The Working Class are Paying for the Capitalist Crisis

A Tale of Our Time

The case of the Neville (1) plant in County Durham is typical.

A paternalist firm with no union founded in 1983 on a trading estate on a former coal mining site. The original partners have now taken a backseat and left control of the company to 5 directors. It had a full order book until last summer when the speculative bubble burst. These orders did not dry up although one was lost. However the management announced that there would have to be redundancies. About 30 of the 210 workers would have to go. Most of those that did were from the offices and the rest of the workforce breathed a sigh of relief. But then the management came back and said that due to the adverse trading conditions costs would have to be cut. They said they were cutting the night shift and going to a two shift instead of a three shift system. This meant that skilled workers lost £100 a week in pay. But by last winter they were saying that this was not enough and that further cuts would have to be made. The sword of redundancy lay over the whole workforce. At this point the management adopted a number of tactics. One was to propose a downgrade of everyone so that chargehands would get skilled workers wages whilst the latter would get labourers wages. When some skilled workers asked what would happen to the labourers it was clear that they were to be earmarked for redundancy so the workforce rejected the proposal. The management then simply said that individual workers would be interviewed and informed by letter on a Thursday (when the shift changes) who was to be made redundant or not. There is a minimal degree of solidarity in the plan, but just in case anyone got any ideas, the chargehands were instructed to report anyone seen discussing the situation on the shopfloor to the management (with the obvious consequence that they would be the first to get the bullet). In this atmosphere the workers were reduced to sitting and waiting to see if they had escaped. The redundancies duly went ahead in May (about 40 more workers). A week later all the remaining workers were told they could now make up their wages by working as much overtime as they liked! It is not hard to see why British employers like these want to keep the opt-out on the EU’s working time directive.

Attacks are Mounting

But the Durham workers are not alone. The same thing is happening all over the world. Firms are using the financial meltdown to shed staff to boost productivity and thus raise profit levels. We reported on the 800 BMW agency workers who were sacked at a moment’s notice in Oxford event though the Mini that they produce is one of the few successes in the car industry. The fact that they were agency workers though made them easy targets. First they make your job insecure and then they remove it; this has been the pattern of the last few years.

However the attacks on workers have become more widespread in 2009. According to the Keep Britain Working campaign;

“More than half of UK workers have experienced a cut in pay or hours or a loss of employment benefits since the recession began...” (Financial Times 1 June 2009)

However, far from seeing this as a disaster this campaign, which is backed by all the main political parties, and both the British Chamber of Commerce and the TUC, praised the heroic sacrifice the working class in Britain have made to preserve jobs even though unemployment has risen to (officially) 2.2 million this year.

“The campaign argued that the figures demonstrated how flexible the workforce had been in the downturn, and that changes in employment terms had helped employers to avoid even greater job cuts.”

The survey found that, in the past nine months, 27% of UK workers had had their pay cut, 24% have had their hours reduced and 24% have lost benefits. 8% have been offered a “sabbatical” from work (with only a quarter of these being offered any pay whilst away from the firm). It is clear who is paying the price for the crisis but the British ruling class are quite happy. As James Reed, the founder of Keep Britain Working, and boss of the Reed employment agency (who profits by making jobs precarious) enthused in the same article, that 54% of workers are more pessimistic about their future

“But - and in contrast to parts of continental Europe - workers appear overall to be making common cause with their managers to help keep people working.”

This is the dismal truth. Many workers are keeping their heads down and hoping the redundancy reaper passes over them. As we have seen management have not been slow to take advantage of this all over Britain. No “bossknapping” here as workers in France have done. The most encouraging fightback in the last few months has been at Visteon‘s three plants in London and Belfast. Here the London workers were at first stunned by their dismissal but then heard that their Belfast comrades had occupied and returned to do the same. This won them the promise of the payments they had been denied. Visteon shows that the drawn-out nature of the crisis means that anger is only mounting slowly but mounting it is.

Recently workers at Lindsey have again gone on strike (but to save everyone’s job this time as 60 more redundancy notices have been issued). Postal workers and London Underground workers have both hugely supported strike ballots. The RMT even managed to let this latest Underground strike go ahead (having pulled the plug on earlier ones). Both groups of workers are deeply angered by bullying management’s disciplinary measures as well as the plans for more lay offs. But with RMT boss Bob Crow (CPGB member) joining with the Socialist Party gang who led the “British Jobs for British Workers” strike at Lindsey in the No2EU Party (see article in this issue) in the European elections workers will have to look elsewhere for real leadership. To face up to our responsibilities in this respect we have recently been seeking discussion with other revolutionaries in order to improve our cooperation and to give a more effective guide to workers in struggle. One tentative beginning of this can be seen in our report on the Midlands Discussion Forum in this issue.

(1) Not the real name, which has been withheld for obvious reasons.

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