Labour must listen to Europe’s trade unions

As part of the European TUC Day of Action, its General Secretary Bernadette Segol appeared on Radio 4′s Today programme this morning alongside former Labour MEP Richard Corbett, now advising European Council leader Herman Van Rompuy.

Segol made clear the case for ending austerity measures which are lengthening the recession, tackling tax evasion rather than cutting low pay and social protection, and spending on investment.

Labour should take up this message.

In recognising that austerity is failing, it must make some serious policy announcements that demonstrate it’s willingness to challenge that agenda.

With people’s living standards falling, the party should end it’s support for the public sector pay-freeze as well as promising to legislate for a National Living Wage and tackling tax evasion.

And rather than simply investing money raised on the sale of the 4G spectrum, it needs a much more ambitious plan for growth by borrowing significantly money to invest in large-scale infrastructure projects that will boost employment and growth.

Coming so soon after the TUC’s 150,000-strong demonstration, the scale of European-wide trade union protest is a clear message to Labour, and Europe’s social democratic parties, that they must reject austerity and advocate an alternative of investment not cuts.

You can listen here, or read the transcript below:

 

Skip to 2:15:32

 

 

Humphreys: Do you think this is a new stage in the European crisis?

Segol: I think this is a new stage where the trade unions and people in Europe want to show that these policies should change and the result is not what they want to be, the recession, more unemployment, and now we want policies for growth and employment.

It’s now getting unbearable, these policies which are putting pressure on wages, which are diminishing social protection, and attacking industrial relations are just not working. It’s high-time to change the aim and the policies.

Humphreys: And what about this democratic deficit, is that real as far as ordinary people on the street are concerned? Or is it something that is conjured up by people like yourself who say we can’t be told what to do.

Segol: The democratic deficit is quite clear in so far as the economic policy is dictated by the Troika to a number of countries in Europe. Even if they say it’s a recommendation, in fact, if they do not apply their indications and recommendations, then they don’t have the money. So it’s much more than recommendations, it’s obligations, you have to apply. And as far as other countries are concerned we are faced with the country-specific recommendations from the Commission and indeed these recommendations are not democratically agreed so it’s part of the democratic deficit we are facing today.

Humphreys: Richard Corbett do you accept that? That the Troika is pushing it too far?

Corbett: This dilemma is being faced across Europe and it is a challenge. When you have, as some countries do, such high debt levels and still big deficits, you have to address that question. How you address that question is largely a matter of national choice in most cases. Do you raise taxes? Do you cut expenditure? Which taxes do you raise? Do you cut over what timeframe? In some cases the lenders, remember the situation in a country like Greece would be far, far worse even than now if they weren’t getting one of the biggest loans in history to any country from their fellow countries. Just as you go to your bank manager, the manager wants to know in due course you’ll be able to pay it back. Greece has been given a thirty year low interest long-term loan. The creditors do, and the other cuontries in Europe, do want to know that in due course this situation will be rectified, that you don’t then need another loan…

Humphreys: The problem with the bank manager analysis is if the bank manager says no, I can’t then go away and devalue my currency and renege on my debts which is what Greece could do if it were prepared to leave the Euro and that’s the danger in all this.

Corbett: Well Greece is a country that imports almost all its energy and about half of its food so you’d be doubling your prices.

Humphreys: Yeah but it has that option and other countries in Europe recognise it has that option. If the democratic deficit is expressed as strongly as it appears to be being expressed then maybe things are going to be changed in Europe. That’s what i’m suggesting.

Corbett: Well Greece has a democratic choice, as all countries inside and outside the Eurozone are democracies, so ultimately it’s democractic choices that will be made on these things…

Humphreys: Indeed possibly with devastating effects…

Corbett: And a majority in Greece want to remain in the Euro because leaving it would not help them.

Humphreys: That’s the point isn’t it, Bernadette Segol, that if people want their country to leave Europe [sic] then they can do so.

Segol: No they don’t want to leave the Euro and they shouldn’t leave the Euro, but the point is that the Troika is just pushing pressure on people on minimum wages, on social protection. What is being done to make sure tax evasion and tax fraud is stopped? We don’t see anything happening on that front, it is always the normal people who are paying and you can imagine what is the anger of people who see that the diktat of this Troika…

Humphreys: Well how can you blame the Troika for the fact that rich Greeks don’t pay their taxes?

Segol: Which action have they taken to make sure the fraud is stopped? Why is it so important for them to cut the minimum wage again and again and it doesn’t seem so important to look at the tax evasion and so on…

Humphreys: Tell me what you want to happen. Tell me how you think the Troika should respond to what is happening today?

Segol: First of all, stop the austerity measures. They are counter-productive, they have money for investment and growth, that’s the message.

Humphreys: And if they don’t, if they say come on pay your debts back…

Segol: Well they do have to pay their debt back and they have never said they wouldn’t pay their debt back, they know that, but the way to pay the debt back is not to have a bigger recession.

Humphreys: All right, final thoughts from you, Richard Corbett?

Corbett: Well there does become a limit to which a country can sustain a huge deficit. Greece won’t be able to pay its public sector workers in a month’s time unless it secures a further loan because it’s spending much more than it’s receiving. It does need to address that and you’re right to say part of the issue is tax evasion in Greece and that’s up to the Greek government to crack down on it.

Time to take on outsourcing and privatisation, writes Tom King

Ed Miliband has proven to be at his best when he’s at his boldest and now the Labour leader must rise to the challenge again and take on outsourcing and privatisation, in the same way he tackled Murdoch and the banks.

The “humiliating shambles” that is G4S’s handling of Olympic security presents the perfect opportunity for Miliband to tackle the Tory myth that the private sector is always more efficient; a myth which they have used to justify selling off our public services. It is also a chance to stand up for workers, who are laid off, have their wages cut and working conditions diminished, when their jobs are outsourced or privatised.

Some would argue that standing up against outsourcing would only lead to “Red Ed” headlines, but this move wouldn’t be ideological, it’s just common sense. The public are already on side, overwhelmingly and consistently opposing privatisation. For a leader wanting to contrast himself against an out of touch government, it would be politically shrewd to show that Labour gets people’s concerns about contracting out jobs. After Cameron has signed himself up lock, stock and barrel to the privatisation bandwagon, saying he wants to “create a new assumption” that any public service is up for grabs, he has left himself wide open to being outflanked by Miliband.

However, this is not only a matter of political manoeuvring. The claim that bringing in private companies to run public services is cheaper and more efficient is simply not backed up by the facts. The reality of outsourced contracts is that they provide a worse service and rarely deliver the promised efficiency savings. If costs are cut it is almost always as a result of slashing wages. A recent Unison report found that “the quality, accountability, flexibility, and hard economics of providing services in-house are some of the key benefits that have persuaded even true-blue Conservative councils to drop private contractors and look to their own staff to serve the public.”

Labour councils, who have seen their budgets brutally cut, are finding that by ‘insourcing’ they are able to make savings that mean they can protect vital public services. Labour-run Islington is one such council that has begun bringing services back in-house and by providing refuse collections and street cleaning themselves expect to save £3 million. At a time of austerity, abandoning the neoliberal obsession with carving up our public services between private contractors makes economic sense and the Labour frontbench should be championing those councils who choose insourcing as an alternative to cuts.

Far from being the pinnacle of efficiency, outsourcing has made the quality of public services worse, failed to reduce costs, put jobs, wages and working conditions at risk and, as we have seen in the past week, even led to troops being deployed in East London to make up for the failings of private companies. Now is the time for Ed Miliband to call a halt to privatisation all together, to ditch the neoliberal ideology that pushes for ever more outsourcing and to embrace evidence-based policy which shows that insourcing is the cheapest, most effective and efficient way to provide our public services.

 

By Tom King

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TSSA takes on Virgin Trains ‘fire-at-will’ culture

It would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t know about Richard Branson and his media, travel and leisure empire. On the surface, it’s a fairytale story of British business success. Virgin is a household name with a brand built through slick advertising and a strong focus on customer relations and media image. Branson personally appears in television adverts with the likes of Usain Bolt and David Tennant, even turning up for the launch of the Virgin Trains presence on Twitter.

Branson’s reputation for practical entrepreneurship and self-starter philosophy is what attracts many people to Virgin – both as customers and employees.

But Branson has succeeded by very much doing business ‘his way’. His business empire is owned by a complex series of offshore trusts and companies. In July 2011, long before David Cameron was castigating Jimmy Carr, the Guardian published details of Branson’s strategy to move Virgin Enterprises to Geneva in a move to avoid paying millions of pounds of UK tax.

The role of Virgin in NHS privatisation has rightly earned criticism from healthcare and anti-cuts campaigners. But a growing number of instances are showing up the unpleasant reality of a firm built on glossy ‘fun’ image, presided over by a supposedly a conscientious, caring tycoon.

An example of this is Virgin Trains. Apart from the question of private involvement in the railways in general, it should be obvious that all operators running the state-provided franchises must pay their fair share of tax and employ staff in a just way.

Virgin Trains, however is currently embroiled in a dispute with the TSSA transport union over their ‘fire-at-will’ work culture. The company has allowed the situation to escalate to the point that Britain’s busiest rail route may be threatened with strike action during the Olympics – over the most basic of employment rights.

The TSSA ballot has been sparked by the dismissal (and then subsequent suspension) of TSSA rep Martin Hodges from Virgin Train’s Customer Services HQ in Birmingham.

The company are now claiming this is because of exceptional sickness back in 2010. This is rather surprising, given the same management awarded Martin a certificate for ‘Best Attendance’ in 2011 – something which can be seen on the Support sacked staff at Virgin Trains Facebook group.

The fact that it was a union rep – advocating on behalf of his fellow workers – that was the target of this action looks all the more suspicious given TSSA’s contention that Virgin Trains have refused to carry out an investigation or follow their own procedures which would have ensured a proper hearings to consider evidence from both sides.

After repeated attempts to resolve the situation with the company, TSSA announced its intention to ballot 500 members last month, noting that this is far from the only case where staff have been removed from the workforce with no real notice and very little explanation.

The union’s launched an energetic campaign inside and outside the company to highlight Virgin’s refusal to implement employment law, calling on Richard Branson to intervene. A high-profile banner drop at Euston Station last Friday saw activists leaflet the station and hang a banner from the station balcony imploring Branson to treat his staff fairly.

This case highlights the ineffectiveness of the employment tribunal procedures, which allow employers to sack staff without any reason and – even if the case is brought and won at a tribunal, get away with little punishment. Private companies would often much rather proffer cheques behind closed doors when a case is going badly for them, rather than follow the law. The culture of fear this can create in workplaces, especially at a time when people cannot be certain of finding other work is a challenge to anyone looking to stand up for the rights of their fellow workers and is particularly damaging to young people who may be at the bottom of the workplace food-chain.

In a recent article, Left Foot Forward highlighted the fear faced by staff at Virgin. It is well documented that when companies flout these laws, those who already face discrimination are particularly affected, whether they be disabled, women, black people or the LGBT community. Pressure must be put on these companies to at the very least follow their own procedures and the limited protections the law offers. When these highly profitable private operators are licensed and subsidised by taxpayers, the case is even more compelling.

For more information visit the TSSA website and follow the #Virginontheridiculous hashtag

 

By Ben Soffa

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