BFAWU: Yes, there is an alternative to austerity

Yes, there is an alternative to austerity

by Ian Hodson, National President, Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

In recent years, it has become apparent that working people have become the victims of a relentless and vicious onslaught from employers, who seem hell bent on attacking terms and conditions and eroding health and safety in the workplace in order to drive down costs to the absolute minimum. They are too weak to fight back against the power of the supermarkets and too afraid to ask for the right price for fear of losing business. They would far rather attack their own employees and even the more reasonable employers have now become part of a race to the bottom by de-skilling and de-motivating their workforces. They are prepared to create an environment of inequality and fear with the mentality of “the ends justify the means.”

Worst of all, rather than condemn this ruthless attitude, the government, spearheaded by the Conservatives, whose Annual Conference slogan was ‘For Hard-Working People’ are cheering them on and even facilitating the process by dumbing down employment rights at every opportunity as well as removing what they refer to as ‘red tape’. The reality of this situation is that the financial burden is shifted to the taxpayer, either by way of topping up low wages or picking up the tab of people maimed, killed or made ill at work as a result of poor safety standards in the workplace. In the long run, it’s society that pays the price of other people’s greed and insurance companies that benefit as they rush to fill the gap by offering packages that cover shortfalls in wages, should you become ill and quoting the tiniest of small print to avoid paying out should you have the audacity to claim anything back. Other beneficiaries of this culture of hardship and austerity are payday loan companies, who target and trap vulnerable people in the most predatory fashion imaginable.

In bygone times, one might have been able to look to the political classes to force these issues into the wider arena and provide the voice in parliament for ordinary people. However, one look at the big donors to the main political parties would be enough to suggest that any idea of having meaningful representation from Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat politicians would be folly. Insurance companies, payday loan companies, private health care companies, big businesses and wealthy individuals with vested interests are pouring money into the coffers of political parties and politicians and it is they that are shaping party policies, rather than the rank and file members of the public. As Trade-Unionists, we have to demand that Labour shoulders its fair share of the blame for the current situation. The voices of big business on the right of the party are determined to drive out and silence the more working class elements. They must not succeed, unless we want to be faced with a future of choosing between two political parties who merely serve the narrow interests of major financial backers. The recent events at Grangemouth provided us with a glimpse of what to expect; submit to the demands of big business, or face oblivion.

To anybody reading this, it may look like a bleak, almost apocalyptic vision of the future, but amidst all this gloom, there is the odd pearl of light. Working people have a proud history of standing up against oppression and injustice, be it through the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the Tolpuddle Martyrs or the suffragette movement to highlight just a few. Many would make the point that these instances occurred generations ago and that as a result of Thatcherism and even Blairism, working people have lost the will to fight. It’s certainly a hard argument to counter.

However, a small group of determined BFAWU members from the Hovis bakery in Wigan recently showed that there is an alternative and demonstrated what can be achieved when people stand together. They had already reduced their hours and subsequently their pay, in order to preserve jobs and help the company through a tough financial period stemming from an alleged loss of significant orders. The company decided that their sacrifice wasn't good enough and decided to make them pay the price of poor management by making thirty-eight of them redundant.

Within forty-eight hours of those workers leaving the site, the company decided to use zero hours contracts and exploit agency labour in order to ‘meet its business requirements’. The company then decided to tear up long standing agreements in relation to the use of ‘as and when’ labour and fully utilise Tory endorsed loopholes in employment law in order to create a two-tier workforce on lower pay and less rights. What the company didn't expect was the overwhelming outrage amongst the remaining members of the workforce who refused to accept a culture of others getting less for doing the same job. After months of trying to resolve the dispute amicably and despite threats from the company, BFAWU members on site voted for strike action.

What happened next provided an interesting insight into the views, beliefs and sympathies of ordinary people nationwide. The issue started to get plenty of press coverage before gathering momentum as members of fellow Unions along with politicians and members of the local community expressed their disdain for the company and their support for the Hovis workers. Social media became awash with messages of support from all over the country and donations from people of all walks of life were made to our strike fund in order to keep our members out on strike for as long as possible. Eventually, such was the strength of opposition and the size of the picket line, which had swollen to such a degree that the local police were struggling to contain it, the company had no alternative but to climb down and get back round the table. The subsequent negotiations led to the withdrawal of zero hours contracts and a total victory for the workers concerned. The solidarity built on the picket line has led to a greater and wider understanding of the unfair balance in David Cameron’s Britain.

As a result of this victory, many other Trade Unions and anti-austerity movements have become further emboldened and determined to achieve victory in the causes in which they are fighting, be it the ‘bedroom tax’ or stopping the privatisation of our NHS. People who have never been politically active are now attending meetings and discussing how they can play an active role in not only stopping the endless raft of vindictive governmental assaults on ordinary people, but also fighting for a better and fairer society. They have decided that living in a country fettered with food banks, the demonisation of the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled in addition to political corruption, corporate greed and tax avoidance along with the never ending erosion of working people’s rights is unacceptable.

The strike by BFAWU members at Hovis has gone some way towards open the eyes of people who feared that there was no alternative. The government, along with many employers and those who represent the interests of the few at the top will do all they can to divide and rule and their media outlets will do all they can to misinform the public. This is because the idea of millions of disgruntled ordinary people getting organised and mobilised, frightens the bloody life out of them. We have to ensure that this new found solidarity continues apace.