Thursday, 17 July 2014

Union resists call to boycott benefit sanctions

From the current edition of the Big Issue in the North magazine, please buy a copy if you see a seller. 

Britain’s largest civil servants union is resisting calls by welfare rights campaigners to ballot its members for non- cooperation on sanctions and workfare.
The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) represents staff within the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which administers working age benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)
and employment and support allowance (ESA), as well as the disability and carers service that deals with benefits to disabled people, including the disability living allowance. (DLA).
At £174 billion, the DWP has the largest budget of any government department. It has been the policy of the current government to reduce it. Chancellor George Osborne announced in January that if the Conservatives win the general election next year he will seek a further £12 billion reduction in welfare spending in the following two years.
One way of saving money has been through benefit sanctions. The government has required claimants to do more to actively prove they are seeking work.
In the year to September 2013, 897,690 benefit claimants had sanctions applied against them – the highest total since JSA began in 1996.
There were also 22,840 sanctions on ESA claimants – the largest total since sanctions started for such claimants six years ago. According to the DWP work services director Neil Couling: “Benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them... there are some very positive outcomes from tough conversations... there have been sanctions since the benefit system started.”
Workfare programme
Sanction levels vary from four weeks up to three years.
The government has also expanded the workfare programme, introduced under the last Labour government, under which individuals must work in return for benefit payments or risk losing them. Mandatory work placements last four weeks. Many major companies, including Asda, Greggs and Poundland, have used workfare. Charities such as the YMCA have also done so.
There are many critics of sanctions and workfare policies. Boycott Workfare, an organisation committed to “ending forced unpaid labour for people who receive welfare”, claims there is no evidence that workfare increases the likelihood of finding work and is about pushing people deeper into poverty.
The disabled charity Scope has calculated that cuts to DLA, ESA, housing benefit and the bedroom tax will lead to 3.7 million disabled people losing a total of £28.3 billion by 2018. It has been calculated that disabled people are being hit nine times harder than able-bodied people under the government’s cutbacks.
Food banks
Photograph courtesy of Mark Harvey
Citizens Advice is assisting record numbers affected by benefit sanctions and finding that many people are now struggling to pay their utility bills and rent, and put food on the table. Consequently, more people are turning to food banks and payday loan companies.
Despite this, opinion polls regularly record high levels of support for benefit cuts and sanctions, and the opposition Labour Party has said it would cut £5 billion from welfare if it wins next year’s election.
Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) campaigns against all austerity measures and has undertaken a number of civil disobedience actions including blockading venues.
According to its spokesperson: “Increasing numbers of disabled people are losing their benefits. In some cases people are starving and forced to search in rubbish bins to find things to eat and wear. We want political parties to stop these attacks on the poorest people in our society.”
DPAC has combined with Boycott Workfare and the Black Triangle disabled people’s group to seek support from DWP workers. The trio has issued a joint statement on PCS and non-cooperation, which urges the union’s national executive committee to “consult members on adopting a tactic of non- cooperation with workfare and sanctions”.
At the PCS conference last year delegates were told of legal advice that non-cooperation could be employed as part of its campaign of industrial action short of a strike. However at the 2014 conference, delegates voted only to “build a broad campaigning alliance against conditionality, sanctions and workfare”.
According to a PCS spokesman, the vote passed “acknowledged the legal difficulties in taking industrial action over sanctions”.
The spokesperson said two-thirds of members had experienced pressure from managers to refer claimants for sanction inappropriately and faced the threat of being disciplined if they don’t.
Disciplined
However, Joanna Long of Boycott Workfare, accused the PCS leadership of “ignoring the mandate they have got from their members to investigate non-compliance and cooperation and of failing to fully inform their members about the impact of benefit referrals and when they can use their discretion. We are not seeking strike action as non cooperation would have great implications for claimants.”

Jane Aitchison, the secretary of PCS DWP Leeds branch, backed the call for non-cooperation. She said: “Members hate sanctions and implementing them. They would welcome being balloted over an inhumane benefit regime that leaves people destitute and is being employed to drive down wages.”

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Help celebrate the life of radical Edward Rushton later this year

Edward Rushton (1756-1814) 

A beautiful colour dome that celebrates the life of Edward Rushton still currently adorns the former Merseyside Trades Union and Unemployed Resource Centre; Hardman Street building that was sold to the owner of Hope Street Hotel, Liverpool in 2010.  The artist of this magnificent work, the future of which remains in doubt, is the late Mick Jones, younger son of the trade union great Jack Jones.  

Edward Rushton is one of Liverpool’s great radicals who became a passionate abolitionist after his work as a sailor brought him into contact with the slave trade.

Born in 1756, Rushton was thirteen when he went to sea and subsequently worked on a number of slave ships. At seventeen he survived drowning when Kwamina, a young former African slave, saved him at the expense of his own life. Shortly after - when he found himself on a slave ship - Rushton defied his captain and the threat of a mutiny charge to continuously go below to bring water to the manacled Africans. 

His bravery and courage was to come at great personal cost because by the time he returned to his hometown he had contracted Ophthalmia following a highly contagious outbreak amongst the slaves. It left the teenager blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. He was unable to sail as a result and moved in with his sister, where after studying politics and philosophy he began to write poetry and begin a rhetorical battle with prominent political leaders against the slave trade. This was another courageous move as Liverpool had prospered after it began sending out slave ships in 1699 and at its peak – in 1799 – more than 45,000 slaves were transported to the West Indies from ships based on the Mersey. 

Rushton’s radicalism also extended to support for the American struggle for independence, the French Revolution from 1789 to 1799 and the United Irishmen in their struggle for Irish independence. He also backed the rights of workers to combine in unions.

His poetry and writings though proved popular especially as increasing numbers of people began to recognise the need to abolish the trade in human cargo. From the money he earned, Rushton was able to establish The Liverpool School for the Indigent Blind in 1791 on Hardman Street. In 1807, Rushton had an operation that allowed him to regain his sight and he saw his daughters for the first time. He had married Isabelle Rain in 1784. Rushton died on 22 November 1814 of paralysis. 

When the Merseyside Unemployed Centre took over the Hardman Street building from what had become the Old Blind School they commissioned Jones to paint the dome in 1986 and he made a fitting tribute to a fine man who remains almost unknown even today. Its survival is though in doubt – see 
and it may well be that a campaign may be required in the future to ensure it stays. 

Meantime, there are plans to commemorate the bi-centenary of Edward Rushton’s death later in 2014. There are museum exhibitions, educational projects and a staged reading of a play based on Rushton’s struggles, UNSUNG. In spring 2015 there will be a full production of the play at the new Everyman Theatre in Liverpool. The play will employ a blind or visually impaired actor and the signer will be involved in the stage performance. As a result the costs of production are slightly higher than normal and an appeal has been made for trade union financial support of £4667.

For more details on how you and/or your trade union branch can assist see: -
0151 707 1733 and 07436 536200 

There is also going to be a Edward Rushton and Romantic Liverpool: A Bicentennial Conference at the University of Liverpool on November 14 and 15 in 2014. See:- 


Many thanks to writer John Graham Davies for the photograph and much of the information that appears on this page. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Successful outcome for striking glass workers

UNITE members at Tyneside Safety Glass on the Team Valley Estate, Gateshead have returned to work today (14 July) after securing a successful outcome to their strike over pay and conditions. Over 100 workers took three weeks of action in two separate spells before management offered an inflation beating pay rise, dropped plans to increase the working week, compromised on shift bonuses and reinstated a sacked worker. Highly satisfied with the outcome, UNITE members are hopeful that their actions will encourage the other 21,000 workers on the Team Valley Estate to join UNITE and get organised. 

Formed in 1937, Tyneside Safety Glass manufacture toughened, laminated, bullet resistant and heated glass for the automotive, security and defence sectors, rail, motorsport and architectural industries worldwide.  Although many of the workers are loyal, long-serving employees they have been left increasingly frustrated by pay awards that have failed to keep pace with inflation. This has left HGV drivers earning just £7.18 an hour with packers earning even less. Few shop floor workers earn above £10 an hour. 

In the company brochure it states; ‘We have built a truly world class knowledgeable skilled workforce who are all trained to the highest manufacturing standards and are totally dedicated to continuous improvement.’ Warm words but it does not put food on the table.  As a result many workers have been working weekends in a second job. Yet the highest-paid director awarded himself an extra 14% last year, whilst £750,000 was moved from the company’s account to the owners trust fund. In the year up to April 30 2013 Tyneside Safety Glass grossed £609,899 in profits. 

There was therefore real anger amongst UNITE members when the company initially sought to retain the current pay rates. Management then returned with an offer of 3% this year and 2% in the two subsequent years, all self-financing with workers expected to work longer shifts. There was also proposed reductions to some shift bonus schemes. 

A ballot overwhelmingly endorsed strike action and after removing their labour for a week in early June, staff then walked out on 30 June for three weeks. It was a very brave move but one that appeared to have the support of many workers in nearby workshops and offices.

Interviewed on Monday 7 July, UNITE rep Neil Davison said:  “Four years ago when we took strike action over pay there was quite a bit of abuse towards pickets by people. Not this time. I believe many people are now experiencing what we are being expected to endure, a massive reduction in our living standards. I think they would like to see us win as that might help them to argue for an increase in pay.” Davison has been a UNITE rep for four years and spoke about how invaluable a UNITE education reps course that covered getting organised when on strike was proving.

There was daily picketing at both company sites, located around half a mile apart.  No Unite member crossed the picket line. 

There was no attempt to prevent agency staff that work for Tyneside Safety Glass from going to work. “We sympathise with agency workers, some of whom have been here for three years plus. They should be made permanently employed,” explained Neil, who works as a screen print supervisor. 

Strikers had been happy to accept invitations to speak to other workers about their strike. Funds had been donated including £250 from the Hartlepool construction branch of Unite. UNITE paid a health rate of strike pay and had assembled a contingency fund to support any ongoing action by its long-serving members.

Faced with a determined workforce, management at Tyneside Safety Glass agreed to meet at ACAS and in the subsequent talks offered a pay increase from April this year of 2.8 per cent with further increases in 2015 and 2016 of inflation plus 0.1 per cent up to a maximum of 3 per cent. In addition the proposal to increase the working day by ten minutes was dropped, there was a compromise regarding minor changes in some shift bonuses and a sacked worker was reinstated. When the offer was put to the strikers 86 agreed to accept the company offer and 11 to reject. Workers returned to work 14 after a total of three weeks industrial action. 

UNITE workplace rep Mark Robertson, a glasscutter since 1987, said: “Members are very pleased with the outcome as we believe we have won a victory. We feel we have fought a good fight in which the full-time officers, Bob Bolam and Fazia Hussain-Brown, have provided much needed guidance but allowed the members to lead the dispute in which the level of picketing demonstrated our determination to assert our needs. 

“It would be great if other workers on this massive industrial estate were encouraged by our actions and that non-union members would consider joining UNITE, getting organised and becoming part of a general fightback over pay and conditions.”


A delighted Bob Bolam praised the efforts of workplace reps Mark Robertson, Neil Davison and Jaroslaw Andrzejak and said: “This satisfactory outcome for both sides puts money in our members pockets. I would recommend anyone not in a union on Team Valley or elsewhere to contact UNITE for assistance in getting organised.”  

Friday, 11 July 2014

Public sector workers fight back

UNITE members in local government in the North East, Yorkshire & Humberside yesterday stood alongside teachers, civil servants, firefighters, transport workers and fellow council workers in striking over real-terms pay cuts. 
The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has calculated that since the coalition assumed officer in 2010, public servants are on average £2,245 worse off, around £50 a week. Consequently, 450,000 people in local government currently earn less than the living wage. Increasing numbers of public sector workers are being forced to access food banks. 
All photographs are copyright Mark Harvey 
Yet despite the economy showing signs of recovery the government is intent on imposing below-inflation pay rises until, at least, 2018. Cameron and Clegg have rejected local government unions pay claim worth £1 an hour. UNITE members joined trade unionists from other unions in voting to take strike action and on 10 July large numbers did not turn up to work. 
Vine Street picket line

There were also healthy turnouts on picket lines across the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside. At Vine Street cleansing department in Huddersfield, UNITE workplace rep Kenny Lang had brought with him his pay slip from four years ago. “My pay has hardly moved since 2010 and if David Cameron was here I would ask him how I am expected to survive on under £1,400 a month less tax.” UNITE and UNISON members at the depot were united in organising a lively picket line.

Kenny Lang tells David Cameron his pay has
hardly gone up at all in the last five years 

There was also great unity across three unions – UNITE, GMB and UNISON - at the Westland Road Passenger Transport depot in Leeds. 

Richard Whiskin (UNISON), Stacey Booth (GMB)
and Dick Banks (UNITE) 
“We must work together otherwise the Government can keep down our wages, which are far too low and could be boosted if there was a determination to ensure that big companies are prevented from avoiding pay their fair share of tax,” said Stacey Booth of the GMB. Over 100 firms on the FTSE share index are believed are be failing to comply with the law by avoiding their taxes and the sums involved are colossal with eBay paying just $1 million on UK sales of over £800 million last year. 
Drivers and escorts at Westland Road provide an invaluable service for some of the most vulnerable people in society, transporting elderly people to day centres and disabled children to school. In recent times cuts to facilities for elderly people has increased the distance each passenger needs transporting. This has added to the stresses faced by workers. Yet since the Con Dems took charge at Westminster they and all public sector workers have experienced an 18% pay cut in real terms. 
“It is incredibly disappointing,” said long-serving John Graham, “as we are being told the economy is making a recovery and surely it would be boosted by paying us an extra £1 an hour? The wages we are on it would mean we would spend all of it, thus helping to generate further economic activity. ” 

Electrician Kirsty Mills 
Pickets peacefully attempted to persuade people not to cross, At housing construction services in east Leeds, electrician Kirsty Mills was part of a group that was able to turn round five people, one of whom then happily joined the picket line before pickets journeyed into Leeds City Centre to participate in the lunchtime demonstration and rally. 


Both events were very well attended by FBU, UNITE, GMB, NUT, UNISON and PCS members.  After assembling outside the art gallery, which appropriately enough was closed for the day, 2,000 people, mostly women workers, created a lively atmosphere as they paraded through the city centre. Bus and car drivers added to the noise by sounding their horns in support. Shoppers and workers on their lunch breaks appeared generally supportive. 

There was healthy public support for demonstrators.  
The public’s backing was remarked upon by rally chair, Jane Aitchison, who in her role as Leeds DWP PCS branch secretary had picketed outside the main benefits office in Leeds. “The level of support we received was amazing and we had workers from shops such as Aldi wishing us well. I think lots of people are pleased we are standing up to this heartless government, which has helped the rich get even richer.” 
Britain’s richest people have been able to double their wealth since the 2009 financial crash, with the 15.4 per cent rise in 2013 taking the total wealth of the 1,000 richest men and women up to £449 billion. The gap between rich and poor is now gigantic with the wealthiest 1 per cent now owning the same amount as the 55 per cent poorest in the UK. 
TUC regional secretary Bill Adams told the appreciative crowd of a little tale that sums up the attitudes of many public sector workers. “The Tour De France meant many roads were closed on Saturday and so on Friday night many care workers camped out on Woodhouse Moor in order to ensure they could provide an essential service to their clients over the weekend.” 
Adams made a special plea for unity between public and private sector workers and attacked the newspapers and senior politicians for suggesting that if the former receive a pay increase it would damage the living standards of the latter. “There is money to pay you a decent wage rise, only under this Government it is allocated to someone else’s pockets.” 
As the regional secretary of the North East, Yorkshire & Humberside’s biggest union, UNITE’s Karen Reay, praised those that had sacrificed a day’s pay. She denounced the constant government denigration of public sector workers and spoke of her disgust that over one million people in the UK now need to use food banks to help feed their families. Even then many people are being forced to turn to loan sharks in a desperate battle for survival. She urged people to put pressure on their local councillors to support the pay claim of a pound an hour. “This claim is perfectly reasonable and it is affordable. Fair pay for all.”

@markmetcalf07 


There were also rallies and demonstrations in many other locations with around 1,500 in Huddersfield, 2,000 in Sheffield, 300 in Barnsley and 150 in Rotherham. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Striking UNITE glass workers enjoy public support


All photographs copyright Mark Harvey of ID8
photography 

A Unite workplace rep for Tyneside factory workers who are on strike has witnessed a noticeably more positive attitude from the public compared to four years ago when similar action was organised. 

At the end of June 2014, over 100 Unite members at Tyneside Safety Glass on the massive Team Valley Trading Estate, Gateshead that nestles under the shadow of the Angel of the North statue began a second round of industrial action this summer. The dispute started over pay and conditions but there are also concerns that one striker has now been unfairly victimised after he was dismissed. 

Formed in 1937, Tyneside Safety Glass manufacture 
toughened, laminated, bullet resistant and heated glass for the automotive, security and defence sectors, rail, motorsport and architectural industries worldwide.  Although many of the workers are loyal, long-serving employees they have been left increasingly frustrated by pay awards that have failed to keep pace with inflation. This has left HGV drivers earning just £7.18 an hour with packers earning even less. Few shop floor workers earn above £10 an hour. 

Profitable

In the company brochure it states; ‘We have built a truly world class knowledgeable skilled workforce who are all trained to the highest manufacturing standards and are totally dedicated to continuous improvement.’ Warm words but it does not put food on the table.  As a result many workers are forced to work weekends in a second job. Yet the highest-paid director awarded himself an extra 14% last year, whilst £750,000 was moved from the company’s account to the owners trust fund. In the year up to April 30 2013 Tyneside Safety Glass grossed £609,899 in profits. 



Bob Bolam (far left) and Neil Davison (back row with Unite flag) alongside
four  employees with in excess of 100 years service at Tyneside Safety Glass
(l-r)  John Dixson (26 years),  Peter Davidson (24 years),
Michael Herring (38 years) and Ken Scott (30 years) 


There was therefore real anger amongst Unite members when the company initially sought to retain the current pay rates. Management then returned with an offer of 3% this year and 2% in the two subsequent years, all self-financing with workers expected to work longer shifts. 

A ballot overwhelmingly endorsed strike action and after removing their labour for a week in early June, staff then walked out on 30 June for three weeks. It is a brave move but one that appears to have the support of many workers in nearby workshops and offices. “Four years ago when we took strike action over pay there was quite a bit of abuse towards pickets by people. Not this time. I believe many people are now experiencing what we are being expected to endure, a massive reduction in our living standards. I think they would like to see us win as that might help them to argue for an increase in pay,” said Unite rep Neil Davison, who believes the training he obtained on a Unite education reps course about how to get organised when on strike has been invaluable during this latest workplace conflict. 


Some of the pickets on one of the two Tyneside Safety Glass sites in
Gateshead 


Getting organised

There has been daily picketing at both company sites, located around half a mile apart.  No Unite member has crossed the picket line. There has meanwhile been no attempt to prevent agency staff that work for Tyneside Safety Glass from going to work. “We sympathise with agency workers, some of whom have been here for three years plus. They should be made permanently employed. Unite is exploring the possibility throughout is legal team that the company supplying workers during the dispute are breaking regulations on agency workers and has written to the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate to complain but we are not blaming the workers themselves’, explained Neil, who works as a screen print supervisor. 

Strikers have been happy to accept invitations to speak to other workers about their strike. Funds have been donated including £250 from the Hartlepool construction branch of Unite. The union is paying strike pay and has assembled a contingency fund to support the ongoing action by what are, in many cases, long-serving members.

Unite regional officer Bob Bolam said: “We have a very committed group of members. We aim to get an agreed settlement, which is good for them and for the company, but the current offer is not good enough as it does not address the cost of living crisis they face, it is self-financing and the proposed deal has more strings in it than a Stradivarius.  violin.” 

For more information or to invite a speaker contact Bob Bolam on 07768 693948 or Neil Davison on 07540 460895 or Mark Robertson on 07761 421607. Donations to be sent to Tyneside Social Fund, UNITE Regional Office, 55 Call Lane, Leeds LS1 7BW 


Monday, 7 July 2014

Tyneside Safety Glass strike

video
Staff at a Tyneside factory are on strike for a second time in a matter of a few weeks.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Columbia:the goal is peace

International support for the Columbian peace process is being generated by Justice For Columbia (JFC) who have organised delegations from Northern Ireland involving unionist and nationalist participants from the Good Friday Peace Agreement. In Columbia the delegation met the President. In Cuba they met Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (Farc) rebels, whilst in Washington earlier this year they outlined to senior politicians their impressions on the situation in Columbia. Establishing the foundations of a new political system is the hope.  

The 50-year civil conflict between the government and Farc has left 200,000 people dead in a country where poverty is rife. Formal talks between the two sides started in Havana, Cuba two years ago and are continuing. In May, President Juan Santos narrowly succeeded in winning a second term of office by defeating Oscar Zuluaga, who is opposed to negotiating with the Farc. 

The Patriotic March (PM) social and political movement of 1,500 civil society organisations backs the talks but is concerned that civil society is not represented at them. Santos has failed to tackle human rights abuses and Columbia remains the most dangerous place on the planet to be a trade unionist with over 2,500 assassinated by state forces and its paramilitaries in the last 20 years. 

Huber Ballesteros, one of the PM leaders, is currently in prison wrongly accused  of ‘rebellion’ and ‘financing terrorism’ and facing 30 years detention. He was arrested last year as striking farmers and their supporters demonstrated against the government’s agricultural policies in which free trade agreements with the European Union and US have flooded the market with subsidised agricultural products at prices farmers cannot match. Ballesteros, is vice president of the Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union, which has strong links with UK unions, especially Unite, whose delegates at a recent rules revision conference warmly welcomed his message smuggled out of prison for them.
A fringe meeting was also held at the conference. A large attendance listened in silence as, Aidee Moreno, the head of solidarity at Fuensagro, spoke of how her husband, mother, brother and niece had all been slaughtered by the State in a struggle over land rights with peasant farmers standing in the way of foreign multi-nationals keen to undertake oil exploration. 

Moreno spoke of the importance of international solidarity. Unite, working through the Workers Uniting international union, has helped provide funds to support families of assassinated members, pay for prison visits and engaging lawyers to represent prisoners. There has been deliveries of toiletries. A number of delegations have visited Columbia, where millions live on less than $2 a day.  Denis Wilson, Unite executive committee member, told the meeting how his life had been changed when he visited the South America state: “You return determined to do things to improve the situation there.” Like all the speakers he praised Aidee Moreno’s bravery.


Moreno, who is aware of death threats against her and goes everywhere with armed guards, said: “We are not only resisting people being forced off their land but also fighting for important social changes including guarantees for education for young people, a free health service, better transport, electricity on farms  and improved housing. It is a necessary struggle.”