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Hours cut in Knowsley
Council Workers Enjoy The Fruits Of Victory!
OVER 1,200 local authority employees of Merseyside's Knowsley council are moving this month from a 37 to a 36 hour week, with no loss of pay, in the first of a two-part move which will result in a 35-hour week across the council workforce.
Roger Bannister, branch secretary Knowsley UNISON and member of UNISON's National Executive Council reports.
These workers are either former "manual" workers - such as cleaning, catering, refuse or gardening workers. Or they are part of the former "white-collar" workforce in posts such as residential and day care, where a 37-hour week was also in operation. The majority of these are low-paid women workers.
In the main workers will reduce their hours for no loss of pay. Part-time employees will have a pro-rata reduction in their hours, although in some cases they will continue with their existing hours. But they will be paid for the time at the new hourly rate, based on 36 hours.
For workers working beyond 36 hours, the first additional hour will be paid at the higher hourly rate and any hours beyond that will be paid at time and a half of this new rate.
Single Status Agreement
This arrangement is a major improvement on the national Single Status Agreement (SSA), where working hours remain at 37. It was this Agreement and in particular its inherent weaknesses, that gave rise to the current situation.
Opposed by Socialist Party members in UNISON and by UNISON's left activists in general, expressed through the then-influential Campaign for a Fighting Democratic UNISON, the SSA replaced the old Manual and APT&C (white collar) agreements.
The SSA was opposed because it removed many aspects of the previous two agreements from national pay bargaining. This left them to be defended on a branch-by-branch basis.
Although former manual workers' working hours were reduced from 39 to 37, the message that was picked up by many local authorities was that the SSA gave them the opportunity to take back long-standing conditions of service and to push down labour costs.
This was the case in Knowsley, one of New Labour's northern "one party states", where the SSA was used to push the line that all council workers had to be on a 37-hour week. For over 1,500 former white-collar workers this would mean an increase of two hours.
UNISON negotiated with the council for over two years, pointing out that one paragraph of the SSA actually protected pre-agreement conditions. But the council were intransigent and eventually went over the head of the union, offering a series of "packages" of minimal increases in annual leave to staff who would volunteer for a 37-hour week.
Council spin-doctors organised a road show to encourage workers to move to 37 hours. They clearly wanted to shift the balance of 37-hour working, prior to launching a full-scale attack on the remaining 35-hour workers.
This move was disastrous for the council. UNISON ensured that stewards attended each meeting to put the union's position, countering managements' misinformation. As the word got around that the council was trying to persuade workers to agree to work two additional hours for no more pay, they refused to attend and some meetings were abandoned.
Attack on 35-hour week
Faced with this failure, the council served notice on the 35-hour agreement with effect from 1 February 2001. From that time all new appointments would be on the basis of 37 hours and internal promotions would be only possible if 35-hour workers moved to 37 hours.
This would leave 35-hour workers as a beleaguered and diminishing minority.
UNISON decided to ballot all 35-hour members apart from school employees, over 1,500 in all. Approaches were made to GMB and TGWU to ballot all 37-hour workers later to demand a 35-hour week for all.
UNISON's Annual General Meeting was brought forward a month as part of the campaign for a 'yes' vote and over 600 members attended! Management then launched a vicious propaganda war to get a 'no' vote, starting with a letter to the home addresses of all affected workers. This caused great annoyance by arriving over Christmas!
UNISON responded with a series of special branch bulletins, each one countering the lie of the day, produced on different coloured paper so that they would be distinguished from previous issues. In the event 85% voted to strike!
UNISON thought the council might realise the strength of feeling and offered to hold off the strike if the employer held off the introduction of the 37-hour week, in order to negotiate a settlement. But the council refused and the first day's strike was called for 1 February 2001.
It was amazingly solid, with council building workers and many manual workers refusing to cross picket lines.
In one incident refuse workers went over the picket lines to their canteen, where there is a tradition of discussing union-related matters before work. As the chief officer was about to enter the building the door flew open and the refuse workers marched out, straight into him, having voted to stop work for the day!
Six days of strikes were called over the next few weeks, with no sign of weakening of the members' resolve. The mood of the pickets was high, organising line dancing in the main street of Kirkby, going to Liverpool to lobby the Merseyside Police Authority, when members who service it were on strike, and keeping all the main council buildings closed on strike days.
Scabbing had disastrous consequences, such as the driver who loudly over-revved his council van as he crossed a picket line and crashed into a wall, or the academic from Liverpool University who refused to cross a picket line to attend a meeting. So senior managers in the Education Department had to relocate an important meeting to McDonalds!
A strike committee of branch officers plus each council senior steward ran the strike. At times the strike committee meetings were tense, as sharp tactical differences were discussed, but once a decision had been taken it was implemented and argued through with the members.
It was clear that the council could not win the dispute and there was a prospect of an escalation to involve existing 37-hour workers plus school-based staff, The council sat paralysed, lacking the maturity to clamber out of the hole they had dug.
Sensing this UNISON proposed talks in the presence of an independent conciliator, a proposal that was unlikely to be rejected. When these talks opened, it became obvious that the initial tactic of the council was to sit and agree nothing, hoping that a collapse of the talks would destroy the morale of the strikers, leading to a return to work.
UNISON was determined that this should not happen. We put forward proposals involving compromise on both sides, so that any council walk-out would be seen in a negative light. The council realised that the game was up. After some serious negotiations the new Agreement was hammered out, whereby a defensive strike to hold on to the 35-hour week became an offensive strike, as reduced working hours are extended across the entire workforce.
All 35-hour workers keep that condition throughout their time with the council. New appointments up to 1 April 2004 will be on 37-hour contracts, after which all 37-hour workers drop to 36 hours, prior to the final reduction to 35 hours in 2008.
The members' mood after the strike has been extremely positive and pro-union. They have learned that they do not have to take everything that the bosses throw at them. This strike stands out as a shining example of the effective use of union organisation and fighting leadership, in contrast to the timidity and vacillation that characterises many national trade union leaders.
In The Socialist 3 April 2004:
Workplace news and events
International socialist news and analysis