Industrial and political battles at Hull city council

Mick Whale

It has been a week of twists and turns in the battle to defend terms and conditions for Hull council workers. The workforce is clear that if you stand together you can have an impact on management and politicians alike.

A few councillors, including the magnificent Hull three who voted against the cuts and were suspended from the Labour group for their actions, are completely opposed to any of the cuts. Others are just starting to realise the devastation that faces the city and are starting to panic. Another group wants to smash the council workforce and privatise as many services as possible.

The local trade union leadership pointed out, when Labour took over from the Lib Dems in 2011, that if they implemented the cuts Labour would be seen as the party of cuts. This is now being borne out as the Lib Dems have started to regain support.

The trade union negotiators started discussions with the council in good faith. But negotiators and the workers they represent were furious to find that behind our backs, the authority had sent out letters which effectively served notice of redeployment!

Some Labour politicians are blaming the officers for sending out the letter without their knowledge. This may well be true, but who is running the council?

The unions’ response was bold and immediate. With very little notice, we organised a successful lobby of a Labour group meeting. Many of the councillors were visibly shaken.

Some Labour leaders think that all they need to do is to explain the severity of the crisis facing the city and the workforce will accept the cuts. The authority privately admits that around 1,500 jobs will have to go in the next two years. But the workforce has already rejected cuts in pay and terms and conditions in a ballot.

Some of the more cynical Labour leaders will probably claim that the failure of the workforce to accept cuts will mean they will have to fall elsewhere. But we will not allow the council to play the workforce off against services and service users in a race to the bottom.

Significantly, some Labour leaders are accepting in private that Labour should have joined with the trade unions to fight for more resources for the city. They have yet to make this clear but it is an indication of the pressure which is mounting on them.

The cabinet has set in train proposals to dismiss the workforce and re-engage on worse terms and conditions. But also, senior members of the cabinet have been given a brief to try and negotiate a more “acceptable” set of cuts with the trade union negotiators.

The problem remains that the council has budgeted to make £2.8 million cuts in terms and conditions. It is difficult to see how a package could be put together that would be accepted by the workforce!

The unions will take part in negotiations but we will not allow them to deflect us from campaigning for action among our members.

Increasingly, the battle to defend jobs, terms and conditions is taking on a political rather than simply industrial colour. Council employees are increasingly understanding that they need a different leadership in the council.

Some see this as a change in the Labour leadership but many are questioning whether they can support Labour at all.

Labour should remember that it was the mass ranks of the local authority workforce that swept them into office in 2010. Those same council workers will be the shock troops campaigning for anti-cuts candidates in 2014 if they continue on the current course.