The dispute dubbed “the UK’s Wisconsin” has entered its third month as Southampton local government workers extended their strike against mass redundancies and pay cuts.
Workers including parking attendants, toll collectors and port workers began a week-long stoppage on Monday 11 July as the council’s deadline for accepting the new terms came and went. While most workers have accepted the new contracts, those who haven’t have not yet been sacked.
The industrial action’s focus has now shifted from demanding the council withdraws the threat of mass sackings onto straightforwardly demanding the non-implementation of cuts and the restoration of terms and conditions. Nearly 1,000 workers demonstrated on Wednesday 13 July.
The new strikes were launched as a leaked council budgeting report showed that the council plans to spend £5 million a year between 2012 and 2014 on making more workers redundant. The report shows how the council plans to axe 361 posts in 2012, 725 the following year, and 1,224 by 2014. This amounts to a reduction of around 25% of the total workforce, at a cost of £15 million, in just three years.
Unite regional organiser Ian Woodland described the figures as a “disgrace” that would devastate those workers who accepted the worse contracts in a belief that it would secure their job. Figures have also emerged that show the council is preparing to plough a further £4 million into its reserves, exploding the bosses’ lie that cuts are a financial necessity.
Ian Woodland spoke to Solidarity:
“Our demand now is the restoration of our members’ pay to the pre-11 July levels. The key issue for us was always resisting the erosion of our members’ terms and conditions. The council has a twisted view of how to negotiation and relate to unions, and they’ve stampeded to introduce cuts.
“The demonstration on Wednesday 13 July was superb. All our striking members attended, which was about 700.
“Small groups of other workers, including civil servants, teachers and dockers, also joined us, so it was probably around 800 people altogether. It was a very angry, lively, and colourful demonstration. It was scheduled to coincide with a full council meeting which many of our members went into. The strength of feeling and the anger had to be seen to be believed. As the council leader was speaking we turned out backs and walked out.
“Throughout the dispute, our joint stewards’ committee has worked very well. We’ve met at least once a week and if action intensifies we might meet twice. Every morning we’ve had mass meetings on the picket lines giving members updates about where things are at with the negotiations and to discuss what action they want to take. Keeping members informed about the running of the dispute and the ongoing negotiations has been very important. We’ve always taken votes to decide where to go next and which groups of workers to bring out. Groups of strikers have been rota’d to go out into the community and deliver leaflets. Over 60,000 have been distributed to date; it’s been important to keep the community on side and aware of the issues
“Workers outside Southampton can send donations and messages of solidarity.
They’re no small thing; we’ve kept a file and relay them all to our members on picket lines. It’s something very practical and impacting that other trade unionists can do.
“But beyond this, we want the wider movement to observe and learn from our experience. It’s very clear to us that the one day strike is no more. Unions needs to start bringing workers out strategically and putting resources in to make sure those strikes are well supported and backed up. Unions need to think strategically about where we can apply maximum pressure to the employers; we’ve deliberately targeted the income streams for the council, such toll booths and parking. We’ve also brought out workers who can provide a visual picture of the impact of the strike, like street cleaning and refuse. The involvement of port health certification officers has been hugely important too. Before we mobilised them we had discussions with the stewards on the docks to make sure they were completely on board and happy with the proposed actions.
“The port health workers have had a huge impact in terms of slowing down trade and even turning boats away. It’s really been hitting the council hard. The lesson is to think strategically, and organise.
“At this stage, there are three prongs to our campaign.
“This dispute isn’t going to be won or lost just with industrial action. We’re making a legal challenge about the employers’ lack of consultation, and there’s also a debate amongst our membership about taking political action. It’s possible that we’ll get a Labour council at the next election, which opens up certain potentials but it also new pressures and potentially new disputes. The demand of our campaign, on all fronts, remains to restore our members’ pay.
“We feel that the model we’ve got in Southampton can work nationally. The action we need for a dispute like the pensions fight has to be on a much longer term – maybe a week, maybe two weeks.
“We’ve got to be putting our resources into those disputes and making sure members are supported in taking action for as long as it takes to win. That’s what unions are for.”