Hull Labour council attacks trade unions

Photo Paul Mattsson

Photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Mick Whale, Hull City council trade union chair

Unbelievably, at a time when the Parliamentary Labour Party is attempting to fight off the Tory’s anti-trade union legislation, Hull Labour has just agreed measures to remove Unite and GMB convenor facility time.

The Labour councillors are claiming that Unite and GMB do not have enough members to justify the cost of a full time convenor, and therefore as part of the cuts the posts have to go. This is despite the fact that there has been no formal agreement between the council and the trade unions about membership.

The council argument that this is purely about council finances is shot to pieces anyway because the convenors have been offered alternative posts in the authority. Where is the financial saving if the council has to continue paying them their wages?

Workers in the council understand that this is a political attack on the trade unions. Hull council trade unions have fought an ongoing battle over the last five years against cuts and to defend the terms and conditions of the council workforce which has been partially successful. Council Leader Steve Brady summed up the outlook of the council leadership – both councillors and council officers – when he recently moaned: “… Everything is always such a battle in Hull”.

Well Steve, you had better get ready for more battles! If you think that workers will tamely accept a further £800,000 of cuts in terms and conditions plus a move to save £750,000 through “more flexible working” in this year’s budget, then think again.

Impact of lobby

Many Labour councillors were clearly rattled by the lobby and previous discussions union activists have had with them. Many recognise that bit by bit they are dismantling council services to such an extent that there will be nothing left to cut soon.

The attacks on services and the trade unions do not sit easy with many councillors. Quite a few asked the protesters who were lobbying: “What is the alternative?” When we put forward the TUSC strategy of setting a ‘needs budget’, supported by use of reserves and prudential borrowing, they responded that that strategy is illegal.

If ever there was a need for Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to show some leadership on these issues it is now. If they were to use their authority to cut through the lies and misinformation that Labour councillors have been fed, it would be possible to build a resistance to the cuts.

They should organise a Labour movement conference to dispel the myths about budget ‘illegality’. Most importantly, they should use such a conference to launch a national campaign of defiance against the cuts.

Potential support

While they would face opposition from some councillors to such an approach, they might be surprised at just how much support there is among ordinary Labour councillors to an alternative if it had the official stamp of Labour on it.

The battle against the cuts is likely to be one of the defining issues of Jeremy’s leadership. The fight against austerity was the rallying cry which drew tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people to support him in the Labour leadership campaign last summer. Jeremy is approaching a crossroads, however. He cannot be against cuts and austerity in words but allow Labour councils to implement cuts in practice.

There is still a font of goodwill towards him but patience is beginning to wear thin. One female Unite activist I spoke with on the lobby summed it up: “I am one of those who re-joined the Labour Party after Jeremy won. I am now starting to wonder if it was such a good idea”.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 26 February 2016 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.