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Editorial: Fire-and-rehire is a symptom of a sick and unsustainable system

IF BRITISH AIRWAYS is planning to fire and rehire 30,000 employees on worse contracts, it is indeed guilty of “industrial thuggery” — but it is not alone. 

The Unite union has called out similar plans at British Gas owner Centrica. The tactic is not confined to the private sector: council workers organised by Unison in Tower Hamlets, a Labour-run authority, have been driven to strike action against its sacking and rehiring of staff on worse terms and conditions.

All over the country, workers “lucky” enough to have avoided losing their jobs are being told to accept lower pay or use the door. 

What a contrast to the “all in it together” rhetoric of the early days of lockdown, when ministers were full of praise for those whose work kept the country running and the Chancellor vowed there would be “no upper limit” on spending to protect jobs.

At that time many on the left were pushing further. They pointed to the way the pandemic exposed the wrongheaded values of a society where those with the fattest pay packets — the speculators, hedge-fund managers and corporate executives — made little discernible contribution but those whose work was so vital that it had to continue despite putting them at risk of catching a deadly virus were often the most poorly paid.

As Keir Starmer put it in his victory speech after winning the Labour leadership: “We can see so clearly now who the key workers really are … for too long they’ve been taken for granted and poorly paid. They were last and now they should be first.”

Current trends are in the opposite direction. The government’s vaunted public-sector pay rise leaves out millions of public service workers, in privatised and outsourced sectors as well as many who are directly employed, such as nurses, who march again for a proper pay rise this weekend.

Private-sector employers are driving down pay, and the tsunami of job losses washing over Britain will further empower bosses to force workers to accept less as competition for each job intensifies.

Management’s justification for this, in councils and corporations, will be that there is no money. In both sectors the remuneration of top executives is often indecent and certainly renders the argument hypocritical. 

Socialists have to do better than that, though, as it also often carries an element of truth. Council budget cuts under the Tories have been savage. The impact of lockdown on many private companies’ finances has been disastrous. 

That even gigantic, household-name firms cannot weather a temporary interruption of revenue without recourse to public bailouts and attacks on their staff tells us how fragile our modern capitalist economy has become, and how unstable is a corporate model where executive rewards are based on dividends to shareholders that leave firms at risk of bankruptcy even after extended periods of making healthy profits.

The answer, surely, is a new kind of economy, one in which profit is not leeched offshore but invested in improving services, including by contingency planning for natural disasters or epidemics.

One where we do not sigh that workers “should” get a better deal while accepting that “the market” will continue to deny them one.

Even before coronavirus it was evident to millions that we cannot go on like this — that business as usual is ruining the planet and wrecking lives because it rewards the most destructive behaviours.

That’s as clear from the collapse of companies like Carillion and Thomas Cook as it is from the collapse of whole economies and ecosystems.

Despite Starmer’s eloquence back in April, Labour is turning its back on this reality, obsessed with proving its loyalty to a broken system.

But the fight for a new deal, which trade unionists and the left in and out of Labour must take on regardless, is increasingly a fight against that system and for its replacement by a socialist one.

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