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Southampton council pay dispute
Important lessons for the battles ahead
Southampton council workers, in dispute for over 18 months, are close to ending their fight against the previous Tory council's pay cuts. This struggle is of national significance, especially in local government, and the lessons should be discussed in preparation for the battles that lie ahead.
Nick Chaffey, Southern region Socialist Party secretary explains.
The previous Southampton Tory council imposed pay cuts of £5 million from April 2011. In response council workers carried out months of selective strikes. Under pressure from this action, the Labour election manifesto promised to restore full pay.
Labour's recent offer, recommended by both Unison and Unite stewards, means council workers see pay restored over the next 18 months, returning £2.3 million to the pay pot. The Unite newsletter acknowledges that this is not a complete restoration but "with the backdrop of massive attacks on public spending, this offer represents a real breakthrough for our members".
Labour and its allies in the unions, especially the Prentis leadership in Unison, will like to present this as a sign of the positive difference between Labour and the Tories and a justification for their continued support for Labour.
If Labour had been a real ally of the unions, however, it would have settled in full immediately after the May 2012 elections and built on the election success to fight the Con-Dem government for the money needed to deliver its budget. This offer has taken almost four months to materialise and fails to meet the promises made before the elections. Labour has already announced cuts and come into collision with the unions.
Action last year
During 2011, some of the largest union mass meetings, demonstrations and picket lines seen in Southampton for generations were organised. Significantly they coincided with the national strikes on 30 June and 30 November, boosting the resolve of the local dispute.
Undoubtedly the depth of the cuts and the anger it provoked were the drive that sustained the strikes. While the call for an all-out strike was never made, in favour of selective action particularly of the refuse workers, at its peak the strike action covered large sections of the council, including port authority workers who struck with solidarity from Unite dock workers.
It was estimated that a million bin bags were lying in streets across the city but despite this a majority of the city supported the strike. This reflected the anti-cuts mood in society and the potential to defeat the Tory council. Throughout the strike Socialist Party members in Southampton gave their full support to the strike action, visiting picket lines, producing regular bulletins, and building solidarity, with campaign stalls across the city.
The Tories tried to ride out the dispute, falsely believing that public opinion would turn against the strike leaving the unions isolated. They hoped that Labour would be tainted by association with the unions and the Tories would maintain control of the council in the 2012 elections.
The effect was exactly the opposite, with Labour the electoral beneficiary, despite active opposition to strike action. In May 2012, the Tories lost over 5,000 votes, 23%, losing ten seats with Labour gaining an overall majority despite losing 1,943 votes themselves.
Labour opposed strikes
Reflecting it's national attitude to strike action, Labour opposed the strikes and in the summer of 2011 drew strong hostility from wide sections of striking council workers following a public statement saying that if elected in 2012, it would be forced to make massive cuts with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
It was in the run up to the 2012 elections that the Unite and Unison leadership shifted strategy away from strike action to an electoral strategy in support of Labour. This was justified on the basis that Labour had made a commitment to restore pay if elected in 2012. The Socialist Party argued against this shift, warning that it was not in the interests of council workers to rely on a Labour council who would end up attacking its workforce.
Within weeks of the May elections it was clear that Labour was struggling to face up to the reality of the financial crisis it inherited and how to meet commitments to the unions and deliver on its wider election promises.
The reality has been drawn-out negotiations that have lasted almost four months with a first offer rejected because it included 90 redundancies. Union relations with Labour had been further soured by the first Labour mini-budget in July that proposed the closure of Oaklands swimming pool and cuts to 30 jobs.
Pressure was dramatically increased on the Labour group by the decision of two Labour councillors for Coxford ward, Keith Morrell and Don Thomas, to vote against the cuts budget. This was with the support of Unite and Unison, whose members were furious at the cuts and the failure to resolve the pay dispute.
There is no doubt that this also confirmed to many in Southampton, including council workers, the warnings of the Socialist Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidates who had stood in the elections in 2011 and 2012 that Labour would be no friend of the unions once elected.
It is clear that Labour and its supporters in the unions fear growing support for TUSC and failure to reach an agreement on the pay dispute would have exacerbated this.
Many council workers will undoubtedly be pleased by the latest offer. But there will be anger that a number will still be out of pocket as pay has not been back-dated to April 2011. Workers earning over £22,000 will not get their pay fully restored until 2014, and car allowances and leave entitlements will not be fully restored. It remains to be seen at union meetings over the next two weeks how members will respond to the offer or if they feel that, having forced the council to retreat once, it can be pushed further.
However the most important lesson of this drawn out dispute is the impact a determined struggle can have through mass strike action and demonstrations in building the unions, the confidence of members to fight back, and to defeat the cuts agenda.
In Southampton this will be as important now under Labour that is planning to make over £40 million cuts in the next two years. The development of the anti-cuts movement and strengthening support for a socialist alternative to austerity is an urgent local task.
Nationally many council worker activists will be asking - if strike action won concessions in Southampton - what more could have been won if national strike action across all local authorities had been taken last year? As the Con-Dem attacks continue the call for such action will grow.
In The Socialist 5 September 2012:
Fight the cuts
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis
Countering the far-right
Socialist Party reports and campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news