Friday, December 18, 2020

In the departure lounge

by New Worker correspondent

Another seasonal strike is taking place at Heathrow Airport, where Cargo workers employed by British Airways voted almost unanimously for nine days of strike action starting on Christmas Day and ending on the first Saturday of the New Year.
    The 840 workers belonging to Unite agreed to the action in protest at
BA’s attempts to fire and rehire the workforce, a move which would result in pay cuts of between 20–25 per cent, in addition to substantial cuts to terms and conditions.
    Being very reasonable people, Unite delayed announcing strike dates to allow BA a final opportunity to come forward with a meaningful offer – but as might be expected, BA were less reasonable and failed to respond.
    Despite the pandemic, the airport is very busy as a result of the manufactured no-deal Brexit panic that has affected the ports. Given the huge reduction in passenger numbers, it is the one part of the airport business that has remained profitable throughout the pandemic.
    Unite assistant general secretary and wannabe-General Secretary Howard Beckett declared that: “Unite has bent over backwards to give British Airways the opportunity to make a fair offer to its cargo workers and it has failed to do so. As a consequence Unite has no option but to announce strike action. Our members are taking this action as a last resort. They are aware that it will cause severe disruption to air freight entering the UK but they simply can’t afford to lose a quarter of their pay.”
    Although Unite has reached agreement with BA in all the other sections of the company, the managers of the cargo workers have proved a tougher nut to crack.
    On Monday, 4,000 workers directly employed by Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) started a strike on similar issues. A car-based rally and socially distanced picket lines took place around the airport. Local Labour MP John McDonnell told a rally: “HAL management disgracefully saw COVID as an opportunity to cut pay, jobs and conditions. What they are trying to do is to use a temporary crisis to achieve permanent savings. It is exploitation. We need to draw a line in the sand.”
    Many workers have come round to the view that a more co-ordinated approach is needed. The strike continues on Thursday and is timed to coincide with the pre-Christmas getaway.
    Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King said: “The airport's success was built on its workforce, who have continued to ensure it operates throughout the pandemic, on occasion risking their health. HAL has repaid them by conducting the most brutal fire and rehire operation ever seen in the UK.”
    The airport has suffered an 84 per cent fall in passenger numbers and lost its place as Europe’s busiest airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle. Last Friday HAL announced that because of low passenger traffic its Terminal 4 will remain closed until the end of 2021.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Cuts on the campus

by New Worker correspondent

A dispute is bubbling away at the University of East London (UEL) where the University and College Union has warned of industrial action against the university’s plan to impose compulsory job cuts.
     Balloting it presently underway. The issue is over ten compulsory job cuts, including seven academic posts, and the effects of the additional workload which remaining staff would face. Last July the university said it needed to make 134 people redundant due to an expected decline in student numbers due to Covid-19, but the now the university is forecasting higher student enrollments than last year. These cuts would mean 92 jobs would go in total, after 82 staff agreed on voluntary redundancy. The latest cuts target senior academics in the social sciences and the university’s architecture departments.
     The union said it sent a worrying message to students that the university was cutting almost 100 jobs despite the university forecasting an increase in student enrollments, and with staff workloads already at unbearable levels.
     In addition UCU argues UEL is acting unlawfully and is considering a legal challenge on grounds of lack of meaningful consultation, unfair selection, unfair dismissal, victimisation and discrimination. Six of the seven academics facing the sack are over 50 years old, five are of black and minority ethnic heritage, and five are female. This, said UCU makes the university’s pious claims of commitment to equality and diversity “ring hollow when it treats staff like this”.
     By a strange coincidence no less than four of the seven academics facing the sack are also UCU activists, including the branch chair and vice-chair.
     The university claimed it has been acting properly stating that “Following an extensive consultation, that commenced at the beginning of July, at the end of both the legal process and then a further nine weeks of consultation with at-risk individuals – demonstrating the university’s commitment to seek all reasonable alternatives to compulsory redundancy – eight roles remain at risk and efforts are continuing to identify suitable redeployment opportunities for those people.
    Evidently unconvinced UCU regional support official Amanda Sackur said: “UEL staff are reporting unmanageable workloads but the university is insisting on more cuts. The decision to sack another 10 staff on top of the 82 who have already accepted redundancy this year is completely unjustified”, adding that “Most of the academic staff the university is trying to sack have protected characteristics, and we believe UEL has deliberately tried to get rid of UCU activists. It is outrageous that the university trumpets its commitment to diversity and equality and then attacks staff in this way. UEL now needs to step back from the brink, limit any further damage to its reputation, drop these disastrous cuts and engage meaningfully with us in finding alternate solutions”.
     On the same campus teachers at the London Design & Engineering College (LDE) are taking strike action over the dismissal of a National Education Union rep. This is one of those free schools where the headmaster is a law unto himself.
     Squashed into a corner of the UEL, it is far too small for the number of pupils and even lacks a playground. After a NEU rep raised health and safety concerns during the pandemic, the Head promptly sacked the rep saying she had no rights because she had been employed for less than two years.
     Even after a judge found the sacking was unjustified and instructed LDE management to reinstate her the bosses reneged on their promise to do so and another person was appointed in her place. The rep said she was unaware of any investigation and simply had a dismissal pack sent to her house.

Unknown Soldier Day at the Soviet War Memorial

By New Worker correspondent

Members of London’s Russian community paid tribute to the Soviet sacrifice during the Second World War at a ceremony at the Soviet War Memorial in Lambeth last week. Standing by the monument in the shadow of the Imperial War Museum in south London they joined many others who were honouring the Soviet war dead across Russia and beyond.
    The Day of the Unknown Soldier has been commemorated on 3rd December in Russia for the past six years. In Moscow the tributes centre on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall that was unveiled in 1967. The tomb contains the remains of a soldier killed in action during the Battle of Moscow in December 1941. The inscription reads: ‘Your name is unknown, your deeds immortal’.
    The Soviet War Memorial in the park that surrounds the Imperial War Museum was funded by public subscription in Britain and the Russian Federation. Unveiled in 1999 the London memorial has become a focal point for people from all over the former USSR and the UK.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

London Workers’ Notes

by New Worker correspondent

In the good old days of the 1970s when trade union membership was twice what it is today, Tories frequently complained that trade unions would go on strike at the drop of a hat to get a pay rise. With few exceptions at present, trade unions are equally active but their energies seem to be almost entirely devoted to attempting to save jobs or prevent wage reductions that bosses are attempting to impose under the cover of the COVID-19 crisis.

Waltham Abbey

Essential supplies of Brussels sprouts, port, cranberry sauce and Stilton in and around London could be at risk as a result of a planned Christmas strike. Twelve drivers, employed by Harper & Guy Consulting Ltd at Sainsbury’s Waltham Abbey distribution centre, have voted unanimously for strike action in protest at being paid £12,000 less per year than those directly employed by Sainsbury’s. As a result, deliveries to about 100 Sainsbury’s stores in London and the south east will be severely affected during the six days of strikes before and after Christmas.
    The driver’s union, Unite, said that Sharper & Guy had point blank refused to discuss the pay claim for 2020 and parity pay.
    Regional officer Paul Travers thundered: “What we have here is one of the most flagrant cases of pay parity injustice that I have been involved with, as our members are getting paid £12,000-a-year less than their counterparts employed directly by Sainsbury’s doing the same job at the Waltham Abbey depot.
    “You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to work out that 12 times £12,000 is nearly £150,000-a-year and that someone is benefiting from that figure – and it is definitely not our members.
    “Ironically, Harper & Guy Consulting Ltd has pay parity with Sainsbury’s drivers for all the agency drivers it employs at this depot which just adds insult to injury for our 12 members who are being treated appallingly.”
    The union’s national officer for road transport and logistics, Matt Draper, added: “This dispute further puts the spotlight on Sainsbury’s desire to pursue its misguided ‘race to the bottom’ strategy.” He also pointed out: “We have opposed the introduction of these lower paid ‘new generation’ contracts within Sainsbury’s. The way these drivers at Waltham Abbey are being contemptuously treated shows Sainsbury’s is implicated at arm’s length in the actions Zero Hours–Zero Benefits of Harper & Guy Consulting Ltd.
    “Sainsbury’s needs to remember a ‘key worker’ is not just for the present COVID-19 emergency, but for the long-term as a contented workforce improves productivity.”

London Airport

Tuesday saw workers at Britain’s main airport, London Heathrow, who are directly employed by Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) mount a socially distanced picket as part of a long-running dispute over savage wage cuts imposed on the workforce through a brutal fire and rehire programme. In addition, an advertising van toured the area condemning “Heathrow’s super-rich shareholders are jetting off with workers’ wages”, in which Heathrow’s chief executive officer John Holland Kaye was portrayed as the “Heathrow Grinch CEO is stealing workers’ wages”.
    These actions come after workers voted by 84 per cent in opposition to fire and rehire policies that will result some workers suffering permanent pay cuts of up to £8,000 per annum or a quarter of their take-home pay.
    The targeted strike action involves workers who are vital to the operation of the airport and includes: firefighters, engineers, campus security, baggage operations, central terminal operations, landside and airside operations.
     Unite warns that despite the union representing thousands of workers who will still be at work, HAL has refused to discuss its contingency plans for keeping the airport open and as a result the union has raised serious safety concerns.
     Unite regional co-ordinating officer Wayne King said: “Workers face losing their homes and surrendering their cars due to the savage cuts being imposed on them.”
    The union notes that the pay cuts are all about greed and not needed: “HAL and John Holland Kaye are guilty of using the COVID pandemic as cover for forcing through long-held plans to cut pay. If this was genuinely about the pandemic any cuts would have been temporary.”
    He added that: “Unite have tried to negotiate temporary pay cuts but Heathrow were simply not interested” and cast serious doubts on bosses claims that “under its ‘contingency plans’ Heathrow can operate safely but despite seeking the evidence to prove this, that information has not been forthcoming, raising serious questions about how the airport will operate during the strikes”.
    Three further days of strikes are planned before Christmas.


Amongst the workers most affected by the COVID-19 crisis are casual workers on zero-hours contracts. Just one example of this comes from the north London borough of Camden, where staff who have given years of service at the Kentish Town Sports Centre, which is presently closed, have been told they will not be receiving any furlough pay.
    The centre is managed by notorious contractor Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) on behalf of the Labour-run council.
    An investigation by the local Camden New Journal newspaper discovered that staff working for five or more years were still on zero-hours contracts. One was Deena Mostafa, who has in the sales and reception team for five years, who had her weekly pay packet stopped in September. She said: “I am down £600 a month. We don’t qualify for things like free school meals, and life has come to a standstill.” This was because casual staff did receive furlough support based on their average weekly hours in March, but this is not the case now.
    Another member of staff added that: “We have been struggling. Due to this second lockdown I was hoping the furlough would continue, but they said only full-time will receive it. We are all casuals working full-time hours. It’s unfair. Most of my colleagues been working there for years but treated as if it didn’t matter.”
    Mostafa added: “What annoys us is that GLL haven’t even acknowledged we are staff. It is like we do not exist. It is unethical to leave people in a position like this. The only reason to keep us on these contracts is to save money and to be able to get rid of us when they want to.
    “They say they have no obligation to give us hours, and we have no obligation to take them – but that’s simply not true. We are obligated, as we need to earn a wage.”
    A local Unison branch organiser said the union was on the ball, and suggested the contract should be brought in-house to put staff on the same terms and protection as council staff , adding that the case “is another example of why zero hours should be scrapped. The council’s official stance is their contractors should not be using them – so this needs to become an iron-clad policy.”
    A Camden Council spokesman meekly said GLL would furlough employees who had a role to return to but that: “Very sadly this has meant some of the roles previously occupied by GLL staff on flexible hours have been reduced, meaning these staff will not have roles to return to.
    “The government must now provide councils and our partners in the charity sector with the necessary funding to support residents who lose their work back into employment or training.”
    GLL, which is a ‘not-for-profit’ spinoff from Greenwich Council, has form in this area. Founded in 1993, GLL runs leisure centres in more than a dozen London boroughs, as well as libraries in Bromley and Greenwich. It has over 50 local authority contracts and employs 14,000 staff nationally – with about 70 per cent of these workers on casual contracts. The ‘not-for-profit’ bit means it does not make pay-outs to shareholders, but to compensate it pays high salaries to senior managers.
    It was recently forced into a union recognition agreement by Unite at the south London borough of Lewisham. Unite regional officer, Onay Kasab, said: “Local authority leisure services, whoever the providers, face dire financial circumstances. It is a matter of public record that we want services in-sourced,” adding: “But where services are outsourced, the minimum requirement must be that trade unions are recognised.”
    GLL modestly describes itself as “an award winning charitable social enterprise which cares for its staff and local communities alike”. As can be seen from events in Camden, the reality is quite different.
    In the early stages of the pandemic it ‘generously’ offered its library and leisure centre workers across London an offer of six-months unpaid leave in return for the promise of a job when they returned. At the time Unite said it would subsequently lead to “drastic” cutbacks in work offered to those on casual contracts.
    The union accused the company of being in “real financial trouble” and said the “simple and straight forward” answer was for the service to go back into public ownership.
    “Local authorities must not wait until the company goes bust with all the unemployment and disruption this will cause to council services. Instead, they must act now to save jobs and much-appreciated public amenities.”