Joseph Choonara makes some important observations on the current controversies surrounding zero-hours contracts (Work contracts: A zero-sum game, Socialist Review, June 2014). The main point being that such contracts have not replaced permanent jobs to any significant degree but are of course a useful management tool for disciplining workers whatever contract they are on.
Indeed, as someone employed on zero-hour contracts for the best part of the past decade in the call centre industry, and having been involved in a relatively successful union drive, I can confirm that the fear of managers not allocating hours to those engaged in union activity was a very real one.
Context is important, though. We organised pay campaigns, stood up to the worst examples of a target-driven culture where bullying thrived, and fought on every issue — whether it was dress code or challenging the reduction in time allowed off the phone.
But at no time did we demand the end of zero-hour contracts or for people to be given permanent contracts.
Why? Because prior to the recession there was never a worry that there would not be sufficient work. And workers liked the advantage of being able to call in at 24 hours notice or less to inform the boss that they wouldn’t be able to do the next shift.
In fact, one employer tried, with very limited success, to entice workers onto fixed hours with an extra £1 an hour. In the campaign against my victimisation, we found that it had another advantage.
At a well-attended meeting following my suspension, calls for a walk-out were opposed by a union official who said that such an action would break the law.
One worker piped up, “But we’re on zero-hours contracts — we don’t have to work if we don’t want to.” Now, in these austere times (for us, anyway), it seems that the balance of power has shifted back to the bosses.
I think any organising campaign now would need to make demands that call for more security, but they would also need to involve the rank and file to shape working patterns that fit their needs.
Pat Carmody Oxford
Spot on over Orgreave
Ian Mitchell’s article was spot on (I was there: The Battle of Orgreave, Socialist Review, June 2014). The police admitted after the strike that if mass picketing had gone on for another week they would have lost control.
Ian is also right to point out the damaging effect of the local dispensations given to the steelworks by NUM area leaders. I was a striking miner in Scotland and had a similar experience in trying to get mass picketing to shut Ravenscraig steelworks.
After many arguments, a similar open letter to Ian’s calling for mass picketing (which I also co-authored), and the local steel unions’ decision to accept scab coal breaking the agreed dispensation, the Scottish area leadership under Mick McGahey agreed to mass picketing at Ravenscraig.
While we didn’t close the plant we came damn close, with a mass picket forcing British Steel to sneak the scab lorries in by a back road. Unfortunately, like in Yorkshire, the pressure was not maintained so Ravenscraig continued running.
I was not at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. That day I was at a mass picket of Bilston Glen colliery outside Edinburgh, stopping a drift back to work.
What happened in Scotland was a trial run for Orgreave. The Tories, the National Coal Board and police learned the lessons of Ravenscraig. Clearly our leadership did not.
Rab Tennant, Edinburgh
Unfortunately there is a small error in the article on Ukip’s performance in the May elections (UK: A dangerous shift to the right, Socialist Review, June 2014).
Ukip did take the protest vote this time in a Dudley ward previously taken by the Greens, but contrary to what the articlebstates, Ukip did not take the seat this time.
Martin Lynch, Black Country
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