By Jean Lane
It felt just like old times. Marching through the streets of London with contingent after contingent of union branches with their banners, whistles and music, chanting working class demands...
"The workers united " sang the megaphones.
"T&G Fighting Back" declared the posters.
"Universal Benefits are a Universal Right"
"Retirement With Dignity For All"
Bringing up the rear of the demonstration, looking for all the world like another delegation, in matching blue sweatshirts and caps, were about twenty workers with plastic bags and litter pickers, cleaning up. They were casual non-union labour. They were earning £5 an hour. No pension, sick pay, holiday pay.
"There are about 50 workers employed full time", said the supervisor. "The rest are casual. Usually students who are trying to make a bit in the holidays. £5 an hour isn't bad for them". None of the workers, casual or full time, are in the union. He thought the contract for the day's job had come from the TUC.
Not all of them looked like students, but even if they were, they still have a right to security and safety at work, just as Simon Jones should have had before he was killed working casually on the docks. Casual workers are increasingly used by big, profiteering companies, so they don't have to pay any benefits. And, as with Simon Jones' case, they don't waste their valuable money training up their workers. There is no profit in it. If they get injured on the job, they lose everything.
One of the workers said, "I used to work for Sainsburys, till I got injured. I was a member of a union. They are fighting for compensation for me, but in the meantime, I've got nothing to live on. Sainsburys won't give me alternative work and my case is taking ages. It happened in 1998.
The cleaners were very interested in the union. All took a membership form. Wanting to know exactly what the union could do for them. Disgusted at the idea of Simon Jones' family getting no compensation for the death of their son. Willing to discuss the whole casualisation issue.
As we talked the leader of USDAW, the union which has just agreed to "try out" three days sick without pay at Tescos, proclaim how the union movement is fighting back. Above her head, appropriately enough, was a huge pink pig that just might fly. But if it is to do so, the union movement has got to take up the issue of low pay and casualisation. And it has got to fight to unionise those low paid workers.
One of the general unions which organises low paid workers, Unison, is starting its conference this week. There will be a resolution to affiliate to No Sweat, a campaigning organisation which fights low pay and sweatshop working conditions. Five other national unions and the NUS have already affiliated. Unison members must insist that our union fights the use of sweatshop labour in the cleaning, catering or clothing used in our workplaces.