For workers’ action – not pleas to politicians

AFTER THE ELECTION: workers need to organise action for a living minimum wage, secure jobs, redistribution of wealth, resistance to escalated austerity cuts, and workplace rights (Photo: Craig Maclean)

AFTER THE ELECTION: workers need to organise action for a living minimum wage, secure jobs, redistribution of wealth, resistance to escalated austerity cuts, and workplace rights (Photo: Craig Maclean)

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser The woman serving me a coffee at the STUC Conference spoke volumes in a short chat. After asking where I was from, and me explaining I represent the SSP, she said: “I’ve always been from a Labour family, but I don’t know who to vote for. I can’t stand Labour, but I’ll never vote SNP. “I don’t trust Nicola Sturgeon,” she added in a whisper, as if in fear of upsetting polite society. But her most telling comment was her parting shot, after we exchanged views and experiences of low pay in retail and catering. "No matter which of them wins, I’ll still have to come to work on the 8th of May.”

The election and media circus will move on, but reality will remain for the working class majority: the struggle to survive on poverty pay, Zero Hours Contracts, part-time and insecure jobs, and the ongoing brutality of savage cuts to vital public services.

But the potential power of the working class to change all that is reflected in the language of the competing parties; they’ve suddenly discovered the need to harp on endlessly about “hard working people” and how much their rival brands of capitalist visions ‘represent’ us.

Even the Tories shamelessly claim to be “the party of working people”. Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband borrow spin doctors’ phrases: “Scotland succeeds when working people succeed”. The SNP bid for traditional Labour voters with talk of being “the voice of working people”, alongside their central slogan of “standing up for Scotland.”

Looking beyond 7 May, workers (and their unions) need to cut through the fog of slick spin and vague promises, and get back to basics. Those joining the annual May Day celebrations of international workers’ solidarity need to recall the fundamental features of this society, and how workers internationally have ever won improvements in life, living standards and rights.

The SSP quite consciously entitled our Election Manifesto ‘Standing up for Scotland’s Working Class Majority’. We are courageous enough to tell the truth. There are two Scotlands, divided by a chasm of class differences.

The Scotland of the richest 100 with wealth of £25billion; 432 landlords owning half the land; millionaires like Brian Souter funding the SNP from the fortune he grabbed from transport privatisation. And the Scotland of 100,000 relying on food banks to avert starvation, and workers socially isolated by fares they can’t afford.

Class is at the heart of society. Class exploitation is the very nature of capitalism. Soaring profits are sourced from the unpaid labour of the working class. It requires collective organisation and collective action by the working class majority to overcome that exploitation, that class division, where the richest 10 per cent of Scots own 20 times the combined wealth of the poorest 30 per cent.

Yes, we need to demand maximum reforms and redistribution of wealth from whatever combination of parties takes the reins. And the seismic upheaval of Labour being swept aside by an SNP that stands a bit to their left will immensely increase expectations of radical wealth transfers from the rich to the rest of us.

But to secure that requires lighting bonfires beneath their backsides, with rallies, demos and even strike action, or it won’t happen—because every single one of the parties likely to be in government ultimately stands up for big business, for capitalist Britain or capitalist Scotland—not for the working class who produce the wealth of goods and services. It’s wise to not forget the basics.

The growing clamour for an end to poverty pay has forced the rival parties into a bidding war—for votes. The hateful, upper-class Tories claim the minimum wage will ‘naturally’ rise to £8 by 2020. Labour promises £8, with whispered asides “by 2020”—which would make it virtually no rise at all on today’s pitiful £6.50.

The SNP have very belatedly gone beyond—or at least given the appearance of going beyond—their previous mantra of “supporting the Living Wage”, £7.85. That cleverly appeals to workers desperate for a pay rise, without upsetting big business, because the Living Wage is entirely voluntary!

Now, to outbid Labour, they’ve declared for an £8.70 minimum wage, but again not until 2020. In reality that would be less than today’s £7.85 Living Wage, although with the saving grace of being legally enforced.

Standing out from all this noise about what they’ll do for us in five years’ time, the SSP has unequivocally demanded a living minimum wage, legally enforced, of £10 NOW, in 2015. Based on the modest formula of two-thirds median male wages. The other critical difference is we demand it for all workers and apprentices over 16, whereas both Labour and the SNP would retain the monstrous age discrimination of lower youth rates.

The same milk-and-water promises are made into headlines by Labour and SNP on the modern serfdom that is Zero Hours Contracts. Both repeatedly talk of “tackling”, or “clamping down”, on what they both insist on calling “exploitative Zero Hours Contracts”. When are they not exploitative? Why not just abolish the lot, and bring in secure contracts with guaranteed hours, full-time or part-time?

Labour has elaborated a system where after 12 weeks of regular hours worked, that would become the contract hours. But what’s to stop employers dodging such ‘regular hours’, or simply shedding and replacing workers after 12 weeks—like the avoidance tactics used towards improved agency workers’ rights?

In truth, it’s only because some unions and the likes of the SSP have spearheaded persistent campaigns demanding £10 NOW, and outright abolition of Zero Hours Contracts, that these mainstream parties have gone as far as they have. The underlying reality is that only collective action by workers, up to and including strike action, will enforce a decent living wage or secure job contracts for all.

The strangling repression of workplace rights—the most vicious anti-union laws in Europe—help hold down workers’ conditions. Which makes it all the more significant that in contrast to the noisy bidding war of words between Labour and SNP over wages, there is deafening silence from both of them on repealing the anti-union laws.

It is no accident that wages as a share of national wealth, GDP, peaked in 1975. That was an era of massive union membership and waves of strike action for better wages. The reign of terror of the last 30 years has reversed that process, leaving wages at their lowest share of GDP on record.

Inequality was at its lowest when 83 per cent of workers were covered by union collective bargaining, whereas inequality is now at its worst, when only 23 per cent are covered. Workers learn from international experience too. In the heart of the capitalist beast, the USA, wages have plummeted since the 1970s.

Most of that time, labor union leaders capitulated, merely begging the capitalist Democrats to be their friends. Since 2012, a wave of courageous actions have been taken by brutally low-paid workers in the fast food and retail sectors.

Several strike days and protest marches by Walmart workers and fast food staff have won more concessions on wages from their multinational employers than 40 years of pleading by union bureaucrats. Wednesday 15 April saw the biggest fast food strike in history with 60,000 workers involved in over 200 cities, demanding a minimum wage of $15 (£10). Walmart recently conceded $10. Cities like Seattle and Chicago have agreed to phase in $15.

As we head for the ballot box, and march on May Day events, working class Scots should take inspiration from our own past struggles, and the present struggles of fellow workers in the USA. They have defied anti-union laws, taken militant action, marched for decent wages, and at least won substantial concessions.

Those are the methods of collective struggle that will be required to squeeze something out of whatever new government is elected, and off the unelected, obscenely overpaid boardroom bosses of companies whose whole source of profit is the wages they don’t pay workers.

Anti-union laws have been instrumental in enforcing a reign of terror on the ‘shopfloor’. That’s why they need to be repealed, replaced with a Charter of Workers’ Rights. That’s why those workers rightly abandoning the Labour Party that long ago abandoned them, should not in turn be blinded by the SNP’s kindly rhetoric. Not once, ever, has the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon pledged to dismantle the anti-union laws.

They make welcome noises about “embracing the unions”, “respecting the unions’ voices”, “recognising the value of collective bargaining”. Compared with Labour’s words and deeds, this is very welcome, and sounds “progressive”, to use Nicola’s current buzz word. But it’s mostly all candlelight and mood music, a wooing of the working class, with no sharp, defining, concrete measures to guarantee workers’ rights and ability to organise collective action.

Post-election, workers need to organise action for a living minimum wage, secure jobs, redistribution of wealth, resistance to escalated austerity cuts, and workplace rights—with collective action, where necessary in defiance of the anti-union laws concocted to help the capitalist minority rob wages and public services off the working class majority.

Workers will need to organise and demand concessions from a government that will be in crisis, as the ruling class panic at the demise of their most reliable prop in the working class—Labour. Not as spectators at an election circus—heavily populated by clowns and opportunist politicians juggling words and principles—but as the one reliable active force for change and progress.

The socialists of the SSP will continue to stand up for and with the working class majority in pursuit of a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power. We will not plead for crumbs off the capitalist politicians, but advocate and take workers’ action to win a decent life for the likes of the woman at the STUC coffee bar. No matter who wins on 7 May, we will be back to work for socialism on the 8th!

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