The New Worker

The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Week commencing 28th January 2000

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Editorial - More than money. & Ken for London.
Lead Story - Connex strike 100% solid.
Feature - Labour plans to abolish council housing in 10 years.
International - Alarm at Turks' nuclear bid.
British News - Scots force Blunkett to backtrack on student fees.


More than money

THE blame for last Tuesday's train drivers' stnke in south east England lies entirely with private rail franchise holder, Connex. It is this privatised company which thinks it can get away with forcing train drivers to regard overtime and rest day working as a compulsory part of the job rather than a voluntary option.

 The issue is one which everyone should be concerned about since it reveals an underlying shortage of drivers. This is a totally unacceptable situation in the light of the recent Paddington rail disaster. That tragic accident drew attention to the rail unions' long-standing warning that one of the problems of rail safety is the pressure exerted on drivers to work over-long hours.

 The government is keeping very quiet. It is no doubt waiting for the shock of Paddington to wear off and the issues it raised to disappear from the media. Certainly it has given no firm undertaking to ensure the Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system is introduced nationwide, nor has it done anything to force private franchise holders to increase staffing levels and reduce the stress of long-hour working on train drivers and other workers whose jobs are vital to rail safety.

 Now that Connex has forced the issue on its own network the government should exert pressure on the company to put its workers and public safety above its desire for more and more profits. If it fails, the franchise to Connex should be taken away.

 But since all private companies are first and foremost dedicated to profit making, there will always be a contradiction between the aims of the shareholders and the needs of the workforce and the public. Rather than spend millions of pounds of government money on subsidies and the cost of regulation the railways should be returned to public ownership and control.

 This strike also raised the issue of working conditions and showed that wages and wage settlements are intrinsically linked to hours, pensions, holidays, sick pay and other workplace conditions. If wages are dealt with in isolation the workers soon find that what has been given with one hand is taken away with the other. Train drivers' union Aslef is therefore right to fight for wages and hours together.

 This is why workers need the organised strength of trade unions, why we need to reassert the principle of national collective bargaining, and why devices like the National Minimum Wage can only be of limited value and no substitute for trade union muscle.

Ken for London

LABOUR Party members in London are about to cast their votes for the party's mayoral candidate. Blair and the right wing have made no secret of their support for Frank Dobson, the candidate they hope can beat Ken Livingstone.

 They are now using similar jibes against Livingstone to those the Tories used in the days of the GLC, painting a picture of Livingstone as the Red under the city's bed and one of the people who, they say, kept Labour out of office for nearly twenty years. They don't of course explain why the people of London voted for a Labour-run GLC during that time -- bucking the trend of the general elections.

 We support Ken Livingstone's campaign to be London's first Mayor even though we have differences with him, particularly his stance over the Balkan War -- a position he shared with both Frank Dobson and Glenda Jackson.

 But this is an election to be the candidate for Mayor of London, not Foreign Secretary, and we believe Livingstone is the right person for that job.

 He has pledged to oppose the sell-off of the London Underground and along with most Londoners has said that the last thing he wants to see is the discredited Railtrack company running our tube.

 He has a good track record on tackling the problems of London's transport system and has put forward clear proposals to freeze fares for four years, to improve the bus services and to increase investment on the tube.

 Above all London needs a candidate who is neither a Blair puppet nor one that is likely to cave-in readily to Blair's control machine. Many London Labour Party members will be voting for Ken Livingstone because they see him as the strongest character and the candidate who is most likely to stand up for Londoners and the rank and file members of the Labour Party in London.

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Lead Story

Connex strike 100% solid

by Daphne Liddle

THE TRAIN drivers' union Aslef last week scored a direct hit with a 100 per cent solid one-day strike of drivers employed by Connex South Central and Connex South Eastern last Tuesday.

 The two French-owned train companies operate the busiest commuter services into London from Kent, Surrey and Sussex. On Tuesday they were able to operate only one in ten of their scheduled services -- and then only by using driver instructors to operate the trains.

 The impact on London business was great as workers stayed at home or struggled in hours late. Many took to cars and spent a large part of the day in traffic jams.

 The long-running dispute is over the hours drivers are expected to work and over their pension schemes.

 Last year Connex and Aslef reached an agreement to cut driver hours from 37 a week to 35 and amalgamate all pay when calculating pensions.

 The union also wanted the company to stop relying on drivers working overtime to run a regular scheduled service -- meaning the overtime was more or less compulsory and there was a lot of it. Drivers were suffering from exhaustion with all the danger that implies for passengers. It was to be implemented as soon as Connex had enough drivers to make it workable. The union allowed the company several months to recruit.

 But the company dragged its heels and kept insisting the drivers continue working unacceptable levels of overtime.

 Negotiations were getting nowhere. So drivers tried to operate an overtime ban -- just as the Christmas and Millennium celebrations were approaching.

 Connex, instead of negotiating with the workers, got a High Court injunction to prevent an overtime ban during the holiday period, effectively forcing the drivers to work long, long hours over the holiday when they wanted some time to be with their families.

 This provoked a lot of anger and as soon as the ban was lifted earlier this month, they implemented the overtime ban.

 Since then Connex has been forced to cancel up to 400 trains a day. But the company rescheduled its services and passengers were forced to put up with far fewer trains and more overcrowding.

 Last Tuesday Connex could operate only 10 per cent of its trains. Some of these were crowded to bursting. Others were nearly empty because commuters, uncertain of the service, had decided not to risk trying to travel by train.

 Another five one-day strikes are planned for 2 February, 10 February, 18 February, 21 February and 29 February.

 But already Connex is indicating it is now willing to negotiate properly. Aslef is saying, as it has all along, that it will talk to Connex about ending the strike programme as soon as the company it willing to talk meaningfully -- and that means proper commitment and dates for implementing the agreement made last year.

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Labour plans to abolish council housing in 10 years

by Caroline Colebrook

TENANTS groups throughout Britain are on alert after suspicions and leaks were confirmed last week when Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott revealed that the Department of' the Environment is preparing to hive off all remaining council housing within 10 years.

 Plans are now being drawn up to sell off the estates to non-profit making companies and housing associations.

 But these bodies will have to survive in the private sector under market conditions. If they fail to balance their books they will go bankrupt and the properties will end up in the hands of the banks or receivers.

 This inevitably means rising rents in the long term and an erosion of tenants' rights. Only councils offer secure tenancies -- and democratically elected landlords.

 Other bodies offer at best assured tenancies and mostly short-term assured tenancies. This means tenants can only count on the roof over their heads for six months or so at a time. Terms, conditions and rents can be altered often.

 Most council tenants now are from low income groups who cannot possibly afford to buy or rent from the private sector.

 The best council housing was mostly sold off during the Thatcher era under the right to buy legislation. Where once tenants could look forward, after a few years or so in a tower block, to a transfer to a decent home with a garden, such homes have now disappeared into the private sector.

 Council tenants are trapped in the worst homes. Decades of lack of funds have meant that many are now in a disgusting state of repair. Nationally the repairs backlog will cost £22 billion to clear.

Rents are forced up by the "daylight robbery" scam, whereby housing benefit for some tenants is funded from the rents of others, rather than from general taxation.

 If this extra income was instead used to renovate the estates, there would be no need to sell them off.

 But the Labour leadership policy is to follow what Thatcher began in destroying council housing because its very existence undermines rent levels in the private sector and denies exorbitant profits to private landlords.

 Now the Department of the Environment is planning a "big bang" under which local councils will be compelled to sell off the remaining 3.2 million council homes by the year 2010.

 A new inspection regime will be created with powers to force "under-performing" councils to put their management services out to competitive tender.

 Currently only 110 local authorities have transferred a total of 360,000 homes to non-profit making companies.

 Another 23 authorities are planning to transfer another 270,000 homes. This includes the country's largest landlord, Birmingham, with 90,000 houses and flats.

 The Government is unhappy that getting rid of council housing is now taking so long. Under present terms it would take 20 years to transfer all of Birmingham's housing stock.

 The main obstacle is that, under current law, tenants have to vote to approve the transfer in special ballots and many tenants are rejecting the transfers. They are considering removing that obstacle.

 The Government is due to publish a Green Paper on the future of "social housing" in early April.

 It is vital that tenants groups are alerted to get a copy (through their MPs) and to respond to it and to organise to defend council housing.

 If council housing is allowed to disappear there will be no check on the levels of market rents. People on low incomes will be forced either into overcrowding or onto the streets.

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Alarm at Turks' nuclear bid

A DECISION from the Turkish government on a tender for one of three consortiums to build the country's first nuclear power plant is imminent. An announcement due at the end of December was delayed but could be made at any time now. The British company Kavaerner-John Brown (UK) is part of one of these consortiums.

 Turkey has been attempting to construct a nuclear power plant for some thirty years now. The designated site of Akkuyu Bay on the country's Mediterranean coast was itself licensed for the proposed reactors, likely to cost Turkey around four billion dollars, nearly 25 years ago.

 If the plan, which is known to have the support of President Demirel and both Prime Minister Ecevit's coalition partners, is given the go-ahead it will present a serious danger of an environmental disaster for the whole region. Of equal concern, it will bring Turkey one step closer to having the capacity of developing its own nuclear weapons.

 Turkish officials reject both these concerns claiming that it is all "anti-Turkish propaganda", but the growing alarm, particularly after Turkey's recent massive earthquakes cannot be so easily dismissed. Local people from the surrounding villages near Akkuyu Bay have now started to organise against the proposals and it been estimated that some 80 per cent are against the project.

 Having experienced last year's earthquakes, they are well aware of the dangers of constructing a nuclear reactor on a recognised earthquake fault line. The mayor of Buyukeceli, Ummet Buyuk, represents the people from one of the nearby villages that will be affected and was recently quoted as saying, "The earthquakes affected everyone here. There's a fault line close to Akkuyu and we are all really nervous about it,".

 Turkey therefore cannot afford to be complacent in the aftermath of an earthquake that claimed some 20,000 of its citizens. The possibility of a disaster greater in scale than Chernobyl must be a real one. The people of Turkey and the whole of the Middle East would be put at risk from lethal radioactive contamination should the proposed nuclear plant ever be built.

 Greenpeace in the region is supporting the campaign of the local communities and neighbouring countries such as Cyprus have expressed their concern and called for a rethink on the proposal. Greenpeace has stressed that Turkey does not really need nuclear power. It is rich in alternative sources of energy such as solar and wind power and its investment could be put to good effect here. It is also pointed out that Turkey has an extremely wasteful energy generation and distribution system. Efforts to reduce energy losses could bring great savings.

 That Turkey is so determined to pursue the nuclear option seems to have more to do with strategic thinking than energy policy. In confirmation of this, the Turkish Nuclear Energy Commission (TNEC) stated that nuclear plants would have a strategic as well as economic importance.

 In addition, it has been revealed that the TNEC has been ordered by the government to prepare a detailed report on Turkey's nuclear capabilities and how nuclear weapons can make it a stronger state. To achieve its nuclear ambitions Turkey is prepared to put in place a ticking time-bomb with the potential to wreak economic disaster on its own and neighbouring lands.

 In the interests of world peace and a safe environment for current and future generations it is vital that this crazy Akkuyu Bay nuclear scheme is stopped.

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British News

Scots force Blunkett to backtrack on student fees

THE THORNY issue of student fees in Scotland was settled last week in a compromise that will save the ruling Labour-liberal Democrat coalition in the Scottish Executive but leave glaring anomalies in what is paid by students from different parts of Britain.

 And Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett has been forced to come up with a bit more money for English and Welsh students.

 Now Scottish students studying in Scotland will not pay any fees up front but will have to pay £2,000 after they have completed their courses as soon as their earned income reaches £10,000 a year.

 This is close to the system recommended by the independent Cubie inquity into student finances except that Cubie recommended paying back should only begin when a graduate's income reached £25,000 a year.

 Scottish students from low income homes -- under £23,000 a year -- will also be eligible for grants of up to £2,000 and the poorest students will also be offered access to £500 more in loans.

 English and Welsh students studying in Scotland will have to pay tuition fees at £1,025 a year -- the same rate as at universities in England and Wales and so will Scottish students studying in England and Wales.

 A move to exempt Scottish students studying in England and Wales from paying student fees up front would have meant that students from other European Unions countries would also have had to be exempted. In other words only English and Welsh students would have had to pay to study at their own universities.

 Scottish students and opposition parties in the Scottish executive are not happy with the compromise.

 Scottish shadow lifelong learning minister John Swinney said: "At London's instigation the executive has watered down the Cubie report. This has nothing to do with EU law."

 And Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students, Scotland, said : "We supported a contribution from wealthier graduates, not a payback scheme for every graduate. This deal serves the politicians but not the students."

 But the deal leaves English and Welsh students so much worse off than their Scottish counterparts that David Blunkett last Tuesday promised another £68 million in financial concessions.

 This will exempt a further 50,000 students from low income homes from paying tuition fees and allow 10,000 of the poorest students in England and Wales to have a maintenance grant.

 Currently students from households with incomes under £l7,000 a year are exempted from tuition fees. From next September that threshold will be raised to £20,000.

 The proportion of students paying no fee will rise from 33 per cent to 41 per cent.

 The National Union of Students has welcomed this as a small step in the right direction in recognising campus hardship. But it warned that the Government is "creating farcical anomalies throughout the higher education system".

 The universities are also concerned that different funding arrangements will influence students in their choice of course more than subjects to be studied.

 Imposing means tests on students already creates bureaucracy and confusion. Now Scotland has different funding arrangements to England and Wales, the complications will multiply out of hand and administration costs will rocket.

 The universities will not have much left of the tuition fees by the time they have finished paying the extra admin costs.

 We must return to the principle of free access to higher education for all who want it -- with adequate maintenance grants.

 If some students are from wealthy backgrounds or graduates go on to earn higher wages, this can be resolved through a fair taxation system so that they put back into the system at least as much as they gain from it.

 The whole of society benefits from the services of well trained and qualified graduates and should be prepared to pay through a proper taxation system.

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