£10 Minimum for 500,000 Public Sector Workers: Day of Action

by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser

It was a Baltic Saturday across Scotland, but the heartfelt response from people on the streets warmed the spirits of the SSP activists who braved the biting cold.

Saturday 18 November was a hastily organised SSP National Day of Action around our campaign demanding that the Scottish government and all 32 councils write a guaranteed minimum of £10-an-hour for the 500,000 workers they employ into their Budgets for 2018/19. A guarantee that from April 2018, nobody they directly or indirectly employ would be trying to survive on anything less.

Street stalls and street meetings were held in both Glasgow’s Partick and Govan; Nairn; Edinburgh; East Kilbride; Paisley, and Cumbernauld… with the same already planned on other days this week when more members are available in Ayrshire and Coatbridge. SSP members with decades of experience combined with members who joined just weeks ago. We all felt an added sense of purpose, being part of a coordinated, national plan of action, with a clear goal.

Demand Action from the Anti-Tory Parties

We called this Day of Action in the run-up to the Tories declaring Westminster’s Budget on 22 November: undoubtedly with further cold, cruel cuts to the living standards, jobs, and services of the working class.

Hell will freeze over before the Tories start looking after the well-being of the millions, as opposed to the profits and privileges of the millionaires. So it’s right – and urgent – that we demand action from those politicians closest to the ground in Scotland, who also like to define themselves as anti-austerity. We want words made into deeds by Scotland’s anti-Tory parties.

That’s why the SSP – who have fought and campaigned in the streets and trade unions for an immediate, statutory £10 minimum for all over 16, with equal pay for women, since September 2014 – is stepping up the pressure on the SNP Holyrood government and Labour and SNP councillors across the country.

Tales of Poverty Amidst Plenty

Anyone doubting the urgency of this policy demand need only have joined us on the streets to be reminded how modest – indeed, increasingly inadequate – the call for a £10 minimum, here and now, really is.

We met the man who simply stated: “I looked at an old wage slip from 15 years ago, and there’s very little difference in my earnings now.”

The Richmond Fellowship care worker who was furious at being on £7.50 an hour, unable to afford a holiday, when she has dedicated herself for years to a job she loves, caring for the most vulnerable.

People scrimping and saving simply to pay the rent and buy food. And as a visiting Swedish friend of the SSP observed, the visible poverty of people coming up to our street stall.

Demand No Cuts Budgets

Local authority workers at a few of the street stalls expressed their anxiety at yet more cuts looming in the forthcoming council budgets. Which is why our campaigning demand for councillors to set No Cuts Budgets, with the £10 minimum included, and then fight for the funds to do this, is so timely and important.

No councillors – whether Labour or SNP – should be prepared to trade wages for jobs, or workers’ conditions for public services. As we hammered out in speeches on the streets, Scotland is a fabulously rich country, with ten billionaires, enormous resources, skilled workers and piles of profit – but also over 200,000 people relying on food banks to avert starvation, including people in jobs – and a million below the poverty line, over half of whom are working to remain poor. There’s no excuse for poverty in this rich country. It’s a question of radically redistributing the wealth.

Keep up the Fight!

The street meetings and stalls on Saturday were just the start, the prelude, to an orchestrated campaign of explanation and pressure on the Scottish government and councils of all political stripes to put their money where their mouths are.

To use their already existing powers to implement a (non-statutory) so-called Living Wage for all half-a-million public sector employees – but to set it at £10, from their new financial year, in April. To write this into the Budgets they’ve started to consult on.

Not only is this a timely campaign because all the Budgets have to be finalized by February, but also in the midst of mounting inflation – especially on essentials like food – and growing demands to scrap the public sector pay cap. The SSP will step up this demand for an immediate £10 in our unions as well as on the streets.

Sign and Share the Online Petition

And the Online Petition which I recently launched on behalf of the SSP is targeting demands for action not only on Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the heads of the councils’ umbrella body, COSLA, but also new Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who we have written to establish dialogue on areas of shared interest.

Richard’s leadership election victory speech referred to offering ‘hope’ to the Scottish people. Here’s his chance of doing so: we are calling on him to instruct his Labour Party councillors to break the habits of several decades and refuse to vote for a single penny in cuts in the councils, and instead inspire public sector AND private sector workers with a decision to implement a £10 Living Wage immediately – not in 2020, as Labour has so far pledged, which will be severely devalued by inflation by then.

The response to our fighting demands on the streets on 18 November bodes well for a sustained, determined campaign over the weeks ahead as Scottish and local budgets are debated.

One young lad challenged us: “Say you want to abolish zero hours contracts and a grant for students and I’ll sign your petition.” We explained we’d been speaking out all morning for an end to this modern slavery, and instead for a guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for all who wanted it, alongside the call for £10 minimum. He signed!

A woman who’d recently settled in Scotland from Africa stood literally a metre away, listening and nodding agreement as we made a speech on the PA system, and then walked over to sign our petition and buy the Voice. Another woman simply told members behind the stall, “Thank you for doing this.”

The SSP is proud of all the members “for doing this” – braving the elements to broadcast our simple, stark, perfectly sensible alternative to poverty, inequality and cuts to public services. In virtually every corner of Scotland. We have no intention of making this campaign a one-day wonder. We need to repeatedly pile the pressure on the SNP and Labour politicians – including their leaderships – who after all were elected by pledging to oppose Tory austerity.

We need more street campaigning; more propositions for this policy in the public sector unions; more volunteers to do all this… and we need thousands of signatures on our Online Petition.

Volunteer to Help Win £10 Now!

Please play your part in this battle to set the pace in the public sector, transform the lives of tens of thousands of workers – and vastly boost the battle for an immediate, legally-enforced £10 minimum, rising with inflation, for all workers across the land.

Get in touch to offer how you can help – or if you’re convinced, join the SSP today!

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Open Letter to Labour’s new Scottish leader Richard Leonard MSP

Dear Richard,

Congratulations on your election as Scottish Labour leader. We hope your victory heralds a new age in Scottish politics. Whilst we disagree with Labour on many things – Independence, failure to repeal anti union laws , sending in Sheriff officers to humiliate working people during the poll tax struggle, the war in Iraq, the use of PFI contracts in privatising our NHS and education services, attacking the benefits of single parents – in recognition of the fact that your election represents a break with past policies we would like to suggest we work together to tackle the poverty pay, insecure work, soaring housing costs and falling living standards working class people suffer every day.

We look forward to working together to fight the Tories and press the SNP to back a ten point programme which we believe could transform the lives of working class people and include:

  • A £10/hour living wage
  • Replacing the Council tax with an income based alternative shifting the burden onto the shoulders of those most able to pay
  • Supporting ‘no cuts budgets’ at national and local government level
  • Introducing free public transport to combat climate change and give people a more attractive alternative to their cars
  • Returning our railways and our energy industries to public hands
  • Provide free access to the internet for under 25’s
  • Provide free residential elderly care to add to Scotland’s free personal care
  • Implement a massive programme of council house building
  • Build Scotland’s trade union membership up to one million
  • Campaign for a modern, democratic republic with an elected head of state.

Such a programme could transform the lives of working class people in keeping with their expectations of the Scottish Parliament’s ‘brave new dawn’ promised them in 1999.

We look forward to your reply.

Comradely regards,

Colin Fox and Natalie Reid

National spokespeople, Scottish Socialist Party

Main Photo: Craig Maclean

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Petition: For a £10 Living Wage in all Scottish Government & Council Budgets

by Richie Venton

As the Scottish government consults on its annual Budget, and Scotland’s 32 local councils gear up towards the Budget-making process that ends in February, I’ve launched an Online Petition on behalf of the Scottish Socialist Party which I appeal to all readers to sign, share and build support for – urgently.

It demands that both the Holyrood SNP government and all the councils run by a variety of Labour, SNP and other party councillors set a £10 Living Wage for all their employees as part of No Cuts Budgets, for 2018/19. Rather than pass on Westminster’s butchery of pay, jobs and services once again – as they’ve repeatedly done in past years – we are demanding these MSPs and councillors stand up for the working class, starting with the 500,000 workers either directly or indirectly employed by them.

Don’t just treat this petition as another online activity; please use it to help pound the politicians with demands for deeds, not pretty words, and include both the major parties and their leaders in your demands – including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and left candidate for Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard.

When you sign, the demand for the funds for an immediate £10 Living Wage for 500,000 public sector workers will automatically arrive with the First Minister, the COSLA local authorities umbrella, and Richard Leonard MSP.


Please do your bit, and then share far and wide, with your own appeal to others to do likewise. Including people in your workplace or union branch.

And below is the explanatory letter on the Petition:

The levels of poverty and inequality in Scotland are criminal.

In one of the planet’s richest nations, we have one million people existing below the poverty line – including people on benefits, pensioners, and over half a million people in jobs, working to remain poor!

Wages have been systematically slashed by use of fear at work, anti-union laws, zero hours and short hours contracts, benefits sanctions, privatisation… a litany of attacks on wages as a share of the wealth workers create in the first place – to turbocharge profits for the bankers and billionaire businesses.

The recent revelations of at least £30trillion hidden away in tax havens by the rich and big businesses underlines the ways by which workers are being robbed of decent wages, and communities of public services.

The Scottish Socialist Party has campaigned for an immediate, legally enforced national minimum wage of £10 an hour since 2014 – for all over 16, with equal pay for women. That’s the official, unanimously agreed policy of the TUC and STUC – since 2014! It needs to be urgently implemented – £10 now, rising with inflation, for all 2.5 million workers in Scotland.

To help achieve that, we are calling on all the MSPs and councillors in Scotland’s 32 local authorities to use their existing powers to set an example, a benchmark, by implementing an immediate £10 Living Wage for all 500,000 workers employed directly and indirectly by the SNP government and councils of all party complexions – including Labour and SNP.

This is entirely within the powers of the devolved Holyrood government and the 32 councils: a voluntary Living Wage, but set at £10.

We demand that each council and the Scottish government write this massive improvement in workers’ incomes into their budgets for 2018/19 – but without a penny cut to any job or a single public service. Instead, we demand they set a £10 Living Wage, as part of No Cuts Budgets, and then combine with the trade union movement, user groups and communities in a massive campaign to win back the necessary funding from some of the £billions stolen by Westminster and Holyrood over recent years.

A £10 Living Wage for all 500,000 public sector workers in Scotland would transform their lives, greatly boost spending in local communities, thereby improve job security, and set a benchmark for the other 2 million workers in Scotland – vastly speeding up the prospects of achieving a national, legally-enforced £10 minimum wage for all over 16, with equal pay for women, and rising with inflation.

We call upon the Scottish government, COSLA, each local authority, and the leaders of the SNP and Labour parties to urgently implement this £10 Living Wage policy as part of their 2018/19 Budgets.

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Clarity Needed to Reverse Indy Retreat

by Hugh Cullen

Opinion polls taken since the 2014 Referendum paint a picture of support for a second referendum on independence slowly trickling away. Polls don’t tell the whole story but they correlate with what we are seeing on the ground; formerly active and vibrant Yes groups have either folded, become social gatherings or are dominated by nationalism detached from reality.

Comparing the SNP of late 2014/15, buoyed by 100,000 new members and electoral domination, to today seems like day and night. The Nationalists have paid a huge price for not making the case for Independence at any election since the referendum – and allowing themselves to be chased away from the issue by the Unionists.

The 2014 Yes campaign found strength in its diversity. A majority of Yes supporters weren’t SNP and the non-tribal Yes coalition helped reach a diverse audience.

Today, the movement is closely tied to the SNP’s electoral fortunes – failure there is seen to represent a setback for independence. In reality, there are many independence supporters who find it difficult to vote for the SNP when they duck independence and there are more left-wing manifestos on offer. It took the 2017 General Election, where the SNP barely held on to a majority in Scotland, to sound alarm bells. I was an independence activist before I joined the SSP and I’m infuriated to see the movement that we built from 2012 so dominated by a single party. It makes us weaker.

Nicola Sturgeon’s public profile has been usurped by Jeremy Corbyn. He’s in all the selfies now. He appears to many to offer a different route to similar social democratic goals that independence offered in 2014. His popularity in some quarters is based on backing Keynesian policies that may make working people’s lives better. That’s a natural attraction to people on poverty wages, waiting for a house or living at the sharp end of austerity. His personal honesty and integrity has cut through the spin of modern politics and inspired many to imagine an alternative to cut-throat capitalism.

But he can’t achieve much within a party wedded to the British establishment. This is still the same Labour party of privatisation and the Iraq War. Corbyn struggles to put together a shadow cabinet because the majority of MPs fundamentally disagree with his politics and a significant number are organising to remove him. The Parliamentary Labour Party is a revolving door to the lobby of big business. Never mind Scotland, the only country of the UK where Corbyn lost to leadership challenger Owen Smith. The Scotland where Labour built 6 council houses in 8 years of Government and privatised hospitals and schools aplenty through PFI.

The Labour Party is an obstacle, not a vehicle, for the socialist change that Corbyn and the SSP want.

In 2017, Corbyn outflanked a fiscally conservative SNP, who, acting as the independence standard-bearers have defended much of the status quo. They have latched onto the idea the EU is a progressive organisation to be supported at all costs. We know that the EU is not, because we live in it already! It’s an anti-democratic bosses club that works to preserve the dominance of corporate power and unfettered capitalism. Explicitly linking EU membership and the independence struggle, raises barriers to us making independence about transformative change – a necessary step to build a majority.

By seeking clarity on key social and economic issues and setting ambitions high, we can align independence with the everyday struggles of working people. There are hundreds of thousands of workers in Scotland – in hospitality, retail and the public sector – who currently only dream of a £10 an hour Living Wage and secure employment through guaranteed hours. People forced to pay rip off transport fares and energy bills would support these services being taken into democratic public ownership. People who are getting mugged off by a landlord’s rip off rents would support a sharply progressive full tax and spend programme to build council houses. These people, in our communities, can be persuaded that the best way to achieve these demands is through independence. But we have to agree that’s what independence is for.

An independence that transforms little is uninspiring, and only nationalists will vote for it. An independence which puts working class people at the driving seat of their own destiny will lift the millions we need for victory.

We can thank Corbyn for popularising ideas that we agree on then disagree on his vision of a British route to socialism and his misplaced faith in the Labour Party. But to succeed we must above all make a coherent and persuasive case. We must answer, ‘what do we want Independence for?’ and ‘what has gone wrong since 2014?’.  Only then can we work out how we are going to get there.

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SSP national spokesman Colin Fox has sharply criticised the SNP government tax consultation as part of a discussion based on a Holyrood politicians bubble.

He said: “This consultation exposes the failure of both the SNP government and its opponents to come to terms with public service cuts, huge levels of underemployment, poverty pay levels, chronic affordable housing shortages and rising living costs and simply tinkers around the edges of an economic crisis facing thousands of Scots today.”

“As prices rise and wages stagnate, benefits are cuts and sanctions inflicted and a housing crisis deepen MSPs hold yet another consultation when meaningful redistributive remedies are all ruled out in advance.”

“The SNP once supported progressive policies such as abolishing the council tax and taxing the rich. All that has now given way to the pro business ‘don’t rock the boat’ Holyrood consensus.”

“Scotland’s working class majority needs far more decisive action and needs it now.”

“Tax powers should be used to ensure the wealthy pay more tax and the money raised is used to meet the real needs of jobs, health and housing.”

“The SSP proposal for a Scottish Service Tax which links council revenue to income would take thousands out of local tax entirely”

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Scottish activists detained in Catalonia

Two Scottish activists were detained in Reus Airport on Saturday morning on their way to Catalonia as part of an international delegation defending the right to vote in the Catalan referendum.

Tam Wilson, a Scottish Socialist Party member and candidate in the May council elections, and SNP Socialists activist Marty Smith were detained in Reus Airport by Guardia Civil officers and searched, before being questioned about their support for Catalan and Palestinian self-determination.

Tam Wilson said: “As soon as they saw my Catalan badge at passport control, you could tell we were going to be singled out. Officers approached us aggressively and demanded they look through our bags and read our notebooks, questioning anything political and why we were here, including why I had a pro-Palestine sticker on my phone.”

Marty Smith said: “The Guardia Civil who detained us demanded we speak to them in Catalan and demanded to know why we couldn’t speak Catalan but wore the flag of the republic.”

Tam, Marty and SSP national secretary Connor Beaton are among an international delegation being hosted in Catalonia during the referendum by the anti-capitalist pro-independence CUP party.

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Catalonia: What’s happening?

by Dick Nichols

The most critical week in modern Catalan history began on September 24. With one week to go to the October 1 referendum on independence, the battle lines in what will be a decisive clash have formed. On the one side, the 80% of Catalan people who support their right to decide their country’s future; on the other, the 10,000 Spanish National Police and paramilitary Civil Guard charged with stopping the October 1 vote.

Since the middle of last week, the two sides have been engaged in intensifying skirmishes that will end in one of three scenarios: the humiliation of the central Spanish government of People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (if the Catalan majority manages to vote); a setback for the movements for Catalan sovereignty and independence (if the police operation succeeds in closing polling stations); or a confused outcome due to some people getting into polling centres while others are kept outside by the “forces of order”.

There can be no doubt about the determination of the Spanish government to stop a referendum that would, if the latest polls are correct, see a 60% turnout and an easy win for Catalan independence. There will be more than 2000 polling stations and the plan of the Rajoy government is to have enough police and civil guards on hand to paralyse voting. The police are being housed on three ferries berthed in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. (Waterside workers in both ports have voted not to service the vessels).

The latest cycle of tension began on September 20, when 41 Spanish Civil Guard raids on Catalan government-related buildings and private homes harvested thirteen high-level Catalan government officials and a lot of “suspect material” for the prosecutors charged with stopping the referendum. Their haul included ten million ballot papers stored in a printery warehouse in the central Catalan town of Bigues i Riells.

But the raids also landed the Rajoy government with a mass revolt by tens of thousands of outraged Catalans: only too conscious of this reminder of Civil Guard operations during the Franco dictatorship, they protested outside the buildings being raided and occupied the centre of Barcelona and other cities and towns.

The people were responding to the call of the Catalan mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Catalan language and culture association Omnium Cultural — to maintain a “marathon of mobilisation” up until October 1 and make the Spanish government pay the highest possible price for its “de facto coup” (phrase of Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont).

The call was also backed by political forces and institutions that do not necessarily support Catalan independence, but do defend Catalan sovereignty. For example, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau publicly backed the continuation of street protests and warned Rajoy that he would find “the Catalan people more united than ever”. By this weekend, occasion of Barcelona’s annual Mercè Festival, Barcelona town hall was carrying the banner “More Democracy”.

In Madrid, radical anti-austerity force Unidos Podemos (Podemos plus the United Left) condemned the raids: its MPs in the Spanish parliament staged a protest outside the building and later took part in a rally in support of Catalonia’s right to decide. This Madrid rally, held in the central Puerta del Sol, was one of forty or more that took place across the Spanish state on the evening of September 20.

All the major institutions of Catalan civil society, from the two main trade union confederations to Barcelona Football Club and other sporting clubs and associations, from cultural organisations like the Barcelona Atheneum to the Third Sector (representing 3000 Catalan social organisations) condemned the raids, called for the release of the detainees and reaffirmed their support for Catalonia’s institutions.

The raid and the revolt

The Civil Guard raids came after the Spanish finance ministry had taken full control of Catalan government spending on September 16. All Catalan government departments now have to send their invoices to Madrid, where the Spanish finance ministry will decide what gets paid and what does not. To date over 30 Catalan research and cultural programs have had their funding cut.

The raids were aimed at dismantling the infrastructure of the October 1 referendum. Those arrested were thirteen senior Catalan government officials in charge of computer technology, communications and finance. The most senior were Lluís Salvardó, the secretary of the Catalan treasury, and Josep Maria Jové, the secretary-general of the department of deputy-premier and treasurer Oriol Junqueras. Jové and Salvardó were the two officials presumably responsible for referendum preparations. Also arrested were the owners of the warehouse holding the printed material related to the referendum.

(After up to three days in detention, all the detainees were released with the instruction not to continue in any way to assist in the preparation of the “illegal” referendum.)

The huge public response to the raids started around 8am on the same day, when the news spread through social networks and people began to gather outside the buildings being targeted, most importantly the economy ministry in central Barcelona. Beginning with hundreds, the protests soon became thousands strong. By the evening, after the Catalan mass organisations had called on everyone to gather outside the economy ministry, more than 40,000 (council police figure) had turned up to protest the raids and reaffirm their determination to vote.

“We shall vote!”, “They shall not pass!”, “Out with the forces of occupation!”, “Where is Europe?”, “The streets will always be ours” and “Strike, strike, general strike” were some of the chants that echoed across Barcelona until midnight. They were accompanied by singing of the anti-Francoist resistance hymn “L’Estaca” (The Stake), other Catalan protest classics and the national anthem “Els Segadors” (The Reapers).

As the protestors gathered outside the buildings being raided, waving banners and posters produced on home printers (the Civil Guard had confiscated most of the official referendum posters) the workers inside draped banners and thank you messages out of the windows. The protests cut major Barcelona thoroughfares such as Via Laietana, where workers from the Workers Commissions trade union building came out to lead the picket outside the Catalan foreign affairs ministry across the street.

One reason the protests swelled so rapidly was because students from Catalonia’s main universities abandoned their classes to join them. Behind banners with messages such as “Empty the lecture theatres, fill the streets” students from the out-of-town Autonomous University of Barcelona poured onto the trains into central Barcelona. This was to be the beginning of a powerful student commitment to mobilising up to October 1.

Finally, at 10pm, with central Barcelona still full of protestors, a loud banging of pots and pans (cassolada) began, as people in all suburbs came out onto their balconies to show what they thought about the Civil Guard operation.

Catalonia-wide protest

Protest rallies were also held in cities and towns across Catalonia on the evening of September 20. One of these, in the provincial capitals of Girona was remarkably large — 13,000 (13% of the population) according to the municipal police. Moreover, many people from provincial Catalonia left work early to join the Barcelona rallies.

The mood of the protests was one of determination to see the fight against the Spanish state intervention through to the end — Catalan rights re-won in the struggles against the Franco dictatorship had to be defended at any cost. One typical comment from young people was to the effect that “our grandparents didn’t suffer under Francoism so that we would let it reappear.”

The rallies were peaceful, disciplined and good-humoured, a reflection of the understanding that the street clashes that have nearly always been standard fare in Barcelona demonstrations would only provide the Rajoy government with an excuse to ramp up repression.

This approach of organised non-violent resistance scored an important win when armed Spanish National Police, supported by a helicopter, failed to enter the headquarters of the left-nationalist, anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP). The CUP headquarters were defended by a human barrier of up to 2000 supporters and sympathisers, led by present and former CUP MPs in the Catalan parliament.

A comic aspect of the defence, which ended after seven hours of siege, was the instruction that no one was allowed to smoke a joint on the picket line: if they needed to, they had to go inside the building. According to one participant, the atmosphere inside the CUP HQ was unbreathable. That, however, was a small price to pay for getting every last piece of CUP referendum propaganda out of its headquarters and distributed.

Since September 20, protest and mobilisation has, if anything, intensified. On September 21 alone, an all-day demonstration outside the courthouse hearing the charges against the arrested officials swelled to 20,000 (council police figure); students staged sit-downs on one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares; a debate among pro-independence leaders before a crowd of a thousand at the Autonomous University confronted the issue of when, where and how to carry out a general strike in support of the referendum; “illegal” mass paste-ups attracted so much support that the police and Civil Guard have had to leave them alone; and, at 10pm, the night’s cassolada was as noisy, if not noisier, than 24 hours before.

The days following were witness to:

  • Continuing community protests in support of the 712 mayors who face charges of collaborating with the “illegal” referendum by providing council premises as polling stations;Barcelona waterside workers setting off tug boat sirens so that the sleep of Spanish police and civil guards housed in ferries berthed in the Port of Barcelona is interrupted;
  • Barcelona waterside workers setting off tug boat sirens so that the sleep of Spanish police and civil guards housed in ferries berthed in the Port of Barcelona is interrupted;
  • Students occupying the University of Barcelona in support of the referendum;
  • The September 24 “mother of all paste-ups” organised by the ANC and Omnium Cultural through rallies in Catalonia’s main towns. The result was the pasting-up of one million posters; and
  • Continuing 10pm cassolades.

At the September 24 rally in the provincial capital Lleida, Catalan government spokesperson Jordi Turull described the “marathon of mobilisation” being driven by the two mass organisations as “a democratic tsunami”. At the time of writing, the unity between the Catalan mass organisations, the Catalan government and the bulk of citizens supporting the right to decide is clear, with the mass of supporters of Catalan sovereignty taking to heart the September 20 call of deputy premier Oriol Junqueras (whose senior staff had just been arrested): “We [the government] have done what we can, but only the people can save the people.”

Towards showdown

In his address on behalf of the Catalan government in the early afternoon of September 20, Puigdemont said:

From now until October 1, an attitude both of firmness and serenity will be needed, of alertness and of readiness to complain about the abuses and illegalities into which the Spanish state is falling. But on October 1 we’ll be leaving home with a voting paper and we’ll be making use of it.

At 9pm, Rajoy replied with his own “institutional message”:

You know that this referendum cannot now be celebrated. It was never legal nor legitimate, now it is nothing more than a chimera or, what is worse, the excuse that some seem to be seeking to further deepen the rift they have caused in Catalan society… I insist, do not continue, you have no legitimacy. Return to law and democracy, let the people put these fateful days behind them.

In case that appeal fell on deaf ears, the Spanish PM cited his “determination to have legality enforced without renouncing any of the instruments of our rule of law.”

On September 21, announcing the launch of the “Where Do I Vote” web site, Puigdemont re-stressed what he had said the day before:

On October 1 the referendum of self-determination that we have called will happen. It will happen because we had already prepared contingency plans to guarantee it, but it will happen most of all because it has the support of the vast majority of the population, who are sick and tired of the arrogance and abuse of the PP government. It is not now a question of what connection we want to have with the State but of whether we want to live in a regime of full democracy where freedoms are respected. That has been understood by thousands of citizens who have demonstrated across the Spanish state in solidarity with the Catalan people and their rights: I want to thank them fraternally for their courage and commitment.

This response to a Spanish state whose media were already congratulating the Rajoy government on having dismantled the referendum forced the Spanish interior ministry to make its next move. On September 23, the Spanish authorities, though the Spanish state prosecutor’s office Catalonia branch, moved to streamline the job of controlling the Catalan electorate by placing the 17,000-strong Catalan police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra) under its control. This operation, which should at the very least have been the work of a judge, was rejected by the Catalan interior minister, Joaquim Forn, on the same day. He said:

We condemn the intent to intervene in the Mossos d’Esquadra in the way that has already happened with the finances of the Catalan government. On behalf of the government of Catalonia we do not accept this interference from the State. It destroys all the organs that the present legal framework provides for coordinating security in Catalonia.

At the same time the head of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Josep Lluís Trapero, issued orders to all police stations to continue work as usual, while the Twitter site @mossos carried the message: “We shall continue to work as always, carrying out our duties in order to guarantee security and public order and be at the service of the citizens.”

Had the Catalan authorities acquiesced in the prosecutor’s plan for “improved coordination” among the Mossos d’Esquadra, Civil Guard and Spanish National Police, the Rajoy government’s plan to de facto implement article 155 of the Spanish constitution (suspending regional government) would have been complete.

Spanish media intoxication

In the intensifying battle for hearts and minds, the central government’s message of the need to defend “the law” is now being repeated ad nauseam by the mainstream Spanish print media — led by the “quality journal of record” El País — as well as by public and private radio and TV. While the pundits get apoplectic about the “lawless secessionist threat”, the Catalan case does not even get a look-in (with the partial exception of programs on the Sixth channel).

The Spanish public is thus being softened up to feel that “they had it coming” if the Rajoy government decides it has to use all of the “instruments of the rule of law” at its disposal — such as fully suspending the Catalan government, arresting its leaders, or closing down Catalan public media — or if TV viewers are confronted with scenes of ordinary people being bashed for insisting on their right to vote.

An example of the methods of the Spanish media was its treatment of the September 20 demonstration outside the Catalan economy ministry. This was entirely peaceful, if rowdy, with families including children taking part. However, during the demonstration the tyres of the three Civil Guard squad cars, whose occupants were inside the ministry building combing through files and computers, were let down and their windscreens smashed. The cars were also covered with pro-independence stickers. At the same time, the team doing the searching inside was wondering if it could get out and even considered calling for a helicopter to land on the ministry roof. (In the end it was safely evacuated by the Mossos d’Esquadra.)

This event, together with the failure of the National Police to get into the CUP headquarters, led the Spanish prosecutors to announce that they were considering charging the leaders of the ANC and Omnium Cultural with sedition (carrying a jail sentence of up to 15 years) on the grounds of having incited a “turbulent mob” to break the law.

Here, for the Spanish media, was the true face of the “secessionist challenge”. For three days TV viewers were treated to prolonged close-ups of the vandalised Civil Guard squad cars and invited to tremble about what sort of people would commit such an outrage [answer: any number of Spanish football fans after a team loss].

In case they were in danger of getting the answer wrong a stream of pundits were on hand to explain that the “secessionist intoxication” was making it impossible to safely walk the streets in Catalonia. Clearly, justice for the squad cars and the Civil Guard squad inside the economy ministry — whose radio communications were leaked to the media — cried out for the October 1 referendum to be halted by any means necessary.

Towards a crisis of the Spanish state?

The level of protest and resistance provoked in Catalonia by the PP government’s legal aggression could well lead to a political crisis in the Spanish state. In the short run, the minority Rajoy government enjoys majority parliamentary support for its crackdown against Catalonia — enthusiastic on the part of new right hipster party Citizens; obedient and even shamefaced on the part of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

However, given the prospect of an intensifying spiral of Catalan protest and Spanish police repression, the PSOE could increasingly pay for its complicity with the PP’s iron fist. Stress levels in its Catalan sister organisation — the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — are already rising, with local mayors and members demanding an end to the repression of the State. If that continues — as seems certain — radical anti-austerity force Unidos Podemos and its allies would then be placed to make gains in the struggle with the PSOE for the leadership of the left. The greater the mass resistance in Catalonia, the more possible that outcome.

Both Podemos and its allies and the PSOE are putting forward proposals for solving the problem of Catalonia’s relation to the Spanish state. They are, however, miles apart, with the PSOE’s based on supporting the Rajoy government police operation in the name of upholding legality and Podemos calling for October 1 to be allowed to go ahead (but without its result being accepted as binding).

The PSOE proposal is centred on creating a parliamentary commission to discuss reforming the Spanish constitution, an initiative that will lead nowhere given the present balance of forces in the Spanish parliament. The Podemos proposal, launched at a September 24 conference in Zaragoza with the support of the “councils for change” and nationalist parties across the Spanish state, is based on accepting the principle of self-determination for Spain’s nations and nationalities. The Podemos proposal is the only way that the Spanish state “prison house of nations” has any chance of being transformed, but its chances of success depend critically on what happens on October 1.

At Zaragoza, Ada Colau said: “What I want to say to [PSOE leader] Pedro Sánchez is that today a sense of state responsibility means listening to Catalonia and not lining up with the PP, which is suspending self-government … your responsibility is to listen to the 80% of Catalans who want to exercise their right to decide.”

However, after the events of last week, it may now be too late for even the best-intentioned and democratically-based proposal for reforming the Spanish state. For millions in Catalonia, Spain is already gone, as expressed in this comment by writer and broadcaster Tony Soler in the September 24 Ara:

What will be the political outcome of the crisis? It’s very hard to say, but I would risk a few conclusions:

  1. The political cycle that is beginning may be irreversible, but it will be a long process demanding conviction and resistance;
  2. The Catalan government doesn’t right now have the means to make a declaration of independence effective…
  3. The final result will depend on the ability of the people to reach beyond the present state of degenerated regional government; and
  4. Spain as a political and emotional project is on its deathbed in Catalonia, such that all legal- political efforts will be futile, if not counterproductive.

Already the question isn’t if, but when.

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article has appeared on its web site. He will contribute an eye-witness piece to the next issue of the Scottish Socialist Voice.

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Birmingham Bin Strike: An acid test for Labour

by Richie Venton

In an important victory for all workers fighting austerity, the High Court has ruled (on 20 September) in favour of Unite the union and ordered Birmingham Labour city council to withdraw the compulsory redundancy notices they’d issued to 113 safety critical refuse collection workers.

As part of the legal ruling, the union has agreed to suspend industrial action until a full Court hearing. This is, at the very least, a temporary victory for workers who faced the options of the sack or a £5,000 pay cut within weeks – from a Labour council, yes, a LABOUR council!

The battle of the Birmingham bin workers is an acid test of the readiness of trade union leaders to lead decisive action against the slaughter of jobs, wages and safety standards in the Age of Austerity. But it’s also a critically important object lesson and acid test of the role of the Corbyn-led Labour Party.

Workers angry at constant attacks on our conditions – including by local councils – should be greatly emboldened by the courageous action of the Brummie bin workers. But the hundreds of thousands of people who have invested their hopes of something entirely different from Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – or indeed those who now hope Richard Leonard will win the Scottish Labour leadership against the millionaire, poverty-paying, non-union employer, Anas Sarwar – have a lot of soul searching and harsh questions to face up to from the experience of the Birmingham showdown.

Background to the Strike

Back on 16 June, Unite the union won a 90% majority for strike action by the Brummie bin workers against the Labour council’s plans – in their cynically genteel phrase – to “delete” all 122 Grade 3, supervisory jobs; the leading hands on the teams collecting household rubbish. These safety-critical workers, on as little as £21,000, faced being fired, then offered jobs as bin collectors on £5,000 lower wages!

In a drive to save £5m a year, the Labour worthies and council officials – whose chief executive Stella Manzie is on £180,000, plus almost as much again in expenses! – also, plan to turn the 4-day working week into a 5-day system. They are demanding collection from an extra 50-70 households per (shorter) day – on top of the frequently unmanageable current daily target of 1,500 households. All with the false claim of “a more effective, efficient and modern refuse service.”

As one of the strikers (of 22 years service) explained, he gets up at 4.45am, to start at 6am. Others start at 5am. They get a 15-minute concession break at 9am, during which they are obliged to eat in the bin wagon “with only wipes and hand sanitizers because of the regular management intimidation over our productivity”.

Birmingham seems to be the only council that insists on refuse collectors getting bins from the side of the house and returning them there, rather than the kerbside, closed-lid collection everywhere else. This slows down the job, but then workers are berated and bullied by management for their productivity.

Safety Critical Workers to be ‘Deleted’

The job of the Grade 3 workers the Labour council wants to ‘delete’ is safety critical. The council want to dump their safety tasks on the drivers. But the drivers’ vision is restricted, as they operate 12-tonne trucks, twice that weight when full.

Kids run out from behind cars. Residents risk life and limb throwing rubbish in the back, where the lifting mechanism operates by sensors and can crush you to death. Motorists rushing to work are abusive on a daily basis, get too close, and in one case drove into the back of the wagon and nearly killed the loader.

Birmingham is the only council not to have a route risk assessment, despite demands by the union for years.

As well as the physical safety of the public, the Grade 3 leading hands look out for other loaders, 40-50 per cent of whom are hired as agency workers on zero hours contracts, replaced daily on routes, continually forced to waive the right to permanent jobs – in at least one case for 9 years!

This dispute echoes some of the issues around Driver Only Trains. But it’s a Labour council that’s acting like a bunch of dictatorial, Tory-backed bosses.

Labour Council Renege on Deal

Strikes began on 30 June. Through the conciliation service, ACAS, a deal was reached between the Labour council and Unite on 15 August, including: “The council agreed in principle that Grade 3 posts will be maintained. Consequently, there are no redundancy steps in place.” In return, the union called off the strikes and agreed “to recommend to their members work pattern changes, including consideration of a 5-day week.”

By 30 August, the council reneged on the deal, issued 113 redundancy notices to Grade 3 bin loaders, with the Labour council leader denying a deal had ever been reached – which ACAS took the unprecedented step of publicly contradicting – and claiming it was “unaffordable”. Aside from the appalling failure to uphold an agreement, the council’s claims don’t match the £269million increase in ‘useable reserves’ in 2016 – to a total of £895million. The same Labour council spent a fortune hiring agency workers and contractors to try and undermine the strike action.

Aside from the appalling failure to uphold an agreement, the council’s claims don’t match the £269million increase in ‘useable reserves’ in 2016 – to a total of £895million. The same Labour council spent a fortune hiring agency workers and contractors to try and undermine the strike action.

Their betrayal of all trust in the deal they agreed through ACAS provoked the resumption of strike action from 1st September, when the Labour council handed out very real redundancy notices.

Labour Victimisation of Strikers

The Labour council’s actions suggest they are not only hell-bent on slashing wages and conditions but breaking the union too, perhaps as the prelude to privatisation.

They threatened disciplinary action again bin workers who not only took daily strike action for 3 hours, but also dared work to proper health and safety standards by returning to the depot for their breaks – instead of eating in a germ-infested bin wagon with no wash facilities. The council threatened to withdraw all pay, not just for the 3 hours on strike, but for the entire day. A blatant case of victimisation of workers engaged in legal strike action.

The council pumped out propaganda about the threat of future equal pay claims making the deal agreed at ACAS unaffordable. But this has since been exposed as a complete sham; cover for their cost-cutting, safety-threatening plans to ‘delete’ the Grade 3 jobs and slash wages. In the High Court case taken by Unite the union against the redundancy notices, the council’s legal team never once raised this claim of unaffordable equal pay claims.

The bin workers refused to be cowed. They voted by 92% in a 72% turnout to extend strike action by another 12 weeks. They won local support in rallies at the council buildings. They won unanimous support at last week’s TUC conference, which supported the bin workers and condemned the Labour council for reneging on the ACAS-facilitated deal.

In an appalling indictment of a Labour council, Unite initiated a food bank for the strikers this week! Now, their firm stance has helped win the High Court ruling that has forced the council to withdraw the redundancy notices.

Broader Lessons for Labour Supporters

These bin workers need and deserve our solidarity until they win an outright victory. In defence of safety, wages and conditions. But there’s also a broader issue, especially for those who’ve placed their hopes for workers’ rights and livelihoods in the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s welcome elections as leader.

For all the talk of Corbyn’s Labour being anti-austerity – and winning mass support with that message in England – here we have a Labour council acting like the worst, anti-union Tories, carrying out austerity at a local level.

And just as we’ve written elsewhere, not once has the Corbyn leadership issued a clarion call on their own Labour councillors to resist Tory cuts. Where has there been a word of criticism of Birmingham Labour council from the same national Labour leadership?

Labour Left’s Silence

A very telling contrast in speeches at the TUC should be grounds for serious thought for all those pinning their hopes in Labour. Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett moved the Motion supporting the bin workers in a barnstorming speech, declaring:

In stark contrast, Jeremy Corbyn told the same TUC conference:

There’s not been a word of condemnation of the Birmingham Labour councillors from Jeremy that I can trace. There’s certainly been no withdrawal of the Labour whip, nor outright expulsion, of these anti-worker, anti-union, austerity-wielding Labour councillors by the Corbyn leadership. And many bin workers are increasingly asking where the national Labour leadership have been during the strikes and rallies; they’ve not attended any.

SSP Solidarity with Brummie Bin Workers

And at a local level, when I politely asked left-wing Labour activists about the Brummie bin strike at the recent launch of Richard Leonard’s campaign to become Scottish Labour leader, they hung their heads, and shuffled into the rally in silence.

Socialists cannot remain silent on such a critical confrontation between workers and their union on one side, and an axe-wielding Labour council on the other, with jobs, wages and safety at stake.

Political parties should be judged by their deeds, not just their words.

The dirty deeds of Labour on the Brummie bins battle should be a powerful lesson to all trade unionists looking for a socialist alternative.

And for all the Scottish Labour left’s talk of independence being a threat to working class unity and solidarity, they appear disappointingly silent on offering solidarity to Birmingham workers in brutal conflict with a Labour council – whereas the pro-independence Scottish Socialist Party hasn’t hesitated to take sides with these trade unionists in England’s second city.

Main Photo: Unite West Midlands

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