Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Remember the dead, fight for the living: Workers' Memorial Day

I am in Manchester for a European Studies conference - it's an interest of mine, especially studying the attitude of left-wingers and trade unionists to Europe. Since I don't agree with them most of the time on this issue, I took it upon myself to learn about it. While still heavily outnumbered, at least I can argue with people from a position of vastly superior knowledge (in the UK that is not hard)!

I helped to organise this conference and got sent out this morning to buy a present for the member of staff at Salford University who made most of the practical arrangements. I wound my way by tram from Salford Quays to St Peter's Square, admiring the vast acres of brownfield sites, which are being turned into heritage museums and dockside apartments - although there can only be so much demand for these things!

I bustled through St Peter's Square, and in the Manchester Peace Garden came upon a clutch of banners. A strike? No, it was a ceremony to mark Workers' Memorial Day when trade unionists 'remember the dead' and rededicate themselves to ‘fight for the living’.

The people there included the partners (mostly women) of people killed in workplace accidents, representatives of unions including the construction workers' union UCATT and the firefighters' union FBU, and campaigners who fight for compensation for people dying from asbestos-related diseases.

A comrade of mine Rob Dawber died from mesothelioma in 2001, aged 45 (a year more than my age now). He had inhaled asbestos fibres while working on the railway, long after British Rail knew that working with asbestos was dangerous. Rob wrote the screenplay for Ken Loach’s film “The Navigators”. I didn't always get on with Rob, but I'm proud to remember him today. He was a battler for working people, an active trade unionist in other words.

In the recesssion employers want to cut through 'red tape' but, surrounded by old mills where people fought bitter battles with their employers for 'health and safety', to save their limbs and lungs from injury, including those of children, I am thinking of Rob and all the trade unionists who fight to put safety before profit in workplaces everywhere.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Privatise cemeteries - kerching!

Only in the minds and jargon of local government execs could the idea of privatising 'Cems/Crems' - their word, not mine - be described as a 'quick win'. But that is what the council is proposing.

In early March the trade unions were given some more details of the Future Shape work groups - on which neither they nor residents are collectively represented, by the way. One of the documents contained the diagram below.
We took this to be illustrative, and did not think that the council would actually move quickly to 'privatise' cemeteries and crematoria, ie, pay a private company to run them. But the papers for the Cabinet Resources Committee meeting tomorrow (23 April) show they propose to do just that.

There are 3 companies apparently interested in taking over the running of Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium. The appendix to the document shows that other c(r)ems (sorry, it's catching) in north London are run by... local councils or by the London Cremation Company, "the trading arm of the Charity, The Cremation Society of Great Britain", or by New Southgate Cemetery and Crematorium, a wholly owned UK company. Who are the 3 companies that are interested?

More to the point:
(1) a bit of consultation wouldn't have gone amiss over this move;
(2) whatever company takes over, they don't do it for love, do they?

Is it appropriate for private companies to make profits from burials and cremations? Shouldn't we be allowed some time for public reflection on this?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Yes, Leader?

A belated comment on the council meeting of 6 April, where Mike Freer gave a desperate-sounding and demagogic performance to defend his own role in the shortcomings exposed by the Icelandic banking affair.

Labour put a motion that said:
Council notes the failures highlighted in the scrutiny working group report on deposits in Icelandic Banks.

Council believes that the role of Cabinet Member for Resources is too large to be combined with the role of Leader of the Council, and asks the Leader to consider separating the roles, and revise Cabinet portfolios and the Leader’s scheme of delegation accordingly.
Mike Freer, of course, is both Leader and Cabinet Member for Resources.

His line throughout the recent scandals has been that it is the politician's job to decide policy and staff's role to carry it out - in this case, staff did not carry out the policy. The opposition objects that Freer ought to know what's going on and that if he doesn't, he isn't doing his job properly.

It really makes you wonder how he would ever cope as a governmental minister, should he ever reach that exalted (?) position. The Sir Humphreys of this world would run rings around him.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

We ♥ wardens in Barnet too

When I heard about Barnet council's plan to axe sheltered housing wardens, I thought it was a local issue. I thought, 'how would I feel if my 96-year-old grandmother's warden service were ended?', and took my cue from that. I'd be livid, I thought. I'd fight it tooth and nail. Now, my grandmother lives in Hyde, Greater Manchester, not in Barnet, but, I thought, that won't stop me fighting for the elderly residents of Barnet.

As it turns out, my 96-year-old grandmother's warden service is being axed. And it's happening all over. Inside Housing magazine estimates that
Three-quarters of councils have reduced warden services or are considering [reductions]...
Mature Times explains the trend:
Historically, the Warden system has worked very well financially for decades. For residents receiving Housing Benefit the pro rata costs of the Wardens salary was paid from within their allowance, and self- funded residents paid the housing provider for a Warden facility through service charges.

Then in 2003 the Government ceased funding Wardens in this way and passed the money to local organisations, usually councils, and named these organisations 'Supporting People'. They took over the local funding and care provision, and sheltered housing was moved from General Needs housing into their care umbrella.
The government and the Labour Party nationally appear comfortable with what is happening. To their credit, however, local Labour politicians are opposing the cuts, and belatedly there is a coordinated, national effort to save warden services, the Sheltered Housing Association.

To inspire us further, Inside Housing reports the successful campaign to save wardens in Brighton, under the banner 'We ♥ wardens'. Let's try and repeat their achievement in Barnet!

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The fight goes on... when the law allows

On Wednesday I went to an RMT rally called to announce the results of a ballot of London Underground and Transport for London staff for industrial action against
- massive job losses
- a pay deal which amounts to a pay cut and which they would be tied to for five years, regardless of what else happens in the economy
- management bullying and victimisation of union representatives
- cleaning companies reneging on their agreement to pay London Underground cleaners the London Living Wage
- etc., etc.
The workers had voted overwhelmingly for strike action against these attacks. Despite being addressed by an excited Visteon worker (then still in occupation) the rally was as flat as a pancake. Why? Because the strike ballot had been challenged by some lawyers hired for TfL/LUL and if any strikes went ahead they could be declared illegal and the RMT union's funds sequestered and strikers penalised. The points of legal challenge were extremely spurious. Here are some typical examples explained in a leaflet distributed at Wednesday's meeting:
1. “Blackhorse road group consists of five separate stations with separate addresses.” So although we balloted all the staff the fact that we didn’t give management separate work addresses is being used as a pretext to silence your voice.

2. “At Hainault you have failed to distinguish between the station and depot which again have different addresses.” Again whilst acknowledging that everyone was balloted management are seeking any excuse allowed under the anti-union law to ban your democratic rights.
To explain, the anti-union laws require unions organising a strike ballot to provide the employer with dot and comma information as to who they have balloted. Obviously, this gives management lawyers ample scope to pick holes in any ballot, and this is what has happened here.

It would be up to a High Court judge to decide who was right or wrong in this case, but they are not known for their sympathy to trade unions. The union has decided to reballot; the union representatives have to go out and run the whole process again, momentum is lost and spirits are depressed. However, they confidently expect to get a resounding 'yes' vote to industrial action in the new ballot. What will happen if that vote is challenged? Well, if you were the RMT, what would you do in those circumstances?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Visteon workers end their occupation but the fight goes on... Now, what shall we occupy next?

The Visteon workers at Enfield ended their week-long occupation on the advice of their union Unite - and, I imagine, due to some fatigue! They continue picketing the factory so that the supposedly bankrupt Visteon UK cannot move machinery out to start up somewhere else or move a new workforce in - on lower pay. Both of these are rumoured possibilities.

The workers might have continued their occupation if it had sparked similiar radical action against job cuts elsewhere, but that is not how people's mood stands. The occupation showed other people one way to fight but could not inspire them to fight - not yet.

I've posted some of my Visteon pictures here.

A group has been set up to carry on the already considerable and still much needed support shown to Visteon workers. Find it here (a temporary home).

On Wednesday 9,000 job losses were announced in Royal Bank of Scotland.

I had a momentary fantasy of the government having poured billions into the banking system to keep it going only for angry bank workers - not to be confused with bankers - threatened with the sack paralysing the industry through strikes and bank occupations. As a schizophrenic friend of mine, wildly scenario-mongering, says: 'It could happen, it could happen!' But only in his dreams.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Visteon occupation, rally 11am, Thursday 9 April

Thursday will be a crunch day for the occupiers at Visteon, Enfield, when they see what Visteon corporation - which is still in business in the US and globally - is prepared to offer the workers of Visteon UK. Then they will decide whether to continue their occupation.

If they do continue, they will be in contempt of court, so it will be a brave decision indeed.

You can get updates on this issue by emailing your details to visteon@barnettuc.org.uk - or, in the time-honoured fashion, googling 'Visteon occupation'.

Supporters will rally at the plant from 11am on Thursday 9 April to support the workers, whatever decision they make. (If you haven't visited the occupation yet, it could be your last chance!)

The plant is on Morson Road, Enfield EN3, near Ponders End railway station. More directions are available on www.barnettuc.org.uk.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Support the Visteon occupation - rally 11am, Saturday 4 April

OK, another time we can have a debate about property rights, but, for now, I would urge people to think about why they might support the Visteon car parts factory occupation currently going on in neighbouring Enfield.

The workers at Visteon UK, formerly a part of Ford, about 560 of them, were made redundant without notice. They had contracts mirroring those of Ford workers, but, with Visteon going into liquidation, will only receive minimal statutory redundancy terms. They are upset and angry, and have done the only thing they could that would get them a hearing: refused to leave their former workplace. Their demand: better redundancy terms (not much to ask for after years and in some cases decades of loyal service).

Yesterday evening a friend and I drove across Barnet to Morson Road, Enfield where the factory is, to visit the occupation. With the occupation, the workers have maintained and intensified the community spirit they will lose when the factory closes and the workforce is broken up. Family members and sacked workers who were not in on the start of the occupation are creating a holiday atmosphere around the plant. But an eviction notice has been served, and it is only a matter of time before the workers have to leave. Most of them will have to be carried out.

In the meantime, there is much work to be done. The case needs to be made that workers can resist job cuts, or fight for better redundancy terms if they are to lose their jobs. There are arguments to be had about converting factories to produce goods that are still wanted, even in a recession, when car parts are not wanted. There is a big debate about whether the economic system we have now is the best humans can manage - personally, I don't think it is. But even those who extoll the virtues of this system have a duty, I believe, to go and test their views against those of the the people who are currently on the sharp end of the recession.

Tomorrow, Saturday 4 April, a rally for supporters from across London has been called beside the factory from 11am. If you are free, please go along. It will be a great event!

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Woman who came last in Labour's deputy leadership race digs Mike Freer's Facebook page

Take comfort where you can. Fans of Barnet council leader Mike Freer have been celebrating the endorsement of Barnet's forays into social media by Hazel Blears, the communities and local government minister.

Anyone who looks at Barnet's social media, such as the much vaunted and under-used whereilive.org website, will realise that Ms Blears probably hasn't looked at it, and that she has simply been briefed by a civil servant.

But this little piece of good news for Freer in a period of unremitting gloom begs to be spun (almost out of recognition).