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Coalition’s class war challenge       

The next wave of the Coalition’s attack on the living standards of trade unionists was launched this week by cabinet ministers. The unashamed aim is to redistribute wealth to a raft of private employers. It is class war with a vengeance.

Among the measures planned by the ConDem government are changes to the law that would weaken the rights of workers facing the sack or who are the victims of discrimination and unfair dismissal.

The existing consultation period on redundancies would be reduced from 90 days to 30 days. Also in the firing line are the regulations that govern the transfer of workers from the public to the private sector, know as TUPE.

These offer a protection of terms and conditions for those who find themselves in the private sector as a result of contracting-out of public services or outright privatisation but do not protect new entrants. This has led to two-tier employment conditions in some cases.

Now the ConDems want to rewrite TUPE to make the regulations more favourable to employers, even though this might fall foul of European Union employment law. The move is fully backed by Lib Dem employment minister Ed Davey.

Above all, chancellor George Osborne has invited the employers to suggest changes to the current anti-union laws introduced by the Tories under Thatcher in the 1980s and which were left substantially untouched by New Labour.

The bosses organisations like the Institute of Directors and Confederation of British Industry want to toughen the rules on strike ballots. They are already difficult enough to conduct without a legal challenge. If Osborne gets his way, ballots would require a 50% turnout to be valid.

As stewards of global capitalism as it operates in Britain, Osborne and the government have got the message: costs must be forced down and companies made more “competitive” to win orders in markets under recession conditions. This is dressed up under the catch-all phrase of “flexibility” by Osborne.

Of course, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber was keen to ignore the context in yet another muted response by the official trade union movement to further attacks on working conditions. Barber said:

Reducing protection for staff facing takeovers, discrimination or redundancy will make life even harder for vulnerable workers. It is disappointing to see the Chancellor dressing up this political attack as some kind of growth strategy.

This is just a pathetic rehash of the “ideologically-driven” drivel pedalled by Barber to explain the massive cuts in public spending in response to the UK’s huge budget deficit.

To say the attacks are political is a tautology because the government is obviously a political entity. But just as the Thatcher governments were driven by the economic crisis of that period, so too is the Coalition (as was New Labour in its last years).

All governments since the 1980s have stressed competitiveness, flexible labour markets and low wages. One result is the greatest rise in inequality and share of national wealth since the 1930s. As the recession threatens to become an outright slump, the intention is to make it even cheaper to employ workers and harder for them to resist.

Len McCluskey, general secretary of the largest union Unite. has made more militant noises than Barber in response to Osborne and company. But the time for talking is more than over. Tens of thousands of public sector workers are losing their jobs, services are being reduced and public sector pensions are being cut.

Teachers and civil servants are planning a one-day strike over pensions at the end of June. This is a start but it is far from adequate. In Greece, nine one-day general strikes have failed to move the Socialist Party government from its cuts agenda.

Union leaders who say they are opposed to the Coalition have a responsibility to demand a labour movement conference to plan for an indefinite General Strike with the aim of bringing down the government. That would also create the opportunity to discuss what would follow the ConDems because Labour, old or new, is no alternative.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
13 May 2011

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