Britain: Workers' Rights Under Attack - Unions must follow Italian lead

Following the example of the United States, Thatcher attempted to transform Britain into a deregulated low-wage economy. To the disgust of trade unionists, Blair is attempting to carry through a similar policy. Rob Sewell examines what has happened and argues for a radical alternative to Blairism.

Following the example of the United States, Thatcher attempted to transform Britain into a deregulated low-wage economy. To the disgust of trade unionists, Blair is attempting to carry through a similar policy. Rob Sewell examines what has happened and argues for a radical alternative to Blairism.

The Labour Prime Minister was accused recently by the Transport and General Workers' Union of being "more Thatcherite than Thatcher." This was after Blair's decision to privatise the dockyards at Faslane, Rosyth and Devonport.

Coming on top of the privatisation of Air Traffic Control and London Underground, it was one privatisation too many. "This government is infatuated with rich men and bestows magical qualities on the private sector," said Jack Dromey, national secretary of the TGWU.

Blair has stolen the clothes of the Tories. "The Labour Party is more pro-business, pro-wealth creation, pro-competition than ever before," states Gordon Brown in an interview in the Financial Times. These so-called Labour leaders bow down and grovel before big business, while at the same time pressurising teachers to "communicate the virtues of business and enterprise" to schoolchildren.

After introducing his "fairness at work" proposals, Blair boasted that Britain would be one of the most deregulated economies of the western world. Now, despite promises to the contrary, the government is pushing ahead with a two-tier workforce when workers are transferred to the private sector. A leaked Cabinet Office document reportedly suggests that union demands for the same rights and conditions for transferred workers would "seriously lessen" contractors' "flexibility" and "diminish the benefits of outsourcing and public private partnerships".

Scandalously, British workers work the longest hours in Europe and the United States - something like 25% longer. The 48-hour working week is the most frequently flouted workplace right. However, Tessa Jowell, employment minister, says the government has been very careful not making the legislation an "unnecessary regulatory burden on business."

Britain is the only country to insist on a loophole making the 48-hour rule voluntary. In many places, workers are regularly denied sick pay and holidays. At the same time, business pays the lowest corporation tax (lower than any time in its history!), and the lowest employment costs in Europe and the United States. Social insurance and labour taxes average 24% in France, 21% in the US and only 13% in Britain.

Brown, who is seen by some as an alternative to Blair, has been the most strident in support of pro-capitalist policies. "Those people who are suggesting we move backwards from that agenda are not in my view expressing the sentiments the Labour party wants to support - that we have got to combine enterprise and fairness." But this pandering to big business goes against the fundamental traditions of the Labour Party as a party of the working class.

After 18 years of Toryism, the bosses have the whip hand in the workplaces of Britain. And yet, those who seek to defend the public services and the rights of workers are attacked as "wreckers" by Blair.

Blair has also linked up with the extreme right in Europe, like the Italian prime minister Berlusconi and the Spanish prime minister Aznar, to undermine workers' rights. This follows the British experience, where workers here have less workplace protection, work the longest hours and have the shortest holidays in Europe. Stress levels have gone through the roof. Last year, the official figures for the number of deaths at work rose by 32%. There is even talk of increasing the retirement age to 70!

"Europe's labour markets," Blair wrote in Italy's Corriere della Sera, "need to be more flexible. Businesses are still encumbered by unnecessary regulation." The paper produced by Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar, called on EU states to introduce "more flexible types of employment contracts", to replace labour laws with "soft regulation", and to increase "the effectiveness of public employment services…by opening this market to the private sector."

The Blairites have turned the clock back for British workers. Job insecurity is at a post-war high. Workers can be sacked more easily in Britain than any other European country. And yet, the Blair gang wants to marginalize the trade unions even further. They have maintained the anti-trade union legislation of the Thatcher years. They have told the union leaders in no uncertain terms that they can expect "no favours" from the Labour government, only "fairness". But this is simply a bad joke. There is absolutely no fairness in the workplace for millions of workers. The only people who are getting "favours" are the bosses.

They are systematically using their dominant position to squeeze every ounce of surplus value from the labour of the working class. Profit comes from the unpaid labour of working people. Therefore, through a variety of means (part-time working, short-term contracts, new terms and conditions, etc) workers are facing a vicious increase in exploitation. This applies to white collar as well as blue collar workers, as is testified by the increased workload of teachers and civil servants over the past years.

No wonder every year 150,000 workers take at least one month off for illness caused by job stress. More than 6.5 million days are lost and at any one time an estimated 500,000 workers are off sick with anxiety or depression. Now, in true Dickensian style, new rules have been introduced to prevent compensation claims for stress-related illness. "Lady Justice Hale said it should not be the responsibility of an employer to make exhaustive investigations into the mental health of employees," reported the Independent (February 6, 2002) "Instead, the onus was on the stressed worker to decide whether to leave the job or carry on working and accept the risk of a mental breakdown"!

This is the Thatcherite model of Britain in the 21st Century. In reality, it is a vision of the 19th Century. It has now become the model for Tony Blair. Follow our example says Blair to his European counterparts. "Free up your economies from the burdens of worker protection!" No wonder Berlusconi and Aznar have come to his aid. They are the most rightwing leaders in Europe.

However, Berlusconi's attempt to take Blair's road has brought him into collision with the trade unions and the Italian working class. Up to three million workers have taken to the streets to oppose him. A successful general strike has paralysed the country. The Italian workers are not prepared to give up their rights and conditions without a struggle.

It is about time the trade union movement in Britain got off its knees and started to fight back. Even John Monks described the alliance of Blair, Berlusconi and Aznar as "bloody stupid". However, Monks can squeak all he wants. He supported Blair all the way in his class collaboration policies. Monks wants the lion and the lamb to lay down together. He sees nothing wrong with taking the lamb to the slaughter, if it provides him with peace and quiet. But the British working class is no lamb. Once aroused, the British worker can be as determined as any other.

It is about time the trade union leaders organised a real fightback. The bosses have been getting away with murder over the last fifteen years. They have robbed the workers of their rights in one sector after another. The spate of strikes and strike ballots over the past period is an indication of a new mood in the working class. You can only stomach so much. Enough is enough.

Blair and his new-found friends in Europe have thrown down a challenge to the workers. Blair wants to go much further in his attacks on the working class. The "reform" of the public services, privatisation, PFI and PPP, are all part of a generalised offensive against the conditions and rights of working people. Now is the time to fight back!

Jack Dromey, the opportunist transport union leader, has talked about a new "Summer of Discontent". It is about time that the trade union leaders used the power of the trade unions to stop the employers' offensive in its tracks. They must take the Italian road!

The TUC must organise a mass demonstration and lobby of Parliament over workers' rights.

  • Down with the Blair-Berlusconi-Aznar alliance!
  • Link up with our brothers and sisters in Italy and Spain!
  • No two-tier workforce!
  • Repeal all anti-trade union legislation!
  • For a 35-hour week! A living wage for all workers!
  • No to PFI! No to privatisation - renationalise the lot!
  • Fight for socialist policies in the labour movement!