Giving away workers' rights
By Mark Sandell
The bosses have kicked off the holiday season with an offensive against sick workers. The bosses' union the CBI have released a report claiming that 15% of the sick days taken by workers are not authentic. The fact that the number of sick days hase been falling for five years and only rose this year was ignored. Also ignored was the shocking fact that British workers work the longest hours in western Europe.
Basically the bosses want us all to drag ourselves into work when we are sick, infect everyone we work with and damage our health. What matter is keeping up the profits.
The propaganda war also coincided with attacks on sick pay - first by Tescos and then Sainsbury and British Airways. Tescos have introduced an 'experiment' which cuts sick pay for the first three days off.
A co-ordinated attack on workers rights by the CBI and some of Britain's biggest employers demanded a strong reaction from our unions - but nothing happened. The TUC did a quick press relase with a quote about bosses making workers sick through long hours. But that was it.
Shocking but not surprising because on closer inspection of the Tesco 'trial' it turns out that the shop workers union Usdaw is going along with it. In a letter to Tesco union reps Pauline Foulkes, Usdaw National Officer says:
"Usdaw are supporting this trial because we want to have an input and share the learnings[?], and have a say in shaping and influencing the outcomes.
"Staff in the 10 existing stores chosen for the trial are being asked to co-operate and support the trials by volunteering temporary change of contracts for a 12-month period."
In other parts of the letter, Foulkes hints that all new starters at Tesco will not get sick pay for the first three days they are ill.
Usdaw knows damn well that the trial will definitely lead to the removal of the first three days sick pay but they don't want a fight with Tesco.
Usdaw have a partnership agreement with Tesco and that is about as far away from real trade unionism as you can get. When Sunday trading first started the Usdaw leadership clashed with Tesco, and lost. Since then they have been on their knees in front of the management. They do not negotiate on anything including pay, their reps can only talk to management on 'staff committees' which have one union rep on them.
In Tesco Usdaw is not much more than a weak staff association with low membership. Stories of union reps being removed because of management objections are common.
This 'partnership agreement' is the paste jewel in Usdaw's crown, but the benefits are only for the union leaders not for Usdaw's Tesco members. Under the deal Usdaw's leadership have no reason to fear promoting membership of the union - the management won't object because the union is totally under their domination.
Tesco job application forms include a tear off union membership form and a recommendation that applicants join Usdaw. And Tesco are happy to let Usdaw organisers sit in their staff canteens to recruit members. Losing Tesco management support would be bad news for Usdaw. Of the union's 330,000 members over 110,000 of these work in Tesco.
Partnership is adored by the worst of the TUC leadership and by New Labour. The Government have given several million pounds to fund a 'partnership institute' which is jointly run by bosses and the TUC. The TUC has even held the Tesco agreement as a model of organising for other unions to follow.
Usdaw have problems persuading low paid Tesco staff to pay up to join the union, so they have a team of organisers who spend time travelling from store to store signing up new members. The level of recruitment is high but so too is the drop out rate. This approach far from real union organising. If the union has no power, and no intention of building up or using its strength, but is totally beholden to the management, what hope of change or even defence can it offer workers?
Much better organising has been done by the TGWU at Morrison supermarkets. Their reps rejected a no-strike deal and management derecognised the TGWU and announced that they want to talk to other unions. The TGWU are putting up a fight.
The fight for real trade unionism has been launched by the TGWU nationally. Rightly they say that "a union that wins in the workplace is a union that will grow - union growth must be based on workers winning real benefits from organising in their workplace."
But a partnership agreement betrays workers. It actually denies the legal right of workers to build a real union in Tesco, that is a union that can bargain on pay, hours and holidays. If 'recognition' already exists in the form of this partnership deal, no better 'recognition' situation can every be won by the union. The only choice facing Usdaw members is for them to change their union and that is easier said than done.
Usdaw compliance with Tesco will undermine other workers. Their tacit support for cuts in sick pay have already encouraged other firms to attack it. Usdaw are providing thousands of often young workers with bad lessons about unions. Unions are not supposed to be so deep in management's pocket that they accept major attacks on workers' conditions.
British trade unions have a crisis of membership. Union-management partnership such as that we have seen at Tesco will not help stop it.