Caution, u-turn up ahead

The Conservative Party continue to surprise everyone and no one as they repeatedly turn their backs on the electorate and reverse pre-election pledges used to gain their trust and their votes.

The past week has been of particular embarrassment to the Conservative Party after a Tory voter broke down on BBCQT following David Cameron’s announcement that the government would be cutting family tax credits, having pledged only six months earlier not to. This was swiftly backed up by a maiden speech by Cambridge SouthTory MP, Heidi Allen, who made scathing remarks about the governments decision to cut tax credits, only to vote with the government when the moment came.

This phenomenon of Conservative’s saying one thing and doing another is precisely what they should be known for and they are working hard at erasing these comments from the internet.

In 2010, David Cameron, as leader of the opposition, said there would be no frontline cuts and that any minister in a Conservative government that came to him with such proposals would be ‘sent back to the drawing board’. The Canary this week reported how our frontline services have been decimated by the Conservative Party austerity agenda, revised figures from the Fire Brigades Union this week paint an even bleaker image showing that the number of firefighters lost as a result of government cuts now stands at a staggering 7,000.

The policy reversal culture of the Conservatives continues to affect families the length and breadth of the country and it now transpires that the government have been economical with the truth regarding the Redcar Steel Factory aid fund. Having at one time promised the £80m to assist workers in finding new jobs, it now transpires that the aid fun is also to be used to pay final salaries and redundancy packages.

Workers and unions have been finding ways other than industrial action to challenge the decisions being made at Westminster using statutory instruments such as Early Day Motions, the latest of which has been tabled by the FBU in reference to the up coming comprehensive spending review to ring fence future funding. The last such action by firefighters at Westminster came following a period ‘Occupy’ style of direct action in central lobby, holding weekly vigils during PMQs and green carding their MPs to discuss a range of issues from pension reform to the independent living fund. This eventually led to a debate on pension reform on a stormy night in December 2014.  A record number of MPs signed the EDM in support of opposing the pension reform legislation. This did not stop some MPs changing their mind at the last moment and vote with the government but it did let them know that the people are watching and willing to act. This is what is feared most in the halls at Westminster, more so following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition.

A change is growing in parliament. Parties and devolved governments are working together to ignore or oppose Tory legislation and if coupled with the despair of the public in watching the Tories continually backtrack on pledges used to gain their trust and their vote, we could see their downfall and the start of a fairer society for all.

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Trade Union Massacre

“What have the unions ever done for us?”

“Weekends off!”

“Well, except for weekends off, what have the unions ever done for us?!”

Life of Brian

You get the picture. Monty Python and the Life of Brian. This week saw the Tory government fire the starting pistol to strangle the last dying breaths of Trade Union resistance, by outlining a series of draconian measures not seen since the attack on trade unionism in the UK by Norman Tebbit in the 1980s under the Thatcher Government.

In an extract from the Guardian, the proposed Javid measures include:

 Require all unions, not just those affiliated to Labour, to ask each existing union member whether they wish to pay the political levy and then repeat the question every five years. The £25m annual political fund income from 4.5 million political levy payers funds a wide range of political campaigning including being a chief source of funding for Labour.

 Propose that unlawful or intimidatory picketing should become a criminal as opposed to civil offence and new protections should be available for those workers unwilling to strike. A named official will be required to be available at all times to the police to oversee the picket including the numbers on the line, currently set at six, in an existing code of conduct.

 Compel unions to renew any strike mandate with a fresh ballot within four months of the first ballot and give employers the right to hire strike-breaking agency staff as well as require a union to give the employer at least a fortnight’s notice before the industrial action starts.

 Empower the government to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties.

 Give the government certification officer powers to fine trade unions as much as £20,000 for breaches of reporting rules including an annual audit on its protests and pickets. The certification officer will also have power to initiate investigations and will in future be funded by a joint levy of unions and employers

 Require a clear description of the trade dispute and the planned industrial action on the ballot paper, so that all union members are clear what they are voting for.

Ironic when you consider that the government making these demands does so on 24% of the electorate, much less than the requirement they now seek from working people protecting their families and future generations conditions of service.

Striking is the last throw of the dice when an often intransigent and belligerent management teams refuse to negotiate meaningfully with a trade union members representatives. Management, Government Ministers and employers have reaped the benefits of working and living conditions fought for and won by our parents and grandparents. Rights that we now so desperately fight to just maintain. And that is the sad fact of the trade unions in 21st Century UK, the role of a modern trade unionist has, for the most part, been reduced to the role of trying to just maintain working conditions they inherited. There is no longer a fight to improve working conditions. Perhaps this is why we are seeing more widespread bullying culture by management, dissatisfaction in the workplace and high levels of stress and depression.

Fiar Liar

If the Tory Government, or any government or employer for that matter, wants to stop strike action from occurring, they could do worse than to treat their employees with a modicum of respect. If, for example, the Tory government does not want to see firefighters going on strike to save their pension provisions, then they could start by stopping the lies spun in parliament to force through a bill that now leaves thousands of families facing an uncertain future when they have evidence that proves the proposed changes are not feasible. The government has the ability to make the trade union bill irrelevant if they just stopped bailing out banking cartels and bending over for corporations to deregulate and sell everything off. The fire sale of public services we built and paid for has to stop. Employers could do the same if they remembered that their posts exists to provide the public with a safe and reliable service and not to provide them with an opportunity to build their portfolio for their next jobs.

Unfortunately nothing that we take for granted today, the weekend, sick pay, bank holidays, safety in the workplace and some of the finest emergency services in the world, would exist if it wasn’t for the brave men and women who came before us and fought for the right to come home at the end of the day safe and sound and not strung out after a 96 hour working week.

The cold hard facts for the bosses is that workers would not strike if they listened. We have two ears and one mouth for good reason, yet the mendacious individuals continue to try to pull the wool over the publics eyes by blaming the workers for industrial action. They continue to try to drive a wedge between what Javid calls the working people and business and the unions. The number of working days lost due to strikes in the 12 months to April 2015 stood at 704,000. Significantly less than the near 13m days lost through strike action on average in the 1970s. A period called the ‘heyday of union militancy’ by The Guardian. Just another divisive phrase used to discredit people who are passionate about the caretaker role they occupy in their chosen careers in the public sector. To put this madness of ignoring workers and unions, then complaining when they kick back, into some kind of perspective, I will tell you a story about a woman name Isabel Losada.

Isabel wanted to do something to raise awareness for the plight of Tibet. She saw that the Dalai Lama had spent 50 years peacefully campaigning against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, promoting non-violence as the only legitimate form of protest against the Chinese but he had largely been ignored, not just by the Chinese but by the wider world too. Isabel realised this at the same time as the war in Iraq began to unfold. How, she thought, could we ask terrorists to stop fighting and negotiate if, when they looked up at the worlds most famous living supporter of non-violent revolution, saw he was being ignored? If non-violence was the path to being ignored, then what point in giving up the call to arms? So Isabel launched a media stunt called ‘reward the Dalai Lama’, clever in that he is seen as a terrorist by the Chinese Government but it had a dual message to the Western world that was now involved in a vicious war. Reward the non-violent advocate and call for meaning full negotiation to take place and show there is another path to peace.

reward the lama

Now, I am not likening unions, nor government or employers to terrorists (not today at any rate) but the message is the same; if you do not reward honourable people who negotiate and wait patiently in good faith for you to do the right thing, do not be surprised when they strike. What other option is left open to them? Unions are often labelled the bad guys, ‘the enemies within’ because they stand to defend hard won rights, rights we take advantage of every day. They wouldn’t strike if management and governments entered into negotiations in good faith.

The Guardian headline stated that the Tories were going to make it ‘harder for unions to take legal strike action’. History has shown that some laws were wrong and had to be broken to find true justice. The anti-trade union laws of the past 30 years are just such laws and perhaps the unions should have taken a stronger approach before now to challenge them. They now find themselves with their backs up against the wall and possibly left with no choice but to fight on the grounds of principles whether the government deems it ‘legal’ or not. What is deemed legal and moral are two very different things.

A reaction has to be made, what that reaction is only time will tell. In the mean time the TUC and the unions should ask themselves the question, what would Bob do?

Whilst you were sleeping

Whilst you were sleeping this week, thousands of firefighters and their families were thrown over board by this government after rail roading though a pension regulation fit only for the dark ages.

Firefighters will now be expected to work to a flawed Normal Pension Age (NPA) of 60 from April 1st, that was first introduced by the Labour Government in 2006 after employers mislead the then government on the scope for redeployment when firefighters failed to maintain their fitness. 

Only 16 people have been redeployed since 2006 UK wide, with those opportunities fast drying up with the progressive cuts agenda and privatisation.

The NPA 60 of 2006 was brought in with no scientific proof one way or the other that a firefighter could maintain their fitness across the board into their 60s. The move by the coaliton to change all firefighters to NOA 60 saw a report commissioned by the then Fire Minister, Brandon Lewis, by Dr Tony Williams, which pointed to a potential 66-92% of firefighters failing the cardiovascular fitness test that is currently set at 42 VO2 from the age of 55. 

This would leave them in the unenviable position of having no job and no pension.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) members entered into a trade dispute with this government which culminated in almost 60 strikes taking place over the last 18 months as the Coalition Government continued to squirm its way through meaningful negotiations and force upon them the regulation that the government wanted and not the regulation that was best for the public, the firefighters and their families. 

To add insult to injury, devolved governments in Scotland and Wales have managed to negotiate with national FBU representatives, a position where strike action is no longer required and a reasonable position on the issue of firefighters facing capability dismissal from age 55 onwards on the grounds of fitness. 

In England, firefighters have not been so lucky as Westminster officials have stuck to their lies and rhetoric and the VO2 assessment has no consideration for the natural aging process which affects every man and woman differently.

 

Time and again lies have been told in parliament by successive ministers to secure the new regulation, not least in a debate which took place on December 15th 2014 in the House of Commons. Ministers such as Eric Pickles claimed to guarantee that firefighters would not face the terrifying prospect of no job and no pension, just because they got old. This was proven to be a lie, by the very people who would enforce the new regulations, the fire authorities and was confirmed  by the employers own secretary in correspondence received in February 2015. 

The result of this change has left firefighters in England, the public and their families, facing an uncertain future and an aging workforce. With the cuts being faced by the public sector due to the bailout of the banks as a result of the recession, there is a dangerous cocktail brewing as fewer and fewer firefighters are left available to attend incidents, such as the one in Holborn, London, this week where firefighters fought for 36 hours to bring under control an electrical fire underground.

   

 

  

The irony of the pension changes being forced through on April fools day should not be forgotten, as the heady mix of aging firefighters and cuts come to the boil, the people who were responsible will have blood on their hands and they should, no must be held to account. There is a vital difference in the meaning of the words should and must that is beyond Westminster.

Firefighters will, I am sure, continue to fight for pension justice right up to and beyond the general election – the injustice that has occurred, the lies and the deceit of this Coalition Government demands it, stand by them as they stand by you.

For further reading as to why and how the government have lied, try Lyn Brown MPs letter to Penny Mordaunt MP.

Pictures by BBC and @activrightbrain