What Obama could learn from JFK

“No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme,” said JFK in a speech delivered 50 years

Two years have passed since Barack Obama ordered the closure of the US prison facility in Guantanamo Bay, yet 172 inmates continue to be held in Kafka-esque limbo, denied the rights supposedly guaranteed them by law. Just how redolent of Kafka the situation has become was stressed by the publication over Easter weekend of the Guantanamo Files by the New York Times and the Guardian.

These military dossiers, amounting to more than 750 separate documents, cast new and shaming light on that purgatory of careless injustice and cruelty, inflicted on confirmed innocents and suspected terrorists alike with little concern for right or wrong.

Such subjective terms as "right" and "wrong" may have little place in most political discourse. The latest revelations, however, are so far removed from the democratic principles publicly advocated by the west that this language feels not only appropriate but necessary.

Take the detention of a senile, 89-year-old man or that of a child of 14, who had been conscripted into insurgent forces against his will. Then there are the unjustifiable incarcerations of those cleared of wrongdoing, their release in some cases delayed for futile intelligence-gathering purposes. And what about the holding of a British resident on the basis of confessions obtained through torture, or the security briefing that instructed Guantanamo Bay analysts to consider a popular Casio wristwatch to be a marker of al-Qaeda membership?

Now is a time for contrition. Instead, the White House has criticised the disclosures, insisting that the documents, originally handed to WikiLeaks, paint an incomplete and outdated picture of life at the camp. This may well be true – but an adequate apology is what is needed, not more deflections or excuses.

Fifty years ago today, President John F Kennedy delivered a speech entitled "The President and the Press", in which he set out his hopes for stronger ties between government and the media. Though largely advocating a statist line when it came to leaked information, Kennedy acknowledged: "There is little value in ensuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it."

His concern was to "prevent unauthorised disclosures to the enemy" in the interests of national security; but Kennedy was careful to balance the journalist's responsibility to make sure that no strategically dangerous information is handed over to the "enemy" (then the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" that was communism) with a "second obligation" to "inform and alert": "From that scrutiny comes understanding and from that understanding comes support or opposition. And both are necessary." He continued: "No president should fear public scrutiny of his programme."

Words that Obama should certainly consider. Should he be condemning leaks, or the wrong that leaks expose?

Video footage from a recent NS debate on the subject of leaks and whistleblowers can be found here, here and here, featuring Julian Assange, WikiLeaks editor-in-chief, Mehdi Hasan, NS senior editor (politics), and Douglas Murray, author and political commentator, respectively.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.