Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright Socialist Review

News Review


Recognising a trend

Pricecheck won their fight for recognition

Steadily and quietly there is a rising tide of union successes. You won't have read about it in the papers or seen it on TV, but in the past year unions have achieved 'recognition' deals in 75 organisations, employing more than 21,000 workers. This is double the level of 1998 and marks a definite shift in the climate for trade union organisation.

Obviously the change in climate to some extent reflects the change in the law. Although the union recognition rights in the Employment Relations Act will only become enforceable in the summer, unions are now in a position where they can negotiate from strength following a recruitment drive. The TUC reported in early January that there were 136 campaigns for recognition covering more than 70,000 workers.

Clearly unions are starting to tap into the mood for change that exists. The table below lists the most important deals concluded last year. These are the agreements that get talked about because they are the bigger workplaces, yet the most telling feature of the recognition campaigns is in fact the number of smaller workplaces where unions are achieving recognition.

The evidence shows that unions can win in places with well under 100 employees. A further point is that unions are starting to achieve recognition in places with a record of trying to keep unions out, among them Total Fina (North Sea oil technicians) and Unigate's 'model' plant in west London.

But the record is also very uneven. For example, the GPMU (print workers), which pioneered the new approach of organising from below within the TUC, has achieved some real success in smaller workplaces in south Wales. However, there are huge areas of the country where nothing has happened at all. In terms of numbers, the big gains appear to have been made by the engineering union. But the three big AEEU deals concluded last year are all so called partnership deals which involve significant concessions and are being heavily pushed at national level, often against the wishes of local officials. The AEEU is not alone in negotiating such terms, but its approach threatens to undermine the drive for genuine trade union organisation. But the issue is not so much the shoddy tactics of the AEEU leadership, rather whether union officials in general alter their approach to recruitment and organisation.

For two years now the TUC has been running its organising academy, designed to train a new generation of officials in an activist approach to recruitment, focused on the rank and file. Formally, at least, this new 'organising model' represents a sharp break with the past--and a return to some of the better traditions of the trade union movement. But there is still a large gap between theory and practice.

Major union deals, 1999	unions	no. of workers

Bristow Helicopters		MSF	900
Ciro Citterio		TGWU	2,000
Halifax Property Services	IUHS	4,000
Lucky Goldstar		AEEU	2,000
Lyndale Foods 		BFAWU	1,000 +
Monarch Aircraft Engineering 	AEEU	1,000
Origin UK 			GMB	1,500
Trident Contract Services 	UNISON	1,500

Take the issue of union recruitment in call centres, for example. These new work places are usually larger than average, working conditions are often very poor, and unions have been quite successful in winning members and recognition where they have made the effort.

Nevertheless, many officials have been reluctant to focus on call centres claiming that employment is insecure and that many of them are likely to close down. Key workplaces such as the two BSkyB centres in Scotland and the Orange call centres, remain 'non-union'.

Similarly there are key areas where employment has been growing fast but union presence is very weak. The M4 corridor is an obvious example.

The new law provides the opportunity to organise around grievances because non-union employers are now obliged to accept the right of individuals to union representation (even if Labour watered down this right at the behest of the CBI). However, full time officials will obviously be unable to represent even a small fraction of the claims. Shop stewards and other lay officials will have to represent people in other workplaces, and the law specifies that such people will need to be 'accredited' by their union.

There is huge potential for activity and growth. Stewards will have the opportunity to be involved outside their own workplace and in the process there is a real chance of transforming union organisation on the ground.
Dave Beecham


  • With the crisis in the health service NHS bosses have decided the image of the health department needs improving. Bosses are planning to spend £135,570 on a four staff 'Brand Expression Team' which must show 'the single NHS brand identity as an expression of modernisation'.
  • Aids is one of the greatest threats to life in sub-Saharan Africa. In the hardest hit countries the disease is reversing gains in life expectancy. In Botswana life expectancy has fallen 14 years since 1990. By the end of 2001, 13 million African children will have lost a mother or both parents to Aids. The poor pay more than the rich through indirect taxation
  • The poor pay more than the rich through indirect taxation, such as VAT and taxes on fuel, alcohol and tobacco. The bottom fifth pay 28.5 percent of their income in indirect taxes compared to 11.3 percent for the top fifth.
  • University graduate training schemes fell by a third last year meaning that many more will have to start off jobs that do not require a degree. Some of the biggest falls in recruitment were in industry, with vacancies for graduates in chemicals firms down 69 percent and in engineering by 26 percent.

  • A rip off

    'You can't have flu. The office needs you'. 'Get back and surprise whoever's sniffing round your desk.' 'Get your stuffy nose back to the grindstone.' Lemsip's advertisements are familiar to anyone who lives or works in London, and it's backed up by a £3 million television campaign featuring aggressive City types who are ready to knife each other in the back if one of them takes a day off sick.

    It's a crude and nasty sell, but evidently it works. Lemsip's advertisers began to promote the image of 'hardworking medicine' two winters ago. Since this move away from what marketing experts Mintel describe as 'the traditional comforting and soothing images usually associated with hot drink cold and flu remedies', Lemsip has once again become the market leader capturing more than a third of the market with sales worth an estimated £23 million.

    Good news then, for bosses and shareholders of Reckitt & Colman, which makes Lemsip. Not so good for the thousands of office workers crammed onto the London tube in conditions almost guaranteed to ensure that they catch a bug. Particularly as Lemsip not only leaves a nasty taste in your mouth (the adverts rather than the product) but involves a huge rip-off.

    You will pay £3.69 for ten sachets of Lemsip's strongest cocktail, made up of 1,000 mg of paracetamol, 100 mg of vitamin C and 60 mg of pseudoephedrine (a common decongestant). Other Lemsips contain ibuprofen and a different decongestant, phenylephrine. 'Max Strength' capsules throw in a touch of caffeine.

    The cost of these ingredients is a fraction of the price you pay. Asda and Boots manage to produce virtually identical 'own brand' products at less than half the price. Ask for the different components at your local chemist and you'll find you can dose yourself for around £1--that's paying the retail price. The real cost of Lemsip is pennies.

    Of course there is all that advertising to pay for. As Mintel informs us, 'The market is dominated by a handful of multinational companies. The cost of market entry is high due to the need to build an, "ethical" and effective brand image.' The companies led by Reckitt, SmithKline Beecham and Warner-Lambert spend as much as 15 percent of the value of sales on advertising--that's roughly 55p of the £3.69 retail price. It still leaves a healthy profit of course--fortunately for Reckitt, the weakest of the companies involved. Reckitt has been forced to merge with the Dutch firm Benckiser and is struggling to compete in its main markets.

    Two years ago some people were sufficiently hacked off with the Lemsip adverts that they complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. True to its traditional role as a poodle to the industry, the ASA declared that the posters did not play on people's fears about job insecurity. They 'were intended to be a light-hearted reflection on the pressures of life in the 1990s'. The ASA also rejected the claim that Lemsip was being irresponsible in encouraging people to go to work when they were ill, even though official advice from the Department of Health was that people with flu should be encouraged to stay away from others.

    Two years on, in the midst of a seasonal increase in flu that has caused chaos in the NHS, Lemsip's jolly little jokes continue to brighten commuters' lives. It will be interesting to hear what the ASA says about the complaints it has received this time round. Especially as Reckitt has made some 1,500 people redundant following last year's merger.
    Dave Beecham


    Russian roulette in a high risk war

    Russia's rulers were counting on a quick, victorious war in Chechnya before the presidential elections in March, but this looks an increasingly unlikely prospect. Although their forces are advancing towards the centre of the capital Grozny and the military now claim to have taken the key rebel base of Vedeno in the southern mountains, the cost has been enormous. The Committees of Soldiers' Mothers have counted over 3,000 Russian dead. A general in command of the northern front is now reported killed. In Moscow the papers which were, initially, enthusiastic supporters of the military offensive are now voicing doubts and criticism.

    Grozny, once the world's second-largest oil refining centre, has become a vision of hell. The city is in ruin. The Chechen fighters have employed the classic strategies of urban warfare which they developed during the last war. They have attacked Russian armour at close quarters to devastating effect, using the city's sewers to move from one area to another. Light mobile units of snipers and machine gunners pin down the advancing columns while rocket propelled grenade launchers are fired point blank at tanks and personnel carriers.

    Despite the war weariness and demoralisation felt by many ordinary Chechens, the brutality of the Russian invasion can only reinforce opposition. In the notorious filtration camps men and boys have been beaten and tortured on the supposition that they are all rebel fighters. Looting, summary execution and rape have been widespread. The 'provisional government' set up by the Russians is made up of stooges with no popular support. The Kremlin even released a notoriously corrupt mafia politician, Bislan Gantemirov, from jail in order to head a so called pro-Russian 'militia'. But, as in the last war, morale amongst the army's unpaid conscripts is low.

    Most ordinary Russians are still unaware of the true nature of Russia's war. Vladimir Putin, Russia's caretaker president, has seen his popularity rise to 62 percent. But his 'success' is fragile, he is playing a high risk strategy and will pay a high price for failure.
    Rob Ferguson


    Not grim up north--official

    A week or two before Xmas Tony Blair paid a flying visit to Merseyside to reassure the locals that things up north were nowhere near as grim as some of them might have been thinking. To back up his contention, Blair went armed with a hefty report from the Cabinet Office, setting out to prove that the press had been making far too much of the north-south divide.

    The gist of what he was saying was that people should realise, although disparities do exist, they are every bit as large within regions as they are between different parts of the country. Almost as soon as he had opened his mouth you could see Blair wondering if he had set off on the right track. After all, it's not very New Labour, is it, being forced to argue that gross inequalities of wealth are fairly evenly spread around the country? Or that Merseyside, the very place you have just landed in, has 'some of the most serious concentrations of unemployment and social exclusion in Europe' right next door to Cheshire, the fifth wealthiest county in England?

    Another big problem Blair has is that, ten years or so back, he argued the exact opposite. In fact, the entire Blair bandwagon was mainly founded on the assumption that there was a massive gap between north and south and that, unless Labour learned to appeal to 'Middle England' as well as all the wheeltappers and shunters, the party had no chance of re-election. As we now know, all this turned out to be utter garbage. When the general election came there was not much sign that the Tories were any more popular in Finchley than Fazakerley. Nearly everybody, in every region, detested them fairly evenly.

    Since the election the entire focus of the north-south debate has gone off in quite a different direction. Press interest has been rekindled because of increasing concern among opinion formers that rates of economic recovery are becoming dangerously uneven.

    For most of the past decade the main imbalance has actually been between the service sector and manufacturing rather than north and south. But the concentration of service industries in London and the south east is so great that clear signs of 'overheating' have stared to re-emerge for the first time since the Lawson boom of the late 1980s. Leading lights in a number of regional development agencies in the north of England have been making loud noises attacking this London bias.

    This leaves policy makers with a real dilemma. If they raise interest rates in the hope of putting a brake on the service boom they risk crippling any hope of recovery on the manufacturing side, especially in the Midlands and the north. Or so the theory goes. In fact, the picture is much more complex, and most of the problems go much deeper.

    For example, one of the main indicators of what is euphemistically described as 'overheating' has been astronomical increases in house prices, mainly in London. But the main explanation for this has nothing to do with successful economic management. It's mainly due to a drastic decline in the overall housing stock and huge distortions at the very top end of the market, in ludicrously priced 'loft-style' and riverside apartments.

    In each year since 1968 the number of houses built in Great Britain has fallen steadily, from a total of 412,000 a year to less than 200,000 by 1997. During the same period, the number built by local councils slumped from just under 200,000 to virtually zero. Between 1981 and 1994 the number of houses built by local authorities in the south east collapsed, from 23,900 a year to just 600 a year.

    As a result of this rotten legacy, a recent government report revealed that its 'deprivation index' had identified more than 1,600 urban wards in the UK with severe problems of unemployment, bad housing and poverty. Most of these were in former industrial areas devastated during the Thatcher era. But very often workers driven out of these areas move south, where the mini-boom in services has created skill shortages, only to find that the housing deficit has made costs prohibitive.

    The report also notes that 'as a region, London has the highest GDP per head but the greatest scale of intensity of deprivation'.

    However, none of this is what worries Blair too much. The WalrusHis sudden leap to the helm on this issue is designed to head off criticism from regional business leaders, at the minimal expense of a high profile PR stunt. But it would be a tremendous surprise if he was to raise a finger to provide genuine support for any distressed area. That might smack of interference with the market.


    Free Mumia!

    Free Mumia!

    Mumia Abu-Jamal and his supporters have been fighting for justice since he was framed and sentenced to death for allegedly killing a policeman in 1981. He is a political prisoner on death row in the US.

    The campaign, which won a reprieve in 1995, is now demanding an unbiased retrial. The original trial was a mockery of justice from beginning to end.

    Mumia was shot by a police officer when he intervened in a street incident involving his brother, another man and the officer. Mumia survived the shooting and was charged with the murder of the officer who was killed.

    The jury contained only one black. Mumia was denied the right to defend himself because the judge, Albert Sabo, claimed his dreadlocks made jurors 'nervous'. When Mumia protested he was removed from the courtroom and for much of his trial had to rely on newspapers to follow the proceedings. The defence attorney, who was later disbarred, didn't interview a single witness in preparation for the trial. Neither a ballistics expert nor a pathologist was hired due to insufficient funds.

    This is a political case. At the age of 15 Mumia helped set up the Philadelphia branch of the Black Panther Party. The FBI started to gather information on him. He later turned to radio broadcasting and became renowned for his reporting on police misconduct, abuse of authority and racial discrimination, education and housing in Philadelphia.

    His political statements were used by the prosecution to argue for imposing the death sentence. As Mumia says himself, 'My offence is painting an uncomplimentary picture of a prison system that eats hundreds of millions of dollars a year to torture and maim tens of thousands of men and women.' Mumia's case exposes a deeply racist system. In Pennsylvania, where the population is 10 percent black, 62 percent of all prisoners on death row are black.

    Mumia has continued to be outspoken from his prison cell, from support for the anti-WTO protests to opposition to Nato's war in the Balkans.

    Protests were due to take place around Britain at the beginning of February and a national demonstration has been called to save Mumia's life.
    Demonstrate: Saturday 4 March, central London. Assemble Embankment Tube, 1pm.


    Light in the Balkan night

    Nicolai Gentchev spoke to Damir Ceric about the political impact of the recent elections in Croatia
    Croatia's new president and prime minister after the election results

    What do you think the result of the elections means for Croatia?
    It is a major swing to the left after ten years of rule by the major nationalist party. The party that won is a coalition of the Social Democrats (former Communists) who got just over 46 percent and the Social Liberals who got 25 percent. Their slogans were against corruption and the oppressive nature of the previous government, and that it was time for change. This coincided with the death of the president Franjo Tudjman in December, and it seemed just the right time for a big change.

    What do the SDP and the Social Liberals stand for?
    During the campaign the SDP talked about social problems and promised better conditions for ordinary people. They promised major changes in the constitution because power is highly centralised in the hands of the president. The test will be if they deliver on these promises.

    One of the most important issues was stopping the privatisation of the factories. Many workers have not been paid for ages, and many have been put on the dole as a result of privatisation. Companies were sold for nothing to tycoons connected to the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) government.

    The Social Liberals are a typical middle class intellectuals' party on the centre, not too much to the left.

    Unemployment has hit 20 percent in Croatia. This must be causing misery on a massive scale.
    Unemployment is huge. But another part of the problem is that in many workplaces the workers have not been paid for three or four months. This is happening across the board. There has been a huge wave of strikes over this issue, and this fed into the elections. Dissatisfaction has started to be articulated in a clearer, more political way.

    Over 3,000 workers at one of the largest shipyards, in Split, have been on strike for a couple of months over non-payment of wages. There has also been a huge wave of strikes in eastern Slavonia. This is a region of eastern Croatia that had a reputation for being quite nationalistic--the war started there in 1991 and it was the site of some of the heaviest fighting with the Serbs. The strike wave there ranges from Belje, one of the largest agricultural factories in this region, to much smaller workplaces with 50 or 70 workers.

    Do you think the change of government will lead to some Serbs who fled from Croatia during the war returning? Some commentators have said this is a key test of how different the new government is. What do you think will happen?
    There are two elements to this. I think that most people are not as nationalistic any more. This does not mean nationalism has gone, but the sort of nationalistic fever that was there during the war has gone. This is another of the reasons the HDZ failed. They were the party that played the nationalist card but this did not work any more. Secondly, the two main parties in the coalition that won have been trying to show a friendly face to the Serbian minority. They promoted a mild anti-nationalistic line and have on a few occasions invited Serbs to come back. Partly this is an attempt to get on good terms with the EU and to deflect the criticism from human rights organisations who have attacked the oppressive treatment of the Serb minority. I think the atmosphere will be better for Serbs to return, and this is a possibility.

    The coalition parties have justified the move away from the nationalism of the past partly by talking about building stronger links to the west. What has happened to attitudes in the wake of the Kosovo war?
    It is very contradictory. On the one hand there is a lot of suspicion of Nato and the US, but the politicians who argue this most clearly are the right wing who want to restart the war in Bosnia to carve out more territory for Croatia. The left parties want to get on with the west despite their attacks on privatisation.

    But a very interesting movement grew in the three to four months prior to the election. An organisation called Voice campaigned for young people to go and vote down the government. The demands were very radical, calling on people to vote against the oppressive government, against war, for change, and against poverty and unemployment. Even in small places the enthusiasm was huge. In Losinj, a town on the coast of less than 10,000, there were hundreds of activists and volunteers who organised and took these slogans up. The ruling government at the time was very alarmed. The police harassed activists and the press vilified them. One leading organiser of the movement was killed in suspicious circumstances.

    It sounds like the anti-capitalist mood we have been talking about in Britain exists in Croatia too.
    Definitely. People were influenced by the demonstrations in Serbia against the government, and later on what happened in Seattle made an impact. The general rejection of the free market that Seattle represented fits with the anger about poverty and unemployment in Croatia.

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