Across the country, local authorities are drawing up their budgets for the next financial year. For many council workers this will mean job cuts and further attacks on wages and conditions. Showing how council workers and people dependent on council services will not take this lying down, ELAINE BRUNSKILL spoke to workers fighting to defend Newcastle school meals service.
LABOUR-CONTROLLED Newcastle city council plans to cut the school meal budget by £1 million. This will result in up to 200 women losing their jobs and an increase in the cost of school meals.
Gillian Battista, one of the threatened workers said: “I’ve worked on the school dinners for 19 years, most of the staff have been around for at least ten years. In the past I’ve always voted Labour… but now there’s no defining line between them and the Tories”. Gillian explained that now all the food is cooked in the school kitchens, with a wide choice of nutritious food but the cuts mean frozen convenience food. “For some kids their school dinner is the only decent meal they’ll get.”
Newcastle city council is in for a rude awakening if they expect the predominantly female workforce to take this without a fight.
Anne Harrison, another worker whose job is under threat said: “They think because you work as a cleaner or as a kitchen assistant, the Cinderella services, that you haven’t got a brain.”
These workers are becoming skilful in organising to defend their jobs. Within days of hearing of the proposed cuts, they were out on the streets. Within two weeks they had collected 13,000 signatures on petitions.
Encouraged by the overwhelming support of people on Tyneside, they have voted to ballot for one-day strike action. Anne Harrison explained that most of the schools in the area don’t have local election day off (4 May). “It would be a perfect time to have a strike. We could cover every polling station and cause maximum embarrassment to the Labour Party.”
They have also floated the idea of standing against Tony Flynn, the council leader, whose seat is up for election. If they do decide to stand it will have an electrifying effect across the city, such is the hostility against the cuts.
Anne Harrison summed up the anger felt by kitchen staff: “We need to be more like the French, we need to be militant”.