Local government: "The Tories want to smash the unions"

Submitted by Matthew on 21 October, 2010 - 11:12

Pete Davies, senior GMB organiser in Sheffield (where local government workers are facing savage cuts and the threat of mass redundancies), spoke to Solidarity.

We’re still locked in negotiations with the council. We’ve had two half-days of talks this week and we expect those to become regular.

We’re braced for the announcement of a 30% cut, which will be between £211 and £220 million depending on which accountant you listen to. The council will be looking to introduce those cuts over three years, with 15% in 2011-12 then 7.5% the following two years.

We find it extremely worrying that Sheffield city council has gone on the offensive against terms and conditions as their first step without even trying to consult, negotiate or reach any kind of voluntary solutions.

They’ve gone straight for cuts to sick pay and pay freezes. We’re quite categorical that we will not accept any changes to terms and conditions, particularly as the council refuses to guarantee that any sacrifices our members do make to their terms and conditions will secure their jobs.

The council is also gearing up to launch a new set of PFIs and outsourcing projects; our members will simply not sacrifice their terms and conditions only to have their job sold off to McDonalds or whichever cowboy company the council plans to have running our services in future.

People are feeling a little battered and bruised at the moment because we’ve recently gone through a pay and grading restructure where a lot of workers lost out. It was a very divisive experience to go through. It was imposed by the council in April without our agreement. However, there is growing anger and frustration and I think that will start to show when the hard reality of the CSR announcements hit.

We all know what’s going on; workers are being made to pay for a crisis the bankers created. The ConDem government doesn’t want workers to have any say in how the debt is paid but they expect us to bear the full brunt of reducing the deficit. I don’t think workers will fall for that lie; we know it’s a global problem caused by the greed of bankers.

We’re trying to work as closely as possible with the Labour group on Sheffield council. We expect them to take control of the council, which is currently hung, certainly by next May if not before. That will be positive, as we can obviously engage with them more closely and directly. We’ve spent more time talking to Labour councillors in the last week than we’ve ever spent with the Lib Dems.

The Liberal Democrats simply don’t want to talk to trade unions. We’re encouraging our members and reps to join and get active in the Labour Party and we also want the Labour Party locally to engage more actively with the trade union movement. It’s a two way process.

Nothing the Tories do should surprise us. They are what they are. You hear a lot of commentary about how these policies are reminiscent of the Thatcher years — well of course they are; it’s the Tories. Quite simply they want to smash the trade union movement in this country. They don’t believe in collective bargaining or trade unions.

It’s already extremely difficult to organise a strike in a way that can’t be undermined by the employer using the courts and they’re already talking about new legislation that I believe would make legal industrial action practically impossible in this country. However, those policies aren’t inevitable. I don’t know how long the Lib Dems will continue to support the Tories, and I think cracks are already beginning to show in the coalition.

Birmingham Council sacking threat

An activist in Birmingham City Unison spoke to Solidarity about the council’s issuing of redundancy notices to its entire workforce.

“The council has issued “Section 188” notices [under section 188 (a) of the Tories’ Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992] giving unilateral notice of a new contract.

“But it’s effectively a redundancy notice — if you don’t sign, you’re dismissing yourself because a redundancy notice will follow! This despite the fact that no one has actually seen the new contracts yet! There have also been other attacks, for instance on evening and weekend allowances, which I, as a full-time carer, heavily depend on.

“I should also stress that a closure program has been going on in our Social Services department for five years; we have had a Tory-Lib Dem coalition council since 2004. In my department, adult learning disability, there were 29 ‘residential units’, i.e. care homes. Now there are two or three, all due to shut soon. The service-users mainly get pushed into care in the private sector.

“All the unions have gone along with this. They say as long as the terms and conditions of their members aren’t affected, it’s fine! Where do they think we will work when these facilities are gone?

“What we’re looking at is an offensive by the city council (and their backers, Capita!) for the total destruction of social services.

“The stewards’ meeting for my section was yesterday [19 October]; it’s one of five stewards’ committees in the council. At the moment the union is basically doing nothing. They say the council is consulting, and they can’t do anything during that 90-day period, period. But the council’s ultimatum is already out there.

“That was said again today. The meeting did pass a motion in favour of strike action (though with no timetable). But that has happened before, and it will simply go on to the branch committee, which is separate from the stewards’ committees and very much sealed off. There are no members’ meetings in our branch, despite it being the biggest union branch, probably, in Europe. So the motion may well just disappear.

“I’m not sure what the next step is, but I’ll keep you informed.”

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