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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Our finest hour?

by New Worker correspondent

DESPITE all the guff about the Blitz spirit about everyone coming together we might observe that the coronavirus crisis has certainly not ended the class struggle, but merely changed the details in the age old struggle in which “oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried out on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight.”

Instead of struggles for higher wages or for more holidays, at present it is about sudden redundancies, worsening conditions and even struggles for adequate safety equipment for those remaining at their sometimes increasingly dangerous posts.

At the time of writing, the lock-down announced by Boris Johnson on Monday evening was starting to take effect with some confusion about exactly what were the essential businesses and workers.

Plans to cut the number of trains running on the London Underground have been implemented with the result that they are even more crowded than ever, which makes a mockery of social distancing. On the other hand, whilst food shops have been deemed essential, some such as Fortnum and Mason have closed, meaning that those needing quail’s eggs will have to get their butler to do their shopping online instead. It remains to be seen if closures of public houses and of establishments such as Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s does actually improve the nation’s health.

The main aim of the Government seems to be to nationalise the risk of the crisis. The Tory-run Department for Transport has just announced that it would temporarily end normal train-line franchise agreements and transfer all revenue and cost risk to the government for at least half a year. This does what transport unions have been unsuccessfully demanding of Labour and Tory governments for decades. Operators will continue to run services day-to-day for a small management fee under an ‘emergency measures agreement’.

Mick Cash, General Secretary of the RMT transport union, responded by demanding “that the rail workforce get the same sort of guarantees and assurances that the Government are offering the train operators. The union wants absolute and cast iron guarantees from the government, the train companies and the contractors that wages, jobs and pensions will be protected across the board for both directly employed and contracted staff with no exceptions.”

Redundancies Galore

Those not required at work are being laid off in unprecedented numbers, with an often uncertain future. Pub chain Wetherspoons ironically named after a teetotal teacher who annoyed its founder Tim Martin, has told his 43,000-strong workforce at his 850 pubs that they can go and work for Tesco because he is not going to pay them any wages for the enforced shutdown.

This is despite the government, or to be more precise the taxpayer, paying 80 per cent of most salaries. This is not good enough for Martin, who said that there could be some delay to the payment of any wage subsidy, therefore he would “completely understand” if workers did not want “to wait around”. He ‘graciously’ added that any former workers for the pub chain would receive first priority on future applications to rejoin the company.

The ‘kind’ offer came after Tesco said it wanted to take on 20,000 temporary workers to “help feed the nation”.

Labour MP Rachel Reeves, chair of the Commons business select committee, said the decision was unacceptable, pointing out that companies may not receive government support until late April, leaving staff out of pocket until then.

Last year the annual pre-tax profit at Wetherspoons was slightly down by 4.5 per cent to a mere £102.5 million, so obviously economies have to be made.

Ian Hodson, president of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union, said: “Tim Martin’s actions are shocking. He is ignoring the advice of the government to stand by your workers and instead abandoning them in their time of need.

“His selfish approach says unless the government puts money into my bank account today he’ll let the workers who have made him rich suffer. It is completely unacceptable. This country will not forget the way in which employers have treated their staff during this crisis. Now is the time for all workers to come together and oppose greedy inaction by millionaire bosses.”

Martin replied by effectively claiming he was only a small businessman: “Companies like Costa, owned by Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s, being owned by large multinationals, can afford to retain staff and commit to paying them, before details of the government furlough scheme are published.” Wetherspoons later claimed that: “As we understand it, tens of thousands of hospitality workers and others have already lost their jobs, but Wetherspoon is retaining all its employees, using the government scheme for the purpose for which it is intended.”

A similar tale of hasty redundancies can be told at EasyJet airline. It demanded a freeze on planned pay rises and a requirement to take three months of unpaid leave. It has also said it would also no longer provide food for crew during their shifts, only water.

At the same time, chief executive Johan Lundgren defended the recent payment of £170 million in dividends to shareholders just as it is seeking financial help from the government and a 20 per cent cut in monthly salaries from April to June.