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Yorkshire strikes - the lessons
There has been a number of significant strikes in Yorkshire over the last 3 months, resulting in partial victories with important lessons for all trade unionists. These have involved 600 Leeds council bin-workers, 700 South Yorkshire firefighters, 700 Sheffield First busdrivers and 260 Superdrug distribution workers at the South Elmsall warehouse.
The bosses' offensive has intensified during the economic crisis. Employers and management are using the recession to push through attacks on pay, terms and conditions. First Sheffield bosses imposing a pay freeze stated "Unite is showing a blinkered view ..... at a time when businesses locally and nationally are facing difficult economic times....which may impact on all jobs.."
With an attitude of "Consider yourself lucky to have a job" managements have attempted to impose their rule through bullying and diktat. The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in a survey of their South Yorkshire members recorded over 90% complaining of bullying, including station managers. Despite eventually accepting a pay freeze this year (and 3% next year), Sheffield First busdrivers took 3 days strike action specifically against harsh disciplinary procedures and bullying management.
In the cases of the FBU and Superdrug, the bosses did not think that the workers would fight. So when they voted for industrial action, management threats were quickly backed up by the threat of the sack. South Yorkshire's Chief Fire Officer backed by the Labour Fire Authority threatened to dismiss 744 firefighters on January 1st if they didn't agree new shift patterns. After only one week of strike action, Superdrug bosses sent letters to all the workers giving them notice, including a termination date, if they didn't attend a final interview to accept new contracts with much worse terms and conditions. These letters were burned in front of the media.
All these disputes involved overwhelmingly unionised workforces, with a majority of older established and mainly male workers. Even at South Elmsall where there is a more mixed workforce, including Polish workers, there is a backbone of ex-miners. All the strikes were official, recording overwhelming ballot results for action: FBU 83%, busdrivers 91%, Superdrug 86%. After 7 weeks on strike, Leeds bin-workers rejected a 'final' offer by 92%.
The prevailing mood has been one of "Enough is enough!" As an ex-miner said at South Elmsall, "if we accept their terms and conditions, it won't be worth working." The huge majorities for strike action ensured that even pro-Labour unions like Unite, Unison and GMB, were forced to back the strikes. In fact, because Leeds council is a Lib-Dem/Tory coalition even Labour councillors and MPs supported the strikers. In turn, this official union support gave workers more confidence to struggle and the £30 a day strike pay undoubtedly sustained the Leeds strike. One striking bin-worker commented, "I'm getting £150 a week in strike pay. If we go back on the council's terms my take home pay will only be £175 a week, I'll only be 25 quid a week better off. So I'm prepared to stay out as long as it takes - I've nothing to lose."
Picket lines were well supported in all the disputes with union flags, banners and placards, braziers and tents and even a caravan at Superdrug. The strikes stayed solid with hardly any scabs. Whilst around 100, mainly agency workers and managers, did not join the bin strike, only 4 strikers returned to work in 11 weeks. Unfortunately a majority of fire station managers resigned from the FBU to work during the 6 days of strikes but nearly all other union members supported the action. The Superdrug and bus strikes were 100% solid.
An important feature of all these strikes was the holding of strikers' mass meetings and union democracy. Regular strikers' meetings in Leeds heard reports on progress and voted on offers and to continue the strike. The FBU in South Yorkshire encouraged participation from every station in the strike committee that decided the industrial action strategy. Unite busworkers held a special branch meeting on a strike day to decide tactics with workplace ballots on management offers.
Another common feature has been the high level of public support for the strikes, reflecting the feeling amongst working-class people that we're all in the same boat. Despite the rubbish-strewn streets in Leeds, public support held up over the 3 months strike with the council being blamed by most for imposing huge wage-cuts then refusing to negotiate. Car horns tooted support for firefighters day and night. And Superdrug strikers tapped public support by visiting shops all over the North to leaflet shoppers asking them to boycott Superdrug.
However, the media showed it's true Tory colours with the Yorkshire Evening Post and Sheffield Star being very one-sided (management's) in their reporting. Many of their reports carried managements' press releases verbatim with a rider that no union spokesperson was available for comment. Many lay union reps are afraid to speak to the media for fear of disciplinary action! However the Daily Mirror did run sympathetic features on the bins and Superdrug strikes.
All four disputes resulted in what most of the strikers have regarded as victories. Workers have stood up to bullying managements. Dismissal threats have been defied. The bosses' worst plans have been thwarted. But concessions have been made to secure settlements. Bin workers have stopped massive wage cuts but face longer hours or increased productivity. Superdrug workers have kept their contracts but had to give way on overtime and shift pay losing around £10/week. Firefighters have stopped the imposition of new shifts but may have to make concessions in binding arbitration. Sheffield busdrivers have won important victories on disciplinary cases but not yet secured a fairer disciplinary procedure.
Could more have been achieved? Probably at Superdrug where the union recommended acceptance after only one day of ACAS talks. The strike was solid, workers were worried about being sacked but had burned the dismissal letters, and the bad publicity from the boycott campaign clearly had the bosses rattled. A sustained campaign to win support from the Dunstable warehouse GMB members and lorry drivers could have crippled Superdrug in the run up to Christmas. The Leeds council Unison branch threatened to hold an indicative ballot of all council workers if the strikers were sacked after 12 weeks. If this had actually been held and much earlier, then a yes vote would have put the Lib-Dem/Tory Council under greater pressure to concede more and sooner.
In the context of a severe recession and rising unemployment and bosses' offensive, these defensive strikes have to be regarded as victories, albeit partial. Bin workers and Superdrug strikers actually marched back to work, united and solid, and feeling victorious. These victories will give confidence to other workers. Brighton bin-workers won a quick victory partly down to the Leeds example. All these strikes prove that if you fight, you can win, but if you don't fight, you're sure to lose.
Any victories under capitalism are always temporary, especially in a period of economic crisis. The bosses will try again to get their own way, but the workers will feel stronger to fight again and know they can win.
In The Socialist 2 December 2009:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Youth fight for jobs
War and occupation
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party election campaign
Marxist analysis: history