Unison General Secretary election: we need a fighting democratic union
August 19, 2020
The general public sector union Unison has begun the process of electing a new general secretary at a very important time for the union. Decades of cuts and privatisation of services provided by Unison members have been brutally exposed by the Covid crisis as fatally undermining healthcare and social care. Over a decade of austerity now faces being compounded by the actual bankruptcies of local authorities.
Health workers have begun a fight for fairer pay in the NHS, with many Unison members participating in local protests but without even an ounce of support from the Unison national leadership. Unison members desperately need a union leadership willing and able to stand up for them against the employers, and the establishment politicians in Westminster and local and devolved governments.
It is also an important moment for Unison because of the internal politics of the union. Incumbent general secretary Dave Prentis embodies the failed policies of retreat, surrender and partnership with the employers, which have been so disastrous for Unison members and enforced upon unwilling activists by repeated witch-hunts of left activists in the union. Prentis is retiring and so for the first time in over a decade, he will not be the bureaucracy’s candidate.
The pressure of members and austerity is starting to tell on the Unison bureaucracy. In this general secretary election there is more than one candidate emerging from the union establishment. Christine McAnea represents a continuation of the Prentis era. Roger McKenzie originates within ‘Team Dave’ but has worked to present a different image, of the need to build a 2 million member-strong union and recruit thousands more union reps. McKenzie is not a left candidate, although supported by some lefts, and if he becomes general secretary will need a strong organised left at every level of the union to push him to carry out his pledges and to force the kind of mass struggle necessary to recruit masses more members and reps.
On the left of the union, Unison Action (UA) has been debating the issue of a left candidate for almost a year. Supporters of SA have been involved with UA from the start, in fact some of us played a key part in its founding. We believe that the necessary root and branch transformation of our union requires a strong broad left based on branch and workplace activists with a fighting programme. We have sought to build UA into such an organisation and believe that it has potential to develop in that direction. SA supporters have stood for, and won, NEC and other positions as UA candidates and intend to continue to do so.
Within UA, three individuals representing different groupings sought to win the UA nomination to run in the GS election with the backing of the UA steering committee. We have argued from the start for one left candidate, chosen by UA, to contest the GS election. We believed that Hugo Pierre from the Socialist Party had the best programme and should be selected as the UA-backed candidate. This is despite our criticisms of the sectarian actions of his party both inside UA and declaring that Hugo would run anyway if he failed to get UA support. We made clear that while we would vote for Hugo in the UA selection meeting on the basis of political ideas, we would respect the result of the vote rather than supporting a break-away go-it-alone campaign by Hugo or anyone else.
UA held a hustings in which we actively participated and put questions to all the candidates about how they would organise struggles by Unison members and seek to change the union for the better. SA supporters encouraged Unison members watching the hustings to come forward for the NEC elections next year, in which we believe the biggest possible challenge by UA-backed candidates will be necessary, regardless of who wins the GS election.
At the subsequent steering committee, Hugo lost the vote partly because members of the Socialist Party abstained when it came to the vote, leaving the road open for Paul Holmes who has been selected as the UA candidate. Hugo is now seeking to stand anyway, begging the question why the Socialist Party decided to participate in the Committee meeting. In contrast, SA members in UA will respect the decision of the steering committee.
During the GS election we will seek to discuss how Unison can be transformed into a fighting democratic union, including the GS election this autumn and looking beyond that to the struggles necessary on the streets and workplaces, and to trying to win a left majority on the NEC next year.
“Pay Us What You Owe Us!”: Socialists show support for NHS workers
August 10, 2020
On 8 August, NHS staff, including nurses and care workers, took to the streets across the country to protest the Tories’ decision to lock them out of their announced public sector pay rise. After battling the pandemic on the front line, this decision represents a huge slap in the face. This is why members and supporters of Socialist Alternative came out in solidarity with these pay demands.
With many socialist health workers in our ranks, we stressed the need for the unions to begin seriously mobilising support for possible strike action where necessary. This movement, if it is to win big, will have to be built from hospital to hospital, ward to ward to mobilise for further days of action that can show where working class people stand.
If you agree with this and like what you hear from our members’ reports, join Socialist Alternative today.
“I want to thank everyone who came to the demonstration in Medway today for the national day of action for a 15% pay rise for NHS workers.
Around 50 people assembled and marched through Chatham demanding an end to chronic low pay in the NHS.
I was especially proud of the great turn out from the critical care team past and present. To build the kind of movement we need to, to force the government into valuing healthcare workers in our pay packets we need to organise in every ward and department in every hospital and clinic in the country. Today was a great start, but it was just a beginning.”
– Jacqui Berry, Kent and Medway SA, health worker and Unison NEC member (personal capacity)
“The demonstration in Liverpool went well for those of us in Merseyside SA. We were able to distribute flyers and actively sold our NHS-themed magazine, written by our health worker members. There was a noticeable presence of a wider mass of support for these demands. The main speakers and organisers were NHS workers themselves, but just as many anti-cuts activists and left-wing groups were present as well to show their solidarity. The NHS staff who were there were very receptive to our presence, and we got details from a number of those workers present. Maybe our newly acquired table and SA flag helped us out!”
– David Thomas, Merseyside SA, UCU activist and university worker
“Around 200 workers and activists attended the Newcastle NHS pay rally. While there unfortunately no union banners or official labour movement speakers, there were many rank-and-file speakers stressing the need for further struggle to meet their demands. Many talked about the need for activists to put pressure on the unions to press for the full 15% pay rise. Contrary to Tory fearmongering about the protests spreading Covid-19, social distancing was strongly adhered to and virtually everyone wore a wask.
– Geoff Stokle, Newcastle SA
“Around 250 people gathered in Sheffield City Centre to make the demands. There was an angry mood at the way the key workers that the Tory government called ‘heroes’ are being refused a pay rise – despite the fact that their pay has declined by up to 25% as one speaker noted. Another speaker, an ambulance paramedic and Unison member, got huge cheers when she said: “We are fighting for a Socialist NHS – democratically controlled, free at the point of use and fully funded. The trade unions and the Labour Party need to get on the streets and get behind us!”
The crowd then marched around the city centre, enthusiastically picking up the chants Socialist Alternative suggested – particularly ‘Clapping doesn’t pay the rent – we demand 15%’.”
– Sam Morecroft, Sheffield SA, UCU activist and education worker
“The day’s events began in Swanswell Park – a short walk from the city centre. SA members arrived early to set up a stall ahead of the march and engaged with the arriving activists while demonstrators gathered.
The march itself would make its way to the city centre. Around a hundred activists made up of trade unionists, health workers and supporters marched forth under the mantras ‘what do we want? Fair pay! When do we want it? Now!’ and ‘Clapping don’t pay the rent- fair pay now!’.
Upon arriving in the square, we set up next to the protest and began to engage with the protest crowd and general public. Comrades were very well received, gaining many signatures, donations and distributing literature. It was clear by the many conversations that the, people harboured great sympathy with the plight of the NHS workers. This outrage was expressed from people of many different backgrounds and political views, highlighting how out of touch the ruling class is with the people, even among their own support base.
By the end of the day, we had raised £47 via donations, sold 18 our NHS magazines and 3 badges. Four people present expressed an interest in joining Socialist Alternative, leaving their details to do so.”
– Rob Leahy, Coventry SA, college student
“250 NHS workers and supporters gathered in Millennium Square Leeds. Planned over only the last two weeks – the demonstration showed strong support for the claim. The event was organised by NHS staff, many of whom are entirely new to struggle.
One organiser, Anthony Johnson, said that he was attending because, since he saw the news of the nurses’ bursery being scrapped, he saw the need to be active and fighting for change in his union. Gemma Williams, another organiser, said that she naively thought the government would reward NHS workers following Covid – instead, she said, they have “clapped them, then slapped them”.
“There was a tremendous mood at the event, with chants and speeches from people who had never protested before or spoken in public. In my role in York TUC and as a member of Socialist Alternative, I spoke to highlight the callousness of the Tories, who have lied and deceived NHS staff and workers from the start, which stresses the need for unity in struggle. Speaker after speaker praised our medical staff, and many called for mass campaigns to protect the NHS from privatisation and other attacks.
Strong links are being made between workers in different sectors and unions. They are being made by many moving into struggle for the first time. As one of the speakers said, ‘if the union leaders won’t fight then let’s get new leaders who will’. It was also unfortunately noticeable that no MPs or senior Labour figures were there to show their support.”
– Nigel Smith, York SA, York Trades Council Secretary (personal capacity)
“The Manchester demonstration was originally cancelled when the new regional restrictions came in on 30th July. In its place, one mental health Unison branch said they would organise a socially distanced protest in Piccadilly Gardens. In the end, 120 attended with delegations of three or four individuals from a significant range of hospitals in Greater Manchester.
In an open mic session, health workers spoke out about the betrayals over PPE, unpaid overtime and the 20% decline in wages over 10 years. A number of speakers called for strike action and solidarity from other unions. Two of our members spoke and were well received. We sold 15 NHS magazines and raised £18 fighting fund, getting many contacts who are interested in coming to our public Zoom meeting this Thursday on how health workers can win.”
– Paul Gerrard, Manchester SA
“Despite the scorching heat, the Brighton NHS day of action had a respectable turnout and was led from the front by nurses and workers. A GMB union rep was quick to remind everyone that this is a march for nurses organised by nurses and as such they would be front and centre when the march snaked through town.
Widely discussed was the issue of further action. it was clear to everyone there that this was not the end. Rather, there was a widespread understanding amongst the workers present that this would be the first stepping stone among many. Regular protest and action would be inevitable if hospital workers were to cow the government and the regressive trade unions that had compromised and stalled talks of actual wage increases. A distaste could be felt towards the performative action of simply clapping for the NHS, with one nurse’s sign reading ‘Claps don’t pay your bills!’
What was demanded here was tangible change – a pay increase that would match current inflation rates, a wage increase that would allow the frontline workers who have risked so much treating others to live a decent life. In between speeches, a minute’s silence was held for all those who had lost their life fighting the current pandemic. Despite there being a smaller turnout than expected there was a real positivity in the air, a real understanding of the power that could come through continued solidarity and action. With more protests planned this could eventually lead to unified action, with the potential to gravitate towards a general strike amongst hospital staff.”
– Daniel Coulston, Brighton SA,
Support Somerford Grove renters’ campaign for fair rents and no evictions
July 23, 2020
Socialist Alternative members in London are supporting the campaign of renters in Somerford Grove, Stoke Newington north London. You can read and sign their open letter to their landlord, billionaire John Christodoulou, here. Leading campaigners, including Jordan who is interviewed in the video below, have now been served eviction notices. You can read their press statement on this here.
Support Somerford Grove renters’ campaign for fair rents and no evictions
Socialist Alternative members in London are supporting the campaign of renters in Somerford Grove, Stoke Newington north London. You can read and sign their open letter to their landlord, billionaire John Christodoulou, here. Leading campaigners, including Jordan who is interviewed in the video below, have now been served eviction notices.
Interview with striking Tower Hamlets council workers
July 18, 2020
On Friday 17 July activists from Socialist Alternative went to show solidarity at a picket for Unison Members who work for Tower Hamlets council. They are on their second round of strikes as they were disgracefully sacked and then rehired on worse conditions last month. We interviewed two of their members to ask about the dispute and its wider importance during Covid-19. This dispute is particularly shameful because its being done under a Labour-led council!
Bob, SA member
So we’re down here in Whitechapel talking to Tower Hamlets Unison members, on the second round of their strike action against the against Tower Hamlets Labour Council. Could you just tell us briefly what the essence of what this dispute is about?
Roxanna, Unison member
In a nutshell, it’s about our terms and conditions and them being imposed. Essentially, we’ve all been sacked on 6 July. We’ve had new terms and conditions imposed, which we don’t agree with. We were on very good contracts before where staff members were looked after. It’s disgraceful that a Labour council is using Tory tactics on their employees. A lot of our councillors are local, local people. A lot of our workers are local people. And the equation just doesn’t match up that you would do this to your own community.
Anthony, Unison member
I’m Anthony, I’m a social worker in homelessness.
And what’s the mood of your colleagues on this issue?
We’re very disenfranchised from the whole process. We’re very disappointed that the whole thing has been shoved through. We were told that it was going to be put on hold during the Covid situation, and then they sneakily put it back through. The real disappointment for us is that we’re frontline workers. We’ve had to face this Covid situation full on. All my colleagues have worked 12-13 hour days to come from this epidemic and this is what the attitude of the council is.
How solid has the strike been with you and your colleagues?
Within the social work group that I work with? It’s been very solid. It’s a little unfortunate that other unions haven’t been able to mandate for strike action. But I know personally within my group that three of my colleagues have now changed unions as a result within the last few weeks.
Have you had any support? Are there signs of rifts within the local Labour Party on this?
Yeah, most definitely. I think we’ve definitely got a core group of Labour councillors who are on board with us. I was speaking to a Labour councillor yesterday. And I’m encouraged to hear that she actually did take a taping of our feelings and she was going to go back and share that with her Labour colleagues.
How how determined are you? Are you going to stay fighting until you win?
So definitely the mood is that we are really energised when I’m here with the group of people that we’re all like minded people and the fact that we’re all actually coming together. Once you see everybody together, you kind of know that actually what we’re doing is right and then when we go on the online rally, you see actually, this is not just something that is coming from a personal point of view, it is collective and there is a unity. And ultimately, I know from my point of view, that I want to fight as long as I can, because actually I have a huge responsibility for not just Tower Hamlets. I think the whole of London and the whole of the borough councils all across the country are looking at our families. We have now an even bigger responsibility to fight this. For me, it’s that responsibility as well as the local one that means we will fight on as long as we can. And hopefully, we win. Unfortunately, we have got a pandemic, in the midst of all we’re doing, and that that brings in added complications in how and how well we can do things. If the pandemic wasn’t here, we’d be on the streets doing a rally, we would be walking places.
What about the view from the public? Do you getting any feedback from local people?
Yeah, I’m encouraged when I walk home from here with my T-shirt on (supporting the strike), I get positive affirmation from the general public.
Yes, in fact, when they come and talk to us, they’re really disgusted. And they are saying this is disgraceful for a Labour council to do that to its employees, particularly at this time. When keywokers are needed, you don’t pretend to help us one day and then slap us down with conditions a week later, I mean, it’s just disgusting really.
A majority of staff haven’t signed the contract. So I think that reflects a lot. And the bullying tactics, which included giving pay incentives to people and sending letters out to people saying that if you didn’t sign the contract, and you turned up to work the next day, we would assume you have signed, all those bullying tactics have really disappointed, and in fact, entrenched me even more into wanting to take action against it.
That’s brilliant. I think your dead right about being watched by other councils, I think this is a real test case, others can find out how to organise their members, how much support they can get.
Having the online rally with others Unison Members across the country has been really great , very important!
Make social care public!
July 13, 2020
Covid-19 has exposed the utter catastrophe that is privatised social care. Private ownership has delivered a broken chaotic mess, exploiting service-users and workers to enrich the owners.
There are over 1000 social care providers in England, competing for business. The resulting race to the bottom is just like other sectors of the economy: rock-bottom wages, abhorrent working conditions, inflated prices, and often disastrous results in terms of the ‘care’ provided. That was before coronavirus.
During the pandemic, we’ve seen company owners force their workers into work. We’ve seen workers doing their best to provide care in homes which are not safe for residents or workers. We’ve seen how things could be done differently. On the Wirral, in Merseyside, the Unison union branch which organisers care-workers won the living wage for workers employed in care companies contracted by the council. Better wages for care workers are a first step to breaking the grip of casualisation which forces workers into unsafe working conditions and devalues the service they provid
In Salford, Greater Manchester, a far-reaching agreement won by the Unison branch there ensures, as branch secretary Steve North explained, “full sick pay for those who have to self-isolate and shield, Salford care workers have also won full pay for carers’ leave, the offer of temporary accommodation to avoid spreading the virus to their own families, guaranteed PPE, an end to working across multiple care homes and limits on public transport use. These measures will protect the whole community in Salford and will help slow the spread of the virus.” See here for an interview with Steve about how this and other gains for public service workers in the city were won by a campaigning socialist-led union branch.
Left to the employers though, it will get even worse. In Leicestershire, bosses of one care provider in April issued new sign-or-be-sacked contracts to 98 employees which mean a pay cut of up to 30%, two weeks less holiday, no sick pay and no maternity benefits. This system is sick.
Social care used to be a public service. Since it was contracted out, capitalism has bled it dry. We say: make social care public! All social care services, workers and resources should be brought into public ownership. Compensation should be paid to the ex-owners only on the basis of their proven need, and fat-cats shouldn’t get a penny. Workers should receive immediate pay rises to give them parity with their equivalents in councils and the NHS, and the same conditions of employment. Through democratic planning with workers and service users having decisive control, social care could be reorganised with massively increased funding to meet the huge unmet need for the service.
This would transform lives but we need to go further. The NHS is still mainly public but is leeched upon by financial institutions, big pharma, private suppliers, agencies, construction companies and so on. Every penny wasted on these scavengers is a penny which didn’t go towards saving someone’s life. We need a break with this profiteering system. By taking the 100 or so big companies which dominate the British economy into public ownership, along with others where necessary such as in social care, all the resources and talent would be available for a democratic socialist plan to meet people’s needs with full accountability and transparency.
Kick racism out of healthcare – interview with BAME health workers
While politicians and scientists scratch their heads asking why so many from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities have died of Covid-19, it is blindingly obvious that racism has played a part.
As Britain went into lockdown, millions carried on the jobs holding society together. Caring for the sick and vulnerable, keeping the nation fed and maintaining public sanitation was an army of essential workers, a large proportion of whom are BAME.
Increased likelihood of exposure, combined with fears of speaking out around PPE and greater chances of living in overcrowded housing have cost thousands of BAME people their lives doing this pandemic.
The Immigration Health Surcharge is an additional barrier between migrant workers and healthcare services. “People on work permits are already expected to pay full taxes and are excluded from certain treatment options” explains Jeniba, an Intensive Care Nurse from India working in Kent. “Patients experience racism from staff in the NHS, for example if they’re not able to communicate in English very well, that may annoy staff or be spoken to rudely”.
“I have lots of experiences of racism from patients, relatives and colleagues” says Amanda, a specialist nurse born in Britain to Windrush Generation parents. “I’m a 40 year old black woman and I have been racially abused at work on multiple occasions throughout my career” “The NHS has a zero tolerance policy on abuse. Does that get followed all the time? I’m not so sure.” says Jeniba.
The same NHS workers who were heralded as heroes and applauded for weeks are also expected to tolerate racist abuse, in a system which overlooks their skills and talents.
“I recently went for a job that I was more than qualified for. They gave it to someone with significantly less experience but was white and middle class.” Amanda asks “I always wonder, am I treated this way because I am black?”. “You have to do interviews, presentations and essays now for everything. That is harder when you’re black, when you’re being interviewed by managers who have turned a blind eye to patients making racist comments” she explains. As a decade of austerity squeezes resources in public services, NHS workers are pitted against one another, competing for access to dwindling funds for education and training. In the absence of an organised fightback lead by union, health workers are forced into a race to the bottom.
Although the Johnson Government was famously pressured into making a u-turn and scrapping the Immigration Health Surcharge for health and care workers, hundreds of thousands of non European migrants paying taxes are being charged twice to access NHS services as well as extortionate visa fees. As Jeniba says “The cost of visas goes up much quicker than our wages. This is challenging for people in not well paid jobs like staff nurses, especially when you have to pay for an entire family.”
Low pay has dogged NHS workers since its inception. In the last decade the real value of health workers salaries has fallen by around 18%. A collective movement of all NHS workers for wage increases would not only improve the standard of living. In a collective struggle, an injury to one is an injury to all. Building a movement based on solidarity principles, which seeks to empower and embolden working people is the best way to fight for genuine equality and freedom for all people.
Leicester in lockdown: socialists speak out
July 2, 2020
Below are three comments from Socialist Alternative members in Leicester on the recent announcements that the city will remain in lockdown.
Andrew Walton Nearly a fortnight ago, the government had concerns about a rise in COVID-19 cases in Leicester. We are only just now being told that businesses, which were due to open, have to remain closed, all non-essential travel must cease and people have to continue working from home. This is after5 schools in Leicester had already been closed, and outbreaks were confirmed attwo branches of Sainsburys in the city and atSamworth Brothers, one of the county’s biggest employers. Cases have also been discovered atfive garment factories in the city. Workers had not been furloughed, and were forced to go to other factories in order to find work, after their place of work had closed.
The Tories are prioritising the economy over people’s lives. Shopping centres and pubs are reopening in an attempt to get the people spending, while millions are struggling to make ends meet, are facing unemployment or have lost wages, and risks spreading the virus further.
In Leicester, the government’s slowness to act and reluctance to impose restrictions, means that any lockdown will have to remain in place longer, and paradoxically, will cause more job losses, with many businesses already struggling to cope. Leicester is not alone in facing a spike of cases –36 other areas of England have also had a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent weeks.
Locally implemented lockdowns may be necessary in coming weeks, and aren’t by themselves a bad thing. When it comes to dealing with a pandemic of this nature, a degree of local flexibility can be useful. Many people will want to make sure that they are kept safe and will support the delay in reopening if that cannot be guaranteed.
However, decisions about the reopening or closing of businesses should be made democratically by committees of workers, trade unions and people from the community, to ensure they are based on science and health, rather than concerns over profit. Also, there needs to be accountability of the authorities both locally and nationally when looking at the reasons for why the virus is currently spiking in some places and not others.
To avoid having to resort to further lockdowns, there needs to be widespread testing and tracing. The government has failed to hit any of its targets on this, essentially abandoning attempts to have any meaningful approach to tracing the virus. Without this, it’s likely that there will be a chaotic approach across the country, with different local authorities reopening and closing businesses and workplaces at different times.
Police, tasked with enforcing the lockdown rules, have complained that they need certainty over what the public can and cannot do. The simple message of “stay at home, protect the NHS” was replaced with a meaningless slogan of “Stay Alert” and the 2m social distancing measure has been replaced with “1m plus”. Tories are not following scientific advice. They constantly claimed in daily briefings that we were moving from “Level 4” to “Level 3”, despite being warned by experts not to confuse the public, and to keep the message simple. But, it is not the policing of the public that is the issue. Where is the policing of the bosses who have forced workers into unsafe factories, no doubt contributing to the spread of the virus? Workers should organise in these workplaces: if it’s not safe, shut it down!
Meanwhile, Dominic Cummings and Leicester’s own Mayor Peter Soulsby were caught breaching lockdown rules. There has been no effective opposition from Labour. Keir Starmer, rather than criticising the government over some of the worst death rates in the world for COVID-19, praised Boris Johnson for his handling of the crisis, and demanded that the economy be opened up faster!
Despite tokenistic Tory clapping for the NHS – the NHS is still facing privatisation, and locally NHS services are being cut, with the closure of Leicester General Hospital on the cards, unless a mass campaign can force a U-turn by this weak and incompetent government.
No return to schools until it is safe to do so, and a reliable method of tracking and testing cases is in place.
Nationalise failing companies under democratic control.
Trade unions and workers should be central in making decisions about safety.
No cuts to our NHS – Leicester Socialist Alternative is part of a broad campaign to save Leicester General Hospital.
No-one should be forced to work – full wages should be paid to workers, who through no fault of their own, are furloughed, or are shielding vulnerable relatives.
We need to build the socialist alternative, locally and internationally. It is obvious that capitalism cannot cope with crises, and is putting profit before our health.
“Stuck between a pandemic and no future” – comment from a factory worker
My partner and I are both from Leicester and are from a BAME background. On the one hand, the greatest concern for us has been our safety, with the rising infections within our city and the increased risk unique to our backgrounds. On the other hand, we’re just as concerned about the precarious situations regarding our jobs. My employer refused to shut their non-essential business during the peak of the UK pandemic purely for his gain. My partner’s employment agency, only a few days ago, during the recent local spike of infections, started threatening key workers on zero-hours contracts that their exploitative contracts meant they could be sent on assignments to work within a 3-hour travel time. Refuse their unreasonable demands, to be sent out to the very hotspots for viral transmission, industrial food processing plants, and this could be met with termination of your employment. So much for their human right to ‘just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.’
Add to this an aloof local Mayor, whose brazen breaking of lockdown restrictions goes unpunished whilst ordinary workers face vindictive disciplinary measures for speaking out about unsafe workplaces. Care workers, the very people we cheered and clapped for a few weeks ago, are now being threatened en masse with either accepting diminished conditions or the sack. Or, how about other local bosses? How have they supported their workforces during this most uncertain period? By jumping to make redundancies, unwilling to even contribute a fraction of employees’ salaries in the coming months with furlough support, yet somehow able to pay themselves bloated salaries to underperform.
Leicester, a city with a fantastic football club but also in the unenviable premier league of deprivation, 21st nationally. A city where 1 in 6 residents live in areas of high health deprivation. A city where ordinary people have had to ﬁght to save a children’s heart unit and are ﬁghting to save their hospital. How has Leicester’s Labour majority council fought back against Tory austerity and cuts to services that protect the most vulnerable in society? By shrinking away from the best socialist traditions of the labour movement and giving in to Tory policy without even a ﬁght to stop our city sliding deeper into deprivation since 2010.
We’re now into a second lockdown, a lockdown initially resisted by our Mayor, but given that nearly 40% of Leicester is made up from people of the BAME community and the poor health outcomes within it, a lockdown that was overdue.
Leicester has lost the traditional industries of shoe making and textiles that brought the waves of migration needed to satisfy the labour needs of industrial booms, support the NHS and build the city itself.
There will be no Green New Deal to kick start the economy or even a slither of the sums used to prop up the banking system during the last crash to support our city and our chances of ﬁnding work. Over and over again we’ve witnessed how callous bosses unﬂinchingly pull the levers of exploitation in the pursuit of economic advantage. There is only one proven method to ﬁght back against exploitation and impoverishing conditions: united struggle. We need to build on the recent Black Lives Matter and past Glenﬁeld children’s heart unit campaigns to unite our city against hate and begin the ﬁght for our futures.
Sweatshops and anti-union bosses: The real roots of Leicester’s coronavirus outbreakMichael Barker
Divide and rule is a tried-and-tested tactic that is employed by the billionaire-class and their political representatives, in order to deflect attention away from their own callousness. This is why right from the start of this crisis the Tories have sought to blame us for the spread of the pandemic; in reality, it is the government’s gross incompetence that has allowed Covid-19 to rip through our communities and care homes.
Yes, the Tories issued ‘guidance’ for how to stop the spread of the virus, but they have been totally negligent in ensuring it was ever implemented. Particularly in low waged non-unionised workplaces, this has enabled unscrupulous bosses to put profits before safety.
Based in Beaumont Leys, Leicester, Samworth Brothers is a well-known anti-union company that runs one the UK’s largest sandwich production operations, and has just witnessed an outbreak of the coronavirus amongst its staff. That Samworth’s food factories would contribute to the pandemics spread was, however,entirely predictable; both before and during this pandemic, this is an employer that has refused to work with trade unions to help ensure their factories were run safely.
In addition to failing to take the necessary measures to ensure that safe social distancing practices were applied to workplaces, the billionaire owners of Samworth Brothers also put all their staff at risk when they refused to pay agency workers if they needed to self-isolate. This creates a culture of presenteeism, where workers are compelled to attend, even if ill, because of the threat of a massive loss of pay.
But Samworth Brothers were merely acting like many irresponsible corporations who choose to elevate the growth of shareholder profits over the needs of key workers. Greencore is another case in point. Despite recognising a trade union at some of their Northampton production sites, when one of their employees tested positive at the start of May the site managers were still refusing to share their Covid-19 risk assessments with the local union reps. (For more on this see “Millionaire bosses at Greencore endanger us all with their pandemic profiteering.”)
Anotheranti-union company that indirectly pays the (very low) wages thousands of workers in Leicester is the trendy online fashion retailer Boohoo, which appears to be doing very well out of this crisis. Last month theFinancial Times reported: “Seemingly unaffected by the pandemic, the fast-fashion retailer…reported a 45 per cent increase in sales in the three months to May, to £368m.” Profits it seems are booming for their billionaire executives, andlast week Boohoo “unveiled a plan to pay bonuses of up to £100m to its two co-founders and £50m to other executives”.
Just days after this distasteful display of pandemic profiteering played out in the media, adamming investigative report undertaken by “Labour Behind the Label” demonstrated how Boohoo’s profits were intimately entwined with the deep exploitation and untimely deaths of the people of Leicester.
Boohoo’s trade, it turns out, is built upon the back of the existence of a huge illegal sweatshop industry located in many of Leicester’s poorest suburbs, which Boohoo relies upon to provide most of their products, many of whose factories also remained open for business during the peak of the pandemic.
As the investigative report makes clear these exploitative working practices are “not only the result of some unscrupulous suppliers but also an inevitable outcome of the current fast fashion business model and the lack of regulation of pricing and purchasing practices. Indeed, the current abuses could in fact have been foreseen.”
That the government has done nothing to address ongoing reports of extreme exploitation in Leicester’s garment industry shows what we already know: that the Tories political priorities have nothing to do with improving the living conditions of ordinary people. In providing the horrific details of the bullying that is going on inside many of Boohoo’s sweatshops, thereport explains: “One worker in a factory employing about 100 workers stated that he told his employer he felt unwell but was told he had to come into work. After working that day, he got tested and was found positive over the weekend. He informed his manager who told him that he should not inform any other workers of his result and not to send in a sick note. He has later found out that there were four other workers all sick with COVID-19 in similar positions – one however is still working because he cannot afford to take time off. When the worker applied for statutory sick pay his manager informed him that he was not going to get any sick pay and that he should just work through it or he would be sacked. According to the worker, the manager even told him that he himself has been tested positive but has continued to work every day and ‘not died’. The workers also said that there are no social distancing rules or PPE / sanitizers provided.”
Tragically this was no anomaly. In “another relatively large factory employing around 100 staff, supplying for Boohoo, there have been 8 cases which led to the factory being closed. However, the factory has since reopened, and workers are being told to come into work or face dismissal.”
Such intimidation is not unique to Boohoo’s numerous suppliers – as we have seen with Samworth Brothers, key workers are not immune from attacks. This is also demonstrated by the ongoing attacks upon care home workers in Leicestershire who are currently battling against a massive cut on their pay and conditions, all in the name of securing greater profits for the bosses.
Making these matters worse, while turning an eye to the oppressive actions of bosses during this pandemic, the Tories have been consistent in their attempts to blame the spread of the coronavirus on the failure of ordinary people to follow their so-called guidelines. But if anyone is to blame for the death of so-many people in Britain, it is the government and their friends in the billionaire-class, many of whose profits have soared to new highs at the same time as the pandemic claims our lives.
Leicester has now been placed under lockdown measures again, and exploitation continues apace. The one thing we can be certain of in the coming weeks is that thousands of workers will be expected to turn-up at unsafe factories to continue producing more profits for Boohoo. And unless we do something to stop this exploitation, it will be the people of Leicester who will be forced to pay with our lives.
That is why local Labour politicians who completely dominate the city must take an immediate lead in implementing the actions that are proposed in “Labour Behind the Label’s” Boohoo report. The first urgent demand noting that:“All Boohoo sales and production must be suspended by the local authorities right away pending investigation into safety measures and reports of fraud at its supplier factories. All workers affected – regardless of employment status should receive full pay while work is suspended.”
The report makes many other useful demands (which can be read online here), but first and foremost, it is clear that Boohoo and their suppliers must immediately recognise the right of their employees to negotiate collectively as members of trade unions to defend and expend their working rights. Without having access to such basic rights, it is unlikely that the situation in Leicester’s workplaces will improve anytime soon.
For too long Leicester’s Labour politicians have stood on the side-lines allowing attacks upon ordinary workers to continue. This must end. Now such politicians must be forced to join trade unions and socialists in leading a coordinated response to this pandemic and position themselves at the front of a determined fight-back against the Tory death-cult that continues to sacrifice our lives on their altar of profits.
And finally, we must be clear what is to blame for this ongoing crisis, it is the capitalist system itself. The Tories are but its latest servants, with New Labour doing capitalism’s bidding before.
The future remains uncertain, but one thing is sure, there will be no going back to the old normal. The new normal, that we must now collectively fight for, must be a socialist future where the needs of ordinary people come before the needs of profiteering. A future where ordinary workers take democratic control their own lives, and create a world in which bullying billionaire bosses remain as a fading prehistoric relic of a distant more inhumane past.
Financial appeal: We need your help! Donate to help build the ISA
July 1, 2020
We are living through extraordinary and turbulent times- we are in the midst of a global pandemic, with capitalism spiralling into its most serious economic crisis in generations. This historic health crisis has laid bare the failings of the capitalist system, as we see country after country unable to provide an adequate response, and a death toll that keeps rising.
We have witnessed the spectacular eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement which is spreading from the USA to many parts of the globe, revealing a thirst for action and change, and the willingness of young people to fight against the racism that is ingrained in the capitalist system.
All over the world the International Socialist Alternative (ISA), active in over 30 countries, has faced a challenging situation in which we have had to operate under lockdowns and confinement measures that have restricted our abilities to carry out our usual activities, and to interact, fundraise and distribute our publications in the usual manner. We have risen to this challenge, finding new and innovative ways to connect with the public through our work online, and to offer our analysis of unfolding events to new layers of workers and youth. This has included our new weekly international broadcast “World to Win” which streams on YouTube and Facebook every Sunday.
As we begin to come out of lockdown, in order for our organisation to be as equipped as possible to respond to fast moving events, we are launching an international finance appeal with a target of €90,000. This appeal will form part of our summer educational event- the Virtual Marxist University which is taking place July 18th til 25th. The appeal itself will be part of the closing rally on the 25th – which will be broadcasted publically on Saturday 25th at 2pm UK time.
€90,000 is an ambitious target, reflecting our ambitious plans to intervene in struggles worldwide in this new and explosive period.
It is necessary for us to fundraise in this way to cover the costs of producing our publications and other materials, to cover the travel costs of our international organisers, the international solidarity work and to support movements and struggles in various parts of the world, to pay for equipment that we need to carry out our work and to rent our office spaces amongst many other things.
International Socialist Alternative is different from mainstream political organisations in that we receive no financial backing from big business or wealthy donors nor from the capitalist state. Being independent in this way is very important- we stand for the interests of ordinary, working class people, not the wealthy elite. We raise money through grassroots donations from people like you who support us and agree with our ideas.
Can you consider making a donation of £10, £20, £50, £100 or £200 to help us reach our target and continue our work around the world in the period ahead? You can donate here: https://www.socialistalternative.net/
Thank you in advance, in solidarity.
“Witnessing the effects of austerity got me thinking…” – Why young people are joining SA
June 29, 2020
Finn Trelfa, Brighton I have been lucky enough to have been educated on Marxist ideas from age 16, which made me join small leftist circles in my hometown. After moving to Brighton for university, I continued to educate myself on Marxist theory – unlearning what was drilled into me as a kid and relearning the truth of our society throughout teen and early adulthood, which helped me to solidify my identity as a Marxist and a socialist. However, as I was in a completely new city, I wasn’t sure what leftist circles to join or even how to find them. With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, I decided to channel my energy into ensuring his being elected prime minister.
After Corbyn was beaten the second time in a general election, and was forced to step down, I was distraught. I knew what was next – a right-wing leadership in the form of Keir Starmer. And that’s exactly what happened. Thankfully, a member of the Brighton branch told me about Socialist Alternative. I saw members joining us on the picket line for the UCU strikes, and giving powerful speeches of support. Later on, I bought a paper. After reading and doing more research on SA’s website, I decided I wanted to join.
As a trans/non-binary person, I was hesitant at first. I had seen other ‘left’ groups spout transphobic rhetoric before, including the transphobic cartoon in the Morning Star newspaper. However, I have been welcomed with open arms into Socialist Alternative! The use of introduction to say our names and pronouns in branch meetings has made me feel incredibly welcome and safe. I’ve also had the opportunity to give an introductory lead off on ‘rainbow capitalism’ and how we as socialists must fight against this and ensure liberation for all working class people, including trans people. It was great to not only give this lead off, but to see incredible discussion from my fellow comrades.
Branch meetings have brought me rich knowledge of the corrupt nature of capitalism, and the inequalities that come with it. Through SA articles and papers, I have learnt of the negative impact capitalism has in my community. I have also been recommended texts by Trotsky, Lenin etc., to continue learning!
Socialist Alternative gives people the chance to organise. It gives us education in socialist ideas, understanding the nature of oppression under capitalism, as well as the rights of the working class. It allows us to mobilise against the system that has dragged us down, killed us and withheld our rights. It allows us to fight for a socialist society – one of equality for all.
Jack Chestney, York
I come from a working class background, where a lot of the ideas and values were right-wing and old-fashioned. Living with my father, a lot of this became almost normal growing up. However, the older I got, the more I opened my eyes and rejected these ideas, beginning to draw my own conclusions about the world around me. Seeing news footage of refugees risking all to travel across vast oceans for a better life, reading about the level of hate crimes and witnessing the effects of austerity first hand in the areas I lived in got me thinking.
I could no longer understand why people accepted this as ’another one of those things’ and in some cases almost welcomed unnecessary hatred. I quickly decided that I would push for change, spreading acceptance, understanding and unity. It was by chance that I engaged with a Socialist Alternative stall in York; talking to members and hearing ideas I could really get on board with. It took time to come round to the idea of joining but I felt now more than ever socialist ideas needed as much exposure as possible. I had done my research and had taken away some key points from the New Members’ Reading Series, which included a list of Socialist Alternative’s key demands, such as ‘secure jobs paid a real living wage’ and ‘a democratically planned economy to protect people and planet.’
I fell in love with the powerful words of Marx almost written two centuries ago that still have so much relevance for today’s world. All of these things combined motivated me to take the step towards becoming a member as I saw the opportunity to gain more knowledge from members, strengthen that wall of change and make a difference for future generations. Being a member of Socialist Alternative is an honour, especially in such unstable and unpredictable times. Now more than ever we need revolutionary action to make this world a healthier place.
Tom Butterworth, Manchester I’ve been a socialist ever since I learned what socialism was. I was a member of the Green Party for about eight years, joining while Caroline Lucas was leader, and getting involved with the party locally. At that time Lucas said that she, and the party, were socialists. While I had been disillusioned with Labour under Blair, Brown and Milliband, I was given hope by Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the party and the movement that surrounded this.
In recent years I lost faith in the Green Party: I felt that they had lost their way with their Brexit position and choosing a former Tory (Jonathan Bartley) as co-leader. His shocking comments on halal meat were the final straw, and I cancelled my membership. I became involved in Socialist Alternative early last year, and was inspired by the dedication, effectiveness and analysis of the local members. I realised that change comes not just through Westminster and electoral politics, but through the organisation of the working class in our workplaces. I saw that Socialist Alternative members across the country and the world were able to gain real victories and build powerful networks in the trade unions.
We have only a decade left if we are to fight the worst effects of climate change: with the prospect of another five years of Tory government, and the Labour party shifting back to the right, we can’t wait and hope for electoral politics to save us. We have to organise now to achieve the transformation of society, to take power for the many, to end poverty and to fight climate change. I joined Socialist Alternative to be a part of that fight.