Unions, Lies And The Need For Change

About a month ago we covered the Communication Workers Union’s efforts in balloting its members about the possibility of industrial action. This came as a result of the Royal Mail group failing to live up to its commitments laid out in “The Four Pillars” agreement that would mean a number of protections for the workers and an introduction of a 35-hour, full time work week.

Since covering this it has transpired that the Royal Mail Group took the matter to the high courts, asking for an injunction on any industrial action, claiming that it was simply politically motivated and that there was evidence of “irregularities” in the balloting process. The injunction was ultimately granted, despite the 97% vote in favour of the strike and the CWU refuting the claims of tampering. Although the CWU has stated that the fight is not over, it looks very unlikely that they will have time to re-ballot the 100,000 union members in time for December, a time in which they would have the most leverage to ensure meaningful and positive assurances to their working conditions.

This comes at the same time that the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers were similarly denied the right to strike in the high courts despite over 98% support for action, with General Secretary Mick Cash stating on the RMT website:

Despite an overwhelming vote for action we have failed to meet the arbitrary thresholds set by the Government and the fact that the tube cleaners will now be denied the right to strike is wholly down to the toxic combination of the Tory anti-union laws and a bullying and hostile environment created by ABM.

The Conservative Party has a long history of anti-union sentiment. One of the most recent examples of this was the announcement of the Trade Union Bill in 2015, just 20 days after the Conservative Party took power. The contents of this bill are as follows:

  • A 50 percent voting threshold for union ballot turnouts
  • An additional 40 percent yes vote requirement in ‘core public services’ (health, education, transport and fire services)
  • New time limitations on ballot mandates
  • Proposals to prevent alleged intimidation of non-striking workers during a strike
  • Tightening regulations on picketing and the introduction of new criminal sanctions.
  • Removal of the ban on using Agency Staff to replace striking workers. (A ban that was in place since 1973)
  • Changes to the operation of the political fund element of trade union subscriptions
  • Further restrictions on check-off facilities for trade union subscription collection
  • Threats to facility time for trade union representatives

These restrictions were put in place on top of already existing restrictions which makes Britain one of the most anti-union countries in the western world. In January of 2015 a European Committee on Social Rights criticised the UK for being in excessive breach of workers rights. They concluded that the government failed in its duty to protect workers from unpaid overtime, unpaid holidays and inadequate rest periods.

David Cameron constantly disguised many damaging decisions and policies with the pretence that his Tory government was the real party for working class people. In a statement to his first cabinet he said:

I call it being the real party of working people, giving everyone in our country the chance to get on, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a pay cheque, a home of their own and the security and peace of mind that comes from being able to support a family. And just as important for those that can’t work, the support they need at every stage of their lives.

Quite the rhetoric, but with the benefit of hindsight it becomes obvious that these were just more empty platitudes from elitist, greedy, career politicians. Not convinced? Let’s compare the statement to the statistics over the past 4 years.

“I call it being the real party of working people…” – While many of the poorest people in the country had to face the brunt of austerity, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne reduced the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45%, saving the richest in the country roughly £554,000 each a year. Between the tax years of 2013/14 to 2017/18 this cost the British taxpayer £8.6 Billion. Money that could easily have went to the horribly underfunded NHS, schools or local governments. Not that this mattered to those that can afford private healthcare and private education.

“giving everyone in our country the chance to get on, with the dignity of a job, the pride of a paycheque, a home of their own and the security and peace of mind that comes from being able to support a family…” – Where to start with this one. Around 1 in 40 people in employment in the UK are on zero-hour contracts. These workers have no stability and no guarantee of enough to get by on. Many workers are employed on a contractor basis so that employers can exploit them with no guarantee of holiday entitlement or sick pay. A lot of people can’t afford to own their own homes either. People born in the late 70’s had a 43% rate of home ownership by the age of 27. In contrast, people born in the late 80’s/ early 90’s have a rate of just 25% of home ownership. There are more than 4 million people living in deep poverty, with 7 million people affected with persistent poverty. 73% of children in poverty live in a family in which an adult worked for a living. Not even a secure job can assure you the basic need of taking care of your family.

“And just as important for those that can’t work, the support they need at every stage of their lives.” – This might just be one of the most blatant and malicious lies quoted. Disabled people are looking at losing £50 a week by 2020 while the wealthiest people fund Boris Johnson and receive tax breaks in return. Many people were deemed ‘fit to work’ and shunted on to jobseekers allowance and told to find a job. This was announced as an incentive by the Tories to get disabled people back to work- because it’s not their disability that’s stopping them from working, it’s just lack of motivation.

More than 17,000 sick and disabled people have died in this country while waiting for welfare benefits.

So, what chance do the trade unions have in helping their members, when faced with a government so cruel and self-serving? One that has done everything in its power to strangle the unions and steal from the poor to give to the rich. We can continue to listen to the lies of the current government that has spent years dismantling this country with money in their pockets and blood on their hands- or we can choose to be rid of them.

Universal Basic Income: Why It’s a Bad Idea

Recently there has been talk of trialing a Universal Basic Income programme in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife and, more importantly, North Ayrshire. I’m going to look into what UBI is, why people think it’s a good idea- and why it would be one of the worst economic disasters to happen to Scotland since the Darien venture.

Universal Basic income is actually an older argument than you might think, with similar ideas being suggested as far back as the 1500’s. UBI is the idea that to relieve the effects of poverty we should, instead of building complicated support structures and organisations aimed at helping the poorest, just give everyone a set allowance on top of any wages they get. Sounds smart enough, and- I say this without a hint of irony- one of the best cures for being poor is money. This would give people at the bottom of society a safety net to rely on, to build up from and make sure their needs are met. Everyone else would get a little extra cash in their pocket to make the world a better place, a chance to patch the 9 to 5 and do what you really want to do, maybe start a business or go back to school.

The important part would be that this money isn’t means tested, so Barry who works at the cafe 20 hours a week and Davey who runs an international business would get the exact same UBI at the end of the month, even if Davey is bringing home twenty times Barry’s wage. This is for two main reasons; if everyone is getting the same UBI, everyone has the same jumping off point. What you make of yourself after that would be, theoretically, up to you. Another more subtle reason everyone would get UBI is that unlike Job Seekers or Universal Credit, everyone would be invested in UBI. Whether you’re working 40 hours a week or 4 you are not going to argue against an extra 5K a year.

This all seems like a really radical idea to be discussing, a complete change in the way our society works and something that seems more Starfleet than Department of Work and Pensions. The fact that this is being discussed seriously or at all seems to many a sign of a dawning utopia. But what pressures are driving this conversation into the spotlight?

Basically put, the world is changing, and for working class people its not changing for the better. Automation is set to take more and more jobs, and not just manual work like manufacturing, there are AI’s currently on the market that can replace middle managers, design buildings and direct air traffic control. When people really start losing jobs over automation it’s not going to be just you and me in the breadline, it’s going to be architects and maybe even your gaffer.

Another reason that we might need UBI in the future is something that politicians are even more uncomfortable discussing than mass unemployment: wealth disparity. In the UK, the difference between the folk at the top and the folk at the bottom is astronomical, and set to keep growing. Unfortunately for the wealthy however, they need the folk at the bottom to have enough money to buy things, or at least pay rent. Without some money moving about, the economy will come to a stand still and everything collapses.

These are issues that certainly need addressing rapidly, but is UBI the answer, and who is making the case for its implementation?

Interestingly, it’s not easy to split proponents into left or right wing. While it was Labour councillor Matt Kerr that argued for UBI in Glasgow City Council and Labour Councillor Joe Cullinane that argued for it’s trial in our own North Ayrshire, it’s not just Labour that are pushing for it. People from across Scotland’s parties have shown an interest in the scheme. Even Nicola Sturgeon has in the past expressed support for UBI. While the Scottish Conservatives in parliament have criticised the SNP and Labour for supporting UBI, there has been support from individual Conservative Councillors.

Joe Cullinane, in a facebook post, stated that on top of applying to the Scottish Government for the £250000 grant to research the practicalities of UBI, North Ayrshire had raised an additional £200000 to support the study. Joe argued that “If we are not bold, and offer an alternative to Tory welfare policies such as their Tax Credit Rape Clause and disability cuts, then we will be letting down families and children”.

But it’s not only Joe Cullinane- who sees UBI as a means of reducing poverty-who is making the case, and this conversation is not confined to the UK alone. Andrew Yang, a contender for the Democrat presidential nomination, argues a system like UBI is the only way to make sure the average person can benefit from automation, and not be left behind as the economy continues to change the makeup of the economic workforce.

It seems clear then that Universal Basic Income is something of a solution to impending and irreversible societal change, and one with an increasingly broad appeal at that. But before we rush headlong into a brave new world where everyone gets free money, let’s stop for a moment to consider a few things.

Because UBI, when examined more closely, has some serious and glaring flaws. In almost every model, UBI would not be an addition to the safety net of the welfare state, it would be a replacement, effectively kicking the chair out from under millions of working class families who are likely to find themselves worse off. While some on the left argue that this would not be the case, that UBI would be a supplement the current system, those on the more moderate centre and right wing like Andrew Yang are blunt in the reasons behind their support of UBI. The welfare state is expensive, and from their point of view, it does not work.

Without a proper welfare state it would not just be Job Seekers and Universal Credit that would be confined to the history books; Child Benefit, Working Tax Credits, Housing Benefit  and maybe even the NHS would be for the scrapheap. Instead of a structure around us that’s there when we need support, we would get our monthly pocket money and be told to fend for ourselves. Governments would be more readily able to shirk their responsibilities to their citizens, and the most vulnerable among us would undoubtedly suffer the most.

I use the word ‘citizens’ deliberately since citizenship rights will likely be the foundation of UBI. this would definitionally exclude non-British workers and migrant communities, and if mass privatisation follows, services like the NHS and local councils would likely disappear, and these workers and communities would suffer more than most as a result.

If this wasn’t enough, UBI will lead to staggering levels of inflation. That £500 you get at the end of the month might not be worth £500 at the end of the year when every business realises everyone has a bit more spending money. Prices for food, utilities and luxuries would go up, and worse still, what would happen to your rent? Say you’re not lucky enough to live in a council or housing association home where there are checks and balances to stop rent going sky high, what’s gonna happen to your rent when the landlord knows for a fact you have exactly £500 more in your pocket a month? Rent prices are going to go up. After UBI replaces every other support system we have in place there won’t be much recourse, we’ll be left with expensive food, high rent and maybe not even healthcare, all for the low price of £500 a month.

While the benefits of UBI seem enticing on the face of it, before you just ask yourself, do you trust your landlord to not put up your rent?

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash