Unemployment in Britain was set to pass two million over the Christmas period. As the economic crisis bites, it brings more announcements of job losses and reasons for people to be fearful for their jobs.
There were depressing scenes at Woolworths stores around Britain last week as workers put up “Closing down sales” posters.
It is almost certain that the 30,000 workers employed by the stricken company will not have a job by the time other shops start their January sales.
Every statistical measure shows that the British economy is already in recession, and things are very likely to get worse.
High street shops and manufacturing companies are letting it be known that they are waiting until the new year to announce job cuts and closures.
The collapsed bank HBOS finally merged with Lloyds TSB last week, although this is little comfort for the workers as the new company is considering as many as 40,000 redundancies.
Even where there aren’t redundancy announcements the picture is bleak.
For instance, the 25,000 workers at the Corus steel company face an uncertain future.
The firm wants them to take a 10 percent pay cut to help it through the crisis – which the unions have so far rejected.
The Vauxhall car manufacturer has offered 2,200 workers at its Ellesmere Port plant a nine-month “sabbatical” from work on just 30 percent of their pay.
The government makes promises to help hard-pressed families facing poverty, but its real interest is in protecting business.
Tampering with VAT rates will not save jobs. And the collapse of the pound against other currencies will only make matters worse.
While the government talks of using public finances to spend its way out of recession, the reality is that people are facing cuts in jobs and services.
The response of the union leaderships to this is a matter of concern. The Community, Unite and GMB unions have said talks will continue with Corus.
Michael Leahy, general secretary of the Community union, told the BBC last week that Corus was committed to avoiding closures and job losses, if at all possible.
He helpfully added, “We realise that there’s been a global downturn in production of steel and people wanting steel.”
Jimmy Skivington, a GMB organiser said, “We will work with Corus to find a way through the financial situation. We are ruling nothing in and nothing out.”
Some of the trade union leaders have begun to raise the idea of a “social contract”. The idea is that some sort of partnership between the bosses, the government and the unions is the way out of the financial crisis.
The Unite union’s proposals to deal with job losses in the financial and car industries involve a social contract.
This has been tried before – and it failed. The Labour government introduced a “social contract” in 1975 in an attempt to deal with an economic crisis.
It was sold on the basis that strong groups of workers must show wage restraint so poorer groups could catch up.
Initially criticism was muted as the contract had the backing of union leaderships.
Union leaders were promised a say in the direction of the economy, and the government introduced some limited price controls.
The problem was that it disarmed the ability of the union movement to respond to the economic crisis. We should not make the same mistake again.
Hesitations and retreats are a hallmark of the trade union bureaucracy. Because of this union leaders tend to rely on Labour to deliver change on behalf of the workers they represent.
Instead of leading a fight to defend jobs and wages, union leaders push partnership.
We are encouraged to believe we are all “in it together”. But this is not true. Loyalty to the government and the bosses will get us nowhere.
We got nothing from them when the economy was booming and they are unlikely to become more reasonable in a recession.
If workers give any concessions it will only encourage the bosses to come back for more.
JCB workers recently accepted a deal that reduced their working week and their pay in return for a guarantee over jobs. Yet the company went on to slash jobs.
The question, is do we confront the wealthy and their system or do we defend the “national interest”?
Only by answering yes to the first option will we save jobs.
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