|A refuse picket line in defiant mood|
Southampton council workers are now in the eighth week of a dispute with the local authority, which wants to impose drastic “savings”, including pay cuts of up to 5.5% (about ten per cent with inflation), to be followed by a two year wage freeze. Throughout that time, unions have organised a series of rolling strikes, and an estimated two thousand tonnes of rubbish has piled up. However, despite the inconvenience and the corporate media’s propaganda war, a poll in the Southern Daily Echo shows that 63% of respondents currently support “the workers”, over 37% supporting “the council”.
The stakes are high, as it’s the first time all employees of one authority have taken action since the coalition government’s spending cuts. Southampton is seen as something of a Greece for English councils – a testing ground for “inventive” solutions to budget shortfalls. Another “inventive” council is Shropshire, which this week announced it is sacking all 6,500 workers at the end of September, and will only rehire them if they accept a 5.4% salary cut.
|A small section of the refuse backlog caused by pay cuts|
The Southampton strikes began back in May, as a response to the Conservative council’s plans to ‘save four hundred jobs’ by drastically cutting the wages of all employees. Refuse workers were the first to strike, but Unison and Unite have announced different industrial actions each week, and are negotiating separately for each sector. Civil enforcement officers, parking wardens, bulk cash collectors struck in May and early June, and were joined by librarians, toll collectors, gas fitters and care workers as the weeks went on. The ‘rolling’ nature of the strike is the result of union top strategy to minimise the disruption to council services, in the face of such rank and file anger. Though strikers are getting “considerable hardship pay”, they are still losing a lot of money, and will soon begin to question whether it is worth carrying on with the current strategy.
The next major flashpoint is next Monday 11th July – dubbed “Armageddon Monday” by workers – when hundreds more are due to walk out, coinciding with the council’s deadline to accept their ‘deal’. If unions have not reached agreement with the council by then, all the workers could face redundancy. There are signs that the council is shifting its position, as they have agreed to remove the formal pay cut for children’s care workers. However, they still face an effective three year pay freeze, and adult care workers – as well as all other council employees – are still looking at the same cuts. Union bureaucrats are preparing to sell out their members, and present any concessions as a major victory, in the hopes that a weary and financially stretched workforce will shrug their shoulders and return to work. Council leaders in Shropshire and around the country will be watching very closely.