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The remarkable social solidarity of the Spanish people overcame the fear that motivates people to surrender their rights in favour of what presents itself as firm leadership. They exercised their democratic rights both to condemn violence and to kick out the government that exacerbated the threat of terror by allying with Bush and Blair.
There is one group of people living in Britain today who will find it especially easy to appreciate the value of solidarity in a climate of fear: people working in the underground economy; people like the developing world nurses who have come to Britain to work for a pittance in our hospitals and care homes (see “Modern heroes, modern slaves‘); people like the cocklers at Morecambe Bay; people like the unskilled labourers working unsupervised on construction sites around the country (see “Contractor killers“). Their fear is not whipped up by government: it is based on the reality that government has denied them any rights through which they could protect themselves.
What these people have to deal with is now routine in Bush’s America, where society depends on the poverty-level lifestyles of millions of insecure workers lacking all rights to organise, and where the minimum wage is a bad joke.
Surely, the same can’t be happening in Britain, too? After all, the minimum wage is one of the few reasons for remaining loyal for many people at the end of their tether with New Labour.
But the truth is the government’s asylum and immigration policies are making the minimum wage meaningless. They are creating a secondary labour market of workers with no rights, who cannot stand up to the gang-masters and agencies that prey on them.
The minimum wage depends on individual complaints, its inspectorate is scandalously under-resourced and it is not backed up by a framework of law that requires inspections of the other rights – holiday entitlements, working hours, and so on – on which meaningful employment contracts depend.
The other government policy that works to undermine protection at work is privatisation, including the Private Finance Initiative. In theory, public bodies, be they local councils or the Health and Safety Executive, still have some powers to enforce social clauses in their contracts with the private sector. But they don’t have either the political will, resources or know-how to police the chain of sub-contractors involved in any major contract. The cowboys get away with it.
Another reason that the cowboys all too often go unpoliced is that the trade unions are too slow to respond to threats to workers’ wages and conditions. In the case of migrant nurses and particularly vulnerable groups like the Morecambe Bay cocklers, support has been mainly provided by community and faith organisations. The trade unions are now being dragged in the wake of these groups.
But the unions can play a vital role, not only by providing organising resources on the ground, but also by speaking out against the government’s immigration and asylum policies and the divisions they create. Unions have a vested interest in doing this: in the US the growth of a secondary illegal or insecure labour force has brought down the wage level of workers across the economy.
Similarly, along the sub-contracting chain it has not been the unions that have fought for health and safety, proper training and decent wages, but isolated groups of rank-and-file workers. In the face of employers who refuse to recognise normal procedures of trade-union bargaining, and a government that is treating migrants as a source of disposable labour rather than as welcome citizens, new tactics are needed. In the US the Service Employees International Union has shown the way: it targets individual companies and uses community organising and high-profile publicity to name and shame. This approach has secured some real successes. Similar tactics have paid off in east London’s Docklands for the community-union organisation Telco.
If democracy is to triumph over fear in the workplace, as well as in politics, it will involve all of us taking responsibility for standing up for workers presently denied their rights in law.
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The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
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The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
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Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
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Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali