Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/264/24602
THE COUNCIL workers' strike on 17 July was an inspiration. It showed the determination to fight low pay by the people who prop up large parts of the public sector.
They clearly want to take on New Labour over cuts and privatisation. As the reports below and right show, in many areas Socialist Party members played an important role in making the strike a success.
Mass Action Against Low Pay And Privatisation
THE STRIKE in Bristol was solid, closing most council offices apart from 'life and limb' services. Trade unions took a statement from senior officers that 'some council premises could have picket lines' as a challenge to mount as many pickets as possible.
Paul Moorhouse, UNISON steward
The prize for the most successful picket must go to staff at the central library who mounted a picket from five in the morning, successfully turning away the cleaners and winning support from borrowers.
The picketing and the massively successful march and rally represented a new high point in joint action across the city's three trade unions with past differences being pushed into the background by a strong desire for unity in action.
The march of two to four thousand was applauded by shoppers all through the city centre.
The rally was addressed by officials and lay members from all three unions. Some of the loudest applause came for city council tenants' representative (and Socialist Party member) Geoff Brightman.
He referred to recent elections in which the Leader and Housing Executive lost safe Labour seats and warned Labour councillors: "If you think that you can afford to pay yourselves over £20,000 expenses for cutting wages and destroying services but can't afford to pay a living wage to caretakers and home care assistants, you should not be surprised when tenants and workers won't come out to vote for you.
"If you carry on this way, in future you won't just lose more votes, you could see trade union candidates standing against you."
IT WAS the young trade union reps on the Bristol demo that led the demand for the full 6% claim. With them were the school meals workers, care home assistants, schools assistants.
They were all low paid, overwhelmingly women workers wearing their uniforms to press home the point of who keeps the local authority services going.
The message going out to the local authorities and central government was clear enough though - no less than the full claim with no cuts in services, no job cuts and no rise in council tax to pay for it. The claim to be met in full by central government!
Steve Wootton, Bristol Socialist Party.
"This Was Just The Beginning"
THERE WERE around 50 UNISON and GMB picket lines in Leicestershire. During the week running up to the strike 100 people joined UNISON.
Josie Nicholls, Joint Education convenor, personal capacity
At county hall, the six entrances were covered. Showing their usual solidarity, the postal workers refused to cross the picket lines and a delivery driver bringing IT equipment did the same.
A Tory councillor arrived on an expensive motorbike claiming he would listen to what we had to say. But when we told him that many of our workers earn less than £5 an hour and asked him for a donation for the hardship fund, he said he hadn't got any money!
Members at one workplace, (previously a pit, now a science museum!) were all out. Non-unionised agency workers there felt they had to go in but said that there was a strong possibility that there could be some toast burnt and the alarms would go off causing an evacuation of the building!
Hundreds of union members from around the county and city then gathered together at a rally outside the town hall. I chaired it on behalf of Leicestershire UNISON.
Speakers from UNISON and GMB made it clear this was just the beginning and we need to keep solid. Judging by the response that's just what will happen.
Greetings were given from the Trades Council, UNISON Health branch and Steve Score from the Socialist Party. He was applauded when he pointed to the "fat cats'" pay rises and council leaders giving themselves big rises.
He also got support when he asked why unions donate money to the Labour Party, when that same party is attacking pay and conditions and privatising services.
After an appeal for people to give to the hardship fund, two young women with children came up to me and put a couple of quid in, they said they couldn't afford much because they don't work.
One of them said she couldn't survive without her home care worker and thought it was disgusting that she was paid less than £5 an hour.
Warm Welcome On Welsh Picket Lines
SOCIALIST PARTY Wales members received a warm welcome on all the picket lines and demos we covered.
Manual and office workers were determined to improve their poverty pay and are furious that Labour councillors are getting more in expenses than many of the council workers.
Refuse collectors in Swansea said that the biggest rubbish they had to collect was their wages - some taking home just £120 a week!
Those comments were echoed to our members by school, office and social services staff in Llanelli, Port Talbot, Pontypridd and Cardiff.
Support from the general public was outstanding, highlighted by the fact that Swansea and Port Talbot Socialist Party members sold over 200 copies of The Socialist in the run-up to the one-day strike and collected £94 fighting fund in Swansea on the day!
Low-paid workers in the private sector recognise that the fight for decent wages affects everyone and the council workers are guaranteed continued support until they win.
Striking Success Around The Country - London, Knowsley, Swindon And Sheffield
MANAGERS, AGENCY staff and non-union workers found themselves locked out at 8am at Newham Council's offices in Stratford, east London. They were joined by a vanload of police and security men who eventually opened up the building.
However, much to the GMB and UNISON pickets' delight the strikebreakers very soon had to vacate as the building's internal security doors remained locked.
"It's been a great day", said a smiling UNISON picket!
THE STRIKE was rock solid in Knowsley. All the main One Stop Shops were closed to the public, and 34 schools closed. Construction workers in UCATT and Amicus, not covered by the dispute, refused to cross picket lines.
In the days prior to the strike, membership applications flooded in. At lunchtime, pickets went to Liverpool for a joint rally with strikers from Liverpool city council. They heard speakers including Socialist Party member Roger Bannister, vice chair of UNISON's Industrial Action committee, attacking low pay in local government.
Attacks on the continued funding of New Labour by the unions drew loud cheers from the crowd.
A MAN came over to a Swindon picket line and said: 'Stay out, it's the only way you'll get your money. I was at Rover, we were out for seven weeks and we got our money. Stay out."
John Black told me: "Blair is more conservative than Thatcher. The public services are the backbone of the country. New Labour are in power because people hoped they would make services better. Instead things haven't improved much.
"Under-funded council services have had money cut. There have been many reviews but things like 'Best Value' try to compare profit making companies with non-profit making organisations, they do not compare like with like."
All the pickets said the dispute was not just about money but also the general neglect of council services.
OVER 300 STRIKERS came to a rally in Sheffield. Paul, GMB caretaker on a housing estate, said: "We've just had a 25% pay cut! Housing caretakers living on the job used to get rent-free accommodation but that's been taken away. That's an average £50 a week pay cut."
Rosie, UNISON steward for Planning, Transport and Highways: "We're balloting for action in our department because staff face redundancies and a £3,000 downgrading due to a budget crisis but they've appointed two more top managers!"
Winning Over Agency Workers
ONE OF the questions facing council workers during the strike was that of agency workers. Up to a million agency and contract workers can be employed at any one time throughout the public sector.
Bill Mullins, Socialist Party industrial organiser
Labour ministers boasted before the strike that it would not be like 1979 because then there were seven million public sector workers and now there are only five million. The rest have been privatised or replaced by agency labour.
Many agency workers have worked for the same councils for years but in general do not have union protection and can be taken off the agents' books at the drop of a hat.
Some of these workers felt forced to cross picket lines but they can be won to the solidarity and protection of the trade unions.
I was on a picket line with about 40 GMBTU, UNISON and TGWU members at Newham central services depot in east London. When the agency workers turned up for work, at least a dozen police in body armour appeared.
A discussion started amongst the pickets and the agency workers. Some pickets felt that they should be allowed in, others were unsure. The agency workers were also unhappy but didn't know what to do.
The shop steward was not around, so I got the agency's phone number off one of the workers and spoke to the manager. He said he was only following the council managers' instructions.
I said if action was taken against anyone who didn't want to cross the picket line, there was likely to be repercussions. I explained these people work alongside the council staff, who would take a dim view of the agency workers doing their jobs.
Obviously very flustered, he promised he would ring back. I told some of the pickets and the agency workers and Tony, one of the pickets, offered at my suggestion to talk to the agency manager.
In a loud enough voice for many of the agency workers to hear, he told the manager that if any action was taken against the workers, he would organise another strike and picket line the next day.
Getting into his stride he said it was disgusting to treat human beings the way the agency did.
Eventually the manager conceded that agency workers who did not want to cross the picket line could book a day's holiday.
When Tony gave the agency workers the good news, some were still unsure and wanted to know what would happen if they were told they were not wanted the following day.
Tony and other pickets then produced a bundle of union recruitment forms and said: "When you're in the union we will protect you". The agency workers then stood in a long line to join the union.
One of the agency workers spoke at the Newham strikers' rally, saying: "You're striking for 6%, we're striking for 0%, but we hope you'll stand with us in our fight against low pay".
The word got around other Newham picket lines like wild fire. At the all-London rally Heather Wakefield, UNISON's national officer declared: "Even agency workers in Newham were joining the union and not crossing the picket line."
She didn't mention this wouldn't have happened without the Socialist Party.
At Least 80% Out In Coventry
AN ESTIMATED 80% of Coventry's council workers walked out in support of Wednesday's national strike. 250 workers rallied outside the town hall and called for the rejection of the 3% pay rise in favour of 6%.
Mark Power, Coventry
Dorothy, an education worker, said: " 3% of my wage would mean an increase of just 15p per hour. There should be total, complete shut down. Everybody. Until we've got what we want."
Coventry's three Socialist councillors joined the protest. When Dave Nellist spoke he got enthusiastic cheers when he called for further industrial action.
Socialist councillor Rob Windsor commented: "The workers are going to have to escalate the action and let the council and the government know they really mean business. We need further picketing which will help build a wider campaign against Labour's privatisation programme."
Linking With The Teachers' Unions
ADDRESSING THE strikers at Walthamstow Town Hall, Linda Taaffe, bringing greetings from the NUT said: " The strikers have shown how essential they are to education. My school has closed, even though there are only a few union members.
"Many teachers feel upset that their union did not follow through on their strike last March over London Allowance. However, a few days ago the NUT executive came under so much pressure that they decided to ballot all members in London and the Fringe for a further one day strike in September.
"We will be fighting to make that a coordinated action with other teaching and support staff unions. If the union leaderships can manage to talk to each other we might yet get a London-wide education shutdown over pay."
In The Socialist 26 July 2002: