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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Thankful for small mercies

by New Worker correspondent

IN THE EAST of England workers won what they called a “sweet” pay deal that amounted to 3.5 per cent. They were, after all, employed by British Sugar at its factories in Newark, Wissington, Cantley and Bury St Edmunds. This came after they rejected a two per cent offer.

Unite regional officer Mark Plumb said: “It is a prime example of what can be achieved through strong union organisation, which is why we urge workers looking to improve their pay and terms and conditions to join Unite and to get their colleagues to do the same.”

One group of workers have been doing particularly well recently without getting involved in a formal industrial dispute. These are Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers, whose wages have seen dramatic boosts recently due to a shortage of drivers, which is only partly due to the ‘pingdemic’.

Upmarket retailer John Lewis has given its existing lorry drivers a £5,000 pay rise and is offering a signing-on fee of £1,000 for urgently needed new recruits. Both downmarket Aldi and slightly less downmarket Tesco have taken similar steps. Aldi has boosted lorry driver wages offering £14.15–£15.34 per hour for day shifts and £16.98–£18.41 per hour for night shifts. Earlier, Tesco offered a £1,000 joining bonus and at its Hemel Hempstead depot drivers are getting a temporary £5-per-hour pay rise.

Unite the union says the current labour shortage is partly down to self-isolating workers and prior staff shortages brought about by Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good and this is no exception. In the aftermath of the Black Death of the mid-14th century, the peasantry was able to demand better conditions. In order to ensure the increases are not temporary, as they turned out to be for the hapless serfs, many battles still need to ensure that these are not short-lived gains.

Whilst many drivers are doing well clocking up long hours of overtime, this is no substitute for permanent, decent hourly wages.

The employers’ Road Haulage Association claims there is a shortage of around 60,000 haulage drivers because 30,000 HGV driving tests did not take place due to the coronavirus pandemic. Drivers are not being included on the government’s list of skilled labour, so potential new arrivals from the European Union need lots of paperwork to apply – meaning that bosses have to pay realistic wages for a change. This might be why bus companies are reducing the frequency of services on many routes.

Unite’s road transport officer, Adrian Jones, says: “Ministers and employers must stop dragging their feet and sit down with Unite to chart a way forward, otherwise the present-day problems of gaps on supermarket shelves will just get worse.” He deplores the fact that: “The UK’s HGV drivers have been taken for granted for too long by bosses keen to squeeze the last drop of profit from their contracts – this brazen lack of respect for the workforce is now coming home to roost with mounting calls for industrial action.”

calls for

In addition to hoping for pay rises to recruit new drivers, Unite also calls for a simplification of the driving hours rules, improvements to parking and toilet facilities for drivers, toughening up penalties for employers who deny drivers access to basic facilities, and to shift the burden of accreditation from drivers to employers.

Similar trends are to be seen in the construction industry. The Royal Institute of Charted Surveyors says that bosses would have to “give Gen Z a degree of autonomy over their compensation as well as provide opportunity for consistent salary reviews”, which in other words means they will have to allow young workers to fix their own salaries in order to attract them to what is an already comparatively well-paid trade, or profession as it is now becoming due to the increasing use of hi-tech.

Last week transport union RMT claimed that a long-running dispute had become Britain’s longest. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch said: “For six months now our members have stood strong on ScotRail in this fight for pay justice and equality and they are as united now as they were right at the start of what we believe is now Britain’s longest running industrial disputes.” He has clearly forgotten about the 1984–5 miners’ strike – but six months is, indeed, a long time to sustain a pay battle.

RMT is demanding that ScotRail operator, the Dutch state railway subsidiary Abellio, and the Scottish Government address a blatant pay inequality that has arisen from Abellio’s stubborn refusal to negotiate an enhanced rest-day working agreement for all grades of workers.

The union argues that Abellio has extended an enhanced payment rest-day working agreement for drivers but has refused to negotiate an equivalent payment for other grades.

For months now, ScotRail Conductor and Ticket Examiner members have been taking industrial action on Sundays, in two separate disputes. RMT accuse ScotRail of refusing to negotiate and that instead it “has focused on issuing provocative public statements, criticising its own workforce”. The union notes that because Abellio’s operations have been fully funded by public money under the terms of its Emergency Measures Agreement, the Scottish nationalist government needs to intervene. This it refuses to do. As might be expected.