WHEN MEMBERS of the TGWU union gathered for their conference they brought with them many bitter experiences of life under Labour. The union organises shop workers, security guards, bus drivers and factory workers. Many who spoke in the conference debates described living at the sharp end of Labour’s neo-liberal policies.
One debate focused on the fight for a 48-hour working week for transport workers, who are excluded from current European legislation. Bus driver June Wood said, ‘I work for up to five hours before I get any break – that’s no tea, no toilet and definitely no fag break. After ten hours working, I am entitled to an eight and a half hour rest period, but this ten hours can be spread over a whole day. With travelling home and back to work, you don’t get eight hours proper rest. We have passengers’ lives in our hands. We are taking kids to school and back – we shouldn’t be too worn out to drive properly.’
John Boodle told the conference, ‘We are fighting for a 48-hour working week. I want to tell you about a letter written by a lorry driver to the Times newspaper. It ran, ‘I noticed with interest your article, On This Day in 1893, about the massive rally in Hyde Park campaigning for the eight-hour day. ‘I recently responded to a job ad which offered £5 an hour for the first 50 hours and £6 an hour after that. ‘Just how far have we come in the last 100 or so years? Yours, James Burns’.’
Another delegate told the conference, ‘Last November there was a coach crash. Two drivers and four passengers were killed on a shopping trip from Worcester to France. The coroners’ report said the drivers were suffering from ‘severe fatigue’.
‘Two driver jobs like this one mean drivers can work a 22-hour day. Employers pressure drivers to work for longer and longer, and low pay gives them little choice. The coroner said it was accidental death – I call it corporate manslaughter.’
Gavin Day said, ‘For drivers, there are no decent facilities. I have been a driver for 23 years and am always treated like a second class citizen. We are still fighting for the 48-hour working directive. I am at the wheel five days a week, but the vehicle is not fit to live in. Employers give you the cheapest thing they can put on the road. They either do your spine in or damage your bladder. The legislation we have means employers can work you 15 hours for some days, 13 hours for others, one day off for one week, or two days for others. Sometimes it falls that we are entitled to just five hours rest out of 24 hours. We don’t know what we are entitled to. If we get pensions we don’t live long enough to draw them. They are killing us. I want them to stop treating us like dirt.’
Duncan Burnett told the conference about the decimation of the textile industry. ‘In 1962 I joined the industry and the union. Then, 250,000 worked in the industry in my area. Now it’s more like 5,000. Lancashire has been industrially vandalised. In 1997 I sang along with ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Tony, if you are listening, we are still waiting.’
THE DEBATE on pensions revealed the fury that workers feel at being deprived of the money they have paid in for years. Many spoke of the impact of the bosses’ pension holidays and the closures of final salary pension schemes.
Pat Doyle from Vauxhall Motors told the conference, ‘The government feels it’s OK to occupy another country on supposedly humanitarian grounds. But it has the worst human rights record in Europe when it comes to pensions. They want to raise the pension age to 70. I am dreading going back to work on Monday and I like to think I am in my prime – how will I feel when I am 70? The government knows older people will be forced out of decent jobs and forced into menial jobs like filling supermarket trolleys and opening doors for a pittance. We want a demonstration over pensions to show we are serious.’
Dawn Lawrence said, ‘I work in Sainsbury’s. It breaks my heart to see pensioners come in looking for bargains and counting their pennies. They can’t take their grandkids out for the day, and it’s so unfair when fat cat bosses go abroad five or six times a year. Let’s take some cream from the fat cats and share it around. The pension should be the minimum wage at least.’
Another delegate, Terry Fell, said, ‘My wife was due to retire on a pension of 19p a week after 27 years as an assistant cook in a primary school. People in France have been on the streets because their government suggested raising the pension age by two years. In this country we could work 100 years and we still wouldn’t get a decent pension. Every year the government says there are millions in unclaimed benefits – let’s give it to the pensioners.’
Steve Elliot works in the chemical industry. He said, ‘There are a lot of shift workers in my industry. Between the ages of 60 and 65 their immune systems break down. Before, shift workers would have taken early retirement and stopped work or moved to a less demanding job. Now, they have to work until they are 65 or even 70. They will not get a pension because they will die before they can collect it. This is a class issue – working people will have a shorter life than those who can afford to retire.’
Delegate John McDonagh responded angrily to chancellor Gordon Brown’s conference address: ‘Gordon Brown should stop all this nonsense about pensioners tax credits and free TV licences for over 75s, and just restore the link with earnings. We are always reading about old people being mugged on the streets and in their own homes. Now they are being mugged by New Labour. Brown is always telling us how sound the economy is, but if he does need more money he can tax the fat cats like he promised.’
THERE WAS anger against the government’s failure to intervene to save manufacturing jobs. Theresa Duffy told the conference, ‘I am an Ethicon employee. They have just announced 850 redundancies. First Motorola, then Levis, now all the industry from around West Lothian has gone. We must take issue with a government that allows these practices. When I voted Labour I hoped for better health, education and jobs, but it seems governments come and go and the system remains the same. I feel I have the right to criticise Labour because I come from a family of ten who all vote Labour and pay fees through their trade unions. We must demand our government acts on principle and protect workers’ jobs.’
Theresa told Socialist Worker, ‘Ethicon employs 16,000 workers in two plants in Edinburgh. We make surgical supplies and are part of US multinational Johnson and Johnson. On 29 May, at 11.30am, we had a meeting and they told us the outlook for the company was good. Later, while we were having a union meeting, the workforce was called into the canteen and told they were making 850 people redundant. People were so upset. Many have 20 or 30 years’ service and whole families work there. The multinationals get big grants from the government – they make their billions and decide to pack up. We are always the last to know. The only other jobs round here are minimum wage. It’s devastating.’
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