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Editorial: Why a bus drivers' strike makes the case for a new economic settlement

BUS drivers announcing strike action in London over below-inflation pay offers and the imposition of zero-hours contracts are not alone.

Their fellow Unite members at Go North West in Manchester have just balloted for strike action over its bid to force them onto inferior contracts.

And the issue isn’t confined to transport workers, as we know from the ongoing action by British Gas engineers organised by GMB against identical fire-and-rehire tactics.

Across the workforce, we are seeing cynical moves by employers to use the pandemic to attack job security. Bosses are quick to use the threat of rising unemployment to bully staff into accepting worse conditions.

But they can be fought. The “line in the sand” that Unite’s members have drawn at London United, London Sovereign and Quality Line (three subsidiaries operated by French state-owned company RATP) comes after their union has seen off fire-and-rehire threats at British Airways and saved hundreds of Rolls-Royce jobs at Barnoldswick.

Throughout the pandemic, trade unions have been the first line of defence for workers who cannot look to their managers or the government to protect either their safety – in London transport workers are still reporting abuse from passengers asked to wear masks, while the failure to shut down non-essential work means passenger numbers are far higher than they were during the first lockdown – or their working conditions.

They are winning victories despite a framework of weak labour rights and a fragmented workforce with different contracts and rates of pay even where their actual employer is the same – as in the case of the three London bus companies owned by an arm of the French state.

The political task of the labour movement must be to draw out the implications of these industrial struggles into an agenda for change.

Britain’s appalling experience of coronavirus – the highest death rate and deepest recession in Europe – is no accident.

It is directly connected to weak labour rights, particularly in three respects.

Job insecurity, with millions of workers lacking proper sick pay, puts great pressure on people to keep going into work even if they feel ill or have been told to isolate. 

Cuts and outsourcing have left public services hollowed out, hampering the public service response in various ways.

But the cuts to the Health and Safety Executive and the consequences of former Tory PM David Cameron’s quest to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” have meant that employers can cut corners on safety without fear that they might be inspected or held to account.

And a mostly unorganised workforce, with collective bargaining agreements covering less than a quarter of workers, empowers bosses to ignore the rules.

We face a downward spiral in which the Covid crisis is used to attack pay and job security when low pay and insecure jobs are a major reason we are struggling to suppress the virus.

Labour should be pointing to this vicious cycle as part of a narrative for a new economy – an “irreversible shift of wealth and power to working people and their families,” as it might have put it a year ago.

Its inability to catch up with the Tories in the polls is undoubtedly linked to its refusal to mount a comprehensive attack on the neoliberal politics that has brought Britain to this point – allowing the government to get away with the fiction that the crisis was unforeseen and unforeseeable, and so ministers cannot be blamed for the deaths, the bankruptcies, the job losses.

It falls to the trade union movement and the left to fill the political vacuum.

We can start by pointing out that if bosses claim hard economic times force attacks on contracts, there is a case for nationalisation to protect essential services and the key workers who deliver them.

The Welsh government has just taken the trains back into public hands. Why shouldn’t we own our buses?

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