future of St Mungo’s services.
 “We have warned that the attacks on jobs, the reinstatement of ‘race to the bottom’ conditions and discriminatory disciplinary procedures are putting a severe strain on staff and the services they deliver to homeless people.
“We appeal to Mr Sinclair and the board to rethink their approach, as the charity cannot function as it should do and serve those who need it, while relationships between staff and employers are stretched to breaking point.”
Unite said it will follow the ‘severe weather emergency protocol’ (SWEP) and suspend strike action should it become necessary.
A necessarily anonymous St Mungo’s worker who has worked in the sector for many years said that helping the homeless is a labour of love. “You may have a client who has a history of severe mental health issues who needs to be in a psychiatric hospital but has gone missing so we have to go out and find him. Or a woman who is in a domestic violence situation who needs to be brought to safety immediately.”
He must respond to such crises whilst also doing daily outreach shifts, which involve making contact with rough sleepers who’ve been referred to the charity by members of the public. He also noted that at St Mungo’s staff have to deal with 40 or more individuals whilst in other charities the norm is half that. He points out that: “When you work with someone who’s finally secured accommodation and they’re crying they’re so happy; or when a client beats their addiction – it really makes the job worth it.”
He accused St Mungo’s of presiding over a regime that has some of the highest rates of people off sick in the sector. It has an onerous sick policy that means once staff reach what’s called a “level 3” sickness absence they may be dismissed.
The union accused the charity of tearing up a negotiated agreement meant to protect pay, terms and conditions. A 2013 agreement to limit the ratio of junior staff to more senior staff, to ensure that services are provided by experienced workers, has been abandoned.
Last month St Mungo’s rejected a proposal made for one duty worker per three project workers, despite the tiny extra cost.
As a result the junior staff are on lower pay, and these inexperienced younger workers informally take on the work of senior staff in which they are totally out of their element. It is “blindingly obvious that this is a cost-cutting measure meant to be a race-to-the-bottom for all of us”
The worker points out that it appears that all St Mungo’s “care about is their brand and not the actual service and staff. They don’t listen to us. They spend tens of thousands of pounds on PR, have an executive team earning £700,000 between them, then they try to cut costs everywhere else. They have taken a very heavy-handed anti-union approach amid this dispute, banning union meetings at work. And then on top of everything they punish us for being sick.”
Last Sunday Unite welcomed that fact that St Mungo’s changed its sickness policy in light of coronavirus, but it said must go further and scrap the onerous requirement of making workers call two people when off sick.
St Mungo’s denies it has been cutting pay, changing terms and conditions or making people redundant, and said they had “done everything possible” to stop the strike and had made reasonable compromises. They claim that inexperienced staff have only be used on very rare occasions.