The job battles to come

Submitted by AWL on 12 May, 2020 - 9:09 Author: Colin Foster
Closed until further notice

Government figures say 27% of workers went on the official furlough scheme in late March and early April.

The government is to cover 80% of their wages, and employer may or may not make up the other 20%.

The scheme is due to end on 30 June. The government says it will be “tapered off”, not ended suddenly.

The chief driver of Boris Johnson’s “back to work tomorrow” announcement on 10 May looks to have been the government’s wish to reduce its furlough bills, and avoid further bills for its (lavish) aid to big business and (now increased) aid to small business.

The government also wants to deflect calls to cancel rent, mortgage, and utility bills during the emergency, made not only by households but also by businesses, including big businesses.

Many big businesses, like Burger King and Superdrug, are publicly refusing to pay rent. Their proposal, in fact, is not the three months’ rent-cancellation most currently demanded for households, but nine months’ cancellation. According to the Financial Times on 9 April, in the previous fortnight shops had paid 41% of their rents due, and residential tenants 44%.

Having landlords go bust would be no damage to general economic life, since the land and buildings would be intact. Nationalise the land! But the Tories, being Tories, think any “rent holidays” would have to go together with compensation to landlords.

Oddly, bosses’ organisations, the CBI, Institute of Directors, and London Chambers of Commerce, reacted to Johnson’s “back to work” speech with calls for delay. Some are keen to restart fast. Many would prefer a longer spell on government rations to a risky reopening which might leave them with their full usual running costs but little sales income.

As we go to press on 11 May, the prospect seems more of a grinding, bit-by-bit drive to reopen, over weeks, than Johnson’s “start back tomorrow” line. Rail and London Underground bosses, for example, were already working towards increased services from 18 May before Johnson’s 10 May speech. It’s a prospect of hundreds and thousands of workers’ and union battles over safety at work; and it will be life and death to win them.

They can be won. Many groups of workers who have been in their workplaces throughout have won improvements by using “Section 44”, which entitles them to walk out of any work area where they see “serious and imminent” risk. With the exception of the RMT rail union, union leaders are hesitating about backing workers who use that legal right, or, worse, telling workers that they can’t use it because its use would be “unlawful industrial action”. It wouldn’t. Using the right is not, in terms of the law, “industrial action” at all.

The biggest school union, the NEU, has opposed reopening schools on 1 June, and advised members not to cooperate with plans for reopening then, but failed to say that it will support members using “Section 44”.

The union leaders must be turned round, and the Labour Party should back workers insisting on safety.

About a quarter of workers are on furlough now.

Travel to work has dropped 65%, so probably about a third of workers have been going in to work throughout the lockdown, in health and social care, cleaning, food supply, logistics, transport, utilities, etc.

Maybe 40% have been working from home. The figures don’t tally neatly. Some workers have worked from home most of the time but occasionally gone in, some have two jobs in which their statuses are different, some have been working but fewer hours, and so on.

As far as can be seen, full-on unemployment is still much lower in the UK than the USA’s 14.7%. New claims for Universal Credit total 1.8 million, but many of those are people in work (only less work). There are 250,000 new claims for Jobseeker’s Allowance so far.

Manufacturing and construction faced no legal ban to continuing in the lockdown (other than for non-essential construction in Scotland), but many sites shut either through union pressure or because bosses thought it unworkable to continue.

Manufacturing ran at 58% capacity in the lockdown, so probably something like half of manufacturing workers have been in. Only 35% of construction sites stayed working through the lockdown. More have been reopening bit by bit. According to Construction News, 63% were open in the week ending 8 May.

We don’t know how many reopened sites had adequate union agreements for safety, and how many didn’t. Bosses will seek to hurry workers back on other sites without adequate agreements.

Mass unemployment also looms as a threat. Creditors will start pressing. Small businesses, and some big ones, which hunkered down for “wait and see” in April, will close down. Businesses which had expanded fast by taking on huge debts will go under.

The strategic demands for the labour movement will be work or full pay; large-scale creation of good new jobs by expanding public services and a socialist Green New Deal; and public ownership and democratic control of high finance.

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