South Korea: workers resist new labour laws
In previous issues, we have detailed the escalating repression in south Korea against workers and their leaders, as rail workers went on strike against plans to privatise parts of the rail system and against draconian new labour laws being pushed through. (See Industry matters, Proletarian, February 2016)
In November and December last year, mass protests and strikes were met with repeated police raids on trade union offices, confiscation of documents and hard drives, suspension of nearly 8,000 workers, the arrest of union leaders and 130 workers, and violent attacks upon protestors which included the use of pepper spray. These developments followed on from earlier attacks on organised labour, with, for example, the Korean teachers’ union being stripped of its legal status in 2013. (See Fightback in Korea by Gregory Elich, Counterpunch, 12 November 2015)
Now the repression has gone up another notch, as the leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) has been charged with sedition, a charge not used since 1986. President Park Geun-hye has further raised the temperature by provocatively comparing protestors to Islamic State terrorists and pushing through bills to intensify surveillance and ban masks at demos.
The new labour laws give employers wide new powers to hire and fire at will. For example, under previous regulations, agency staff could be hired for a maximum of two years before becoming permanent employees, during which period they would not be eligible for health and unemployment insurance or accident compensation. Now this period is to double to four years, so that an employer can easily replace his permanent workforce with a constant turnover of disenfranchised and disposable temps.
Worse, the government is also bringing in a ‘peak-wage’ system, whereby wages can automatically be cut at age fifty-five, on the assumption that workers are so burnt-out by then that their productivity dips, justifying a corresponding dip in their pay. The government seeks to prettify this brutal policy by pretending that what companies thereby save on labour costs will be used to employ some of the thousands of unemployed young workers.
And if an employer wants to push a worker into early retirement, he will be able to do so without, as now, having to shell out a month’s wages for each year of service completed. Under a new law, he will be able simply to decide that a worker is guilty of ‘low performance’ and sack him without spending a penny. (See South Korea: key labour reforms set to face intense union opposition, PGI Intelligence, 19 January 2016)
How British unions ‘fight back’
Meanwhile, in Britain, whilst the latest union-busting labour law coasts through Westminster, Unite has jumped into action by printing millions of leaflets saying “I love my union”, which counsel its members to “speak out and be heard”. It exhorts us to “put up some posters, organise an event, leafleting session or street stall”, “send us your selfie” and “get on Facebook and share the memes” – anything, in fact, other than build a fighting union that recognises the enemy is capitalism, not just ‘the Tories’, and leads a mass campaign of non-cooperation with austerity, legally where possible and illegally where necessary. (See Heart Unions campaign website)
Instead, the union bosses would rather save their fighting spirit for something really important, like protecting the nuclear Trident programme from closure for fear of losing jobs. No matter what untold death and destruction will be caused to millions of workers when they are used – and British imperialism manufactures such weapons of mass destruction for use, not as a generous make-work scheme for highly skilled engineers – the unwavering focus remains fixed upon one issue: the preservation of British jobs.
Nothing better illustrates the blinkered and reactionary character of a union leadership that is deeply imbued with social-democratic prejudices.
It seems that ‘I love my union’ Unite is so panic-stricken at the (very unlikely) prospect of Jeremy Corbyn overturning Labour’s pro-Trident position that it is even trying to prevent the issue being discussed at all.
At a recent Momentum meeting held on Unite premises in Bristol, a very mild proposal of the ‘swords into ploughshares’ variety was raised in discussion. Sources in Momentum report that a subsequent flurry of emails from the Unite hierarchy insisted that no discussion whatever on Trident be tolerated on Unite property!
Sir Paul Kenny, general secretary of GMB, likewise reacted like a scalded cat to Corbyn’s threat to mobilise grassroots Labour sentiment to turn party policy against Trident via a referendum. The knight fulminated on Radio 4’s The World at One: “If anybody thinks that unions like the GMB are going to go quietly into the night while tens of thousands of our members’ jobs are literally swannied away by rhetoric then they’ve got another shock coming.” (See GMB boss warns Corbyn not to risk defence jobs with Trident plans, The Guardian, 11 January 2016)
He wasn’t knighted for nothing.
Goodyear workers threatened with jail
In January, in Hollande’s social-democratic France, eight former workers from the Goodyear tyre factory in Amiens-Nord were sentenced for up to two years for their role in trying to keep the factory open.
Back in February 2013, management had announced its closure after a lengthy period of resistance to lay-offs and shift-changes. With the support of thousands of workers throughout France, Goodyear employees took their protests to the company’s HQ in Amiens, culminating in the detention by the workers of two company executives in January 2014 for 30 hours as the only way to bring them to the negotiating table.
Despite this bold tactic of ‘boss-napping’, the plant eventually closed, with the loss of 1,173 jobs. Undaunted, the former Goodyear workers have launched an international campaign to free the eight jailed activists. (See International solidarity campaign for Goodyear workers sentenced to prison, Left Voice, 27 January 2016)
For probably the first time since May 1968, the French government is now demanding that there should be mandatory prison sentences for workers engaged in sympathy strikes. Meanwhile, in a timely reminder that it is not Tory governments alone that steal workers’ rights, Hollande is busying himself with the deletion of more than a thousand articles of the Code du Travail (the French labour code). (See ‘End of term’ protests threaten François Hollande’s labour legacy by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 9 March 2016)
TUC touts for the EU
The TUC, true to its social-democratic tradition of seeking to lock the labour movement into the interests of imperialism, is loudly campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU imperialist club, claiming that membership guarantees workers’ rights.
TUC chief Frances O’Grady says: “Working people have a huge stake in the referendum because workers’ rights are on the line. It’s the EU that guarantees workers their rights to paid holidays, parental leave, equal treatment for part-timers, and much more. These rights can’t be taken for granted.
“There are no guarantees that any government will keep them if the UK leaves the EU. And without the back-up of EU laws, unscrupulous employers will have free rein to cut many of their workers’ hard-won benefits and protections.
“The current government has already shown their appetite to attack workers’ rights. Unions in Britain campaigned for these rights and we don’t want them put in jeopardy. The question for everyone who works for a living is this: can you risk a leap into the unknown on workplace rights?” (See Labour leave: workers worse off in than out by Conrad Landin, Morning Star, 25 February 2016)
The reality is that the global overproduction crisis of capitalism is everywhere driving the whole of imperialist society into a leap into the unknown – or, more accurately, into fascism, slump and war – making it more urgent than ever for the proletariat to tear off the social-democratic blinkers and hasten to its own emancipation.
The ‘workers’ rights’ that the EU conceded (at a time when such concessions were both possible and necessary) were never more than the flimsiest of window dressing, designed to hide the predatory nature of this capitalist club. And even these limited ‘rights’ could without too much difficulty be compromised or waived – as, for example, with the European Working Time Directive.
The only rights the EU really guarantees in times of crisis are those of monopoly capital to maximise its profits and crush down the conditions of existence for the working masses – both in terms of wages and in terms of the social wage, as huge swathes of public services come under the privateers’ hammer. In this regard, we should note in particular the TTIP fait accompli being negotiated between the EU and the US, under which corporate courts will be able to sue governments for restraint of trade should they attempt to unwind privatisations.
Staying in the EU will not guarantee workers’ rights. For that matter, neither will leaving it. But seizing the opportunity afforded by the Brexit campaign to expose the EU as a glorified capitalist club, no more to be trusted than the gang of crooks in Westminster, can usefully contribute to the revolutionary education of the British working class.
Health and safety in Britain’s construction industry
In 2014-15, thirty-five builders were killed in the UK, making the construction industry the most dangerous industry in the country.
Yet figures released on a Freedom of Information request by the building workers’ trade union Ucatt revealed that the total number of unannounced inspections by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) over the same period were down 8.7 percent on the previous year, dropping from 10,577 to 9,656 – and this at a time when the industry was on an upward blip and building activity was increasing. The figures for Scotland alone were still more damning, with a drop in 55.7 percent for inspections.
The HSE has long faced downward pressure on its budget, and the consequences of successive redundancies are now plain to see. (See New figures reveal fall in construction inspections, Ucatt, 7 March 2016)
Health and safety in the New York construction industry
Meanwhile, builders in New York face much the same threats to life and limb as builders in Britain, under similar circumstances of a speculative boom in the property market.
According to the Financial Times: “The number of workers injured in New York City construction accidents rose by more than 50 percent last year, stoking fears that builders are cutting corners to cash in on the rally in the metropolitan area’s trillion-dollar-plus property market.” Deaths in the construction and mining industries rose by 5 percent in 2014 to 885. Last year, 356 workers were hurt in construction accidents, up from 237 in 2014.
This deterioration of safety standards correlates with the failure of unions to mobilise across the industry, with only around 50 percent unionisation on big city construction projects and only about 20 percent on buildings of ten storeys or under.
Father Brian Jordan, a catholic priest who organises an annual ‘hard hat’ mass in memory of builders killed at work, has blamed contractors for cutting corners in the scramble for profits. With bitterness he recounted recently: “They are rushing for a buck. Every time a contractor tells me, ‘Father, we are on a deadline,’ I say, ‘Every time you have a deadline, you have a line of dead people.’” (‘Rise in accidents reveals dark side of New York’s building surge’ by Gary Silverman, Financial Times, 13 January 2016)