Barnet workers defy bullying

Submitted by vickim on 19 September, 2011 - 12:28

By Vicki Morris

Barnet Unison local government branch held a successful strike on Tuesday 13 September.

They had balloted 313 members in the services first up for privatisation as part of the “One Barnet Programme” (OBP), which will see the bulk of council services delivered by private sector companies.

If the plan goes ahead, most of the current council employees will be transferred to private sector employment.

Unison’s strike over “the identity of the employer” was due to last half a day from 1pm, but Tory-run Barnet council locked out the striking workers from the morning, making it a day’s strike and docking a day’s pay. As they turned up to work, everyone in the services due to strike – parking, planning and regulatory services, revenues and benefits – was asked to sign a register saying that they agreed to work for the whole day. Those who would not sign were told to leave the council premises.

A few people who would have taken part in the half-day strike were intimidated by these means into working. However, one person who was not in the union and had not planned to take part in the strike was so angry with management that he refused to sign and went home.

Barnet Unison got wind of the council’s plan the day before and moved quickly to get Unison to commit to pay the extra half-day’s lost pay.

The council had tried other ways to intimidate Unison members. On the previous Thursday they wrote to all staff accusing the Unison branch of acting in bad faith toward its members. They claimed Unison had rejected management’s final offer without putting it to the members, in order to drag them into industrial action. In fact, the council had not told Unison that a recent offer was its final offer; Unison was waiting to hear further from management. It is the council that has acted in bad faith. The council has now decided to impose the offer, which is, moreover, not nearly as generous as the council is claiming.

Throughout negotiations Unison have asked for “TUPE plus”, that is, for staff to move to private sector employment on the same pay and terms and conditions for at least five years, and for new employees taken on to be able to join the Local Government Pension Scheme (LGPS). The council’s offer, however, is the standard TUPE offer of the same pay and terms, guaranteed for one year only. They are calling it TUPE plus, because they say they are writing into the contracts they make with private sector companies that the new employer must commit to consulting with unions, and that all employees can stay in the LGPS – the fact is that the scheme could go bust without new entrants, landing the council with more liability.

Barnet Unison has already experienced in recent small-scale privatisations how little such promises protect transferred workers [see Unison branch letter].

Intimidation

The council put giant posters up in the common staff areas of their offices repeating the slander against Unison. They considered seeking an injunction against the strike, although they drew back from this.

Barnet has become notorious as a result of recent managerial and political blunders, and Conservative Party managers are keeping an eye on the borough. The Tories are worried also about the possibility of the Barnet and Camden member of the GLA, a particularly venal, arrogant and politically abrasive Barnet Tory councillor named Brian Coleman, losing his seat in the election next year.

The decision not to escalate the dispute with the union branch was perhaps taken for these reasons, and because the Tories cannot afford to have another union cause célèbre alongside Southampton and Plymouth councils. Too many local government disputes at once could start a bandwagon effect of resistance.

Instead, the council seems to have calculated that its best option is to undermine the strike in the way it did, and then to assess the impact of the strike, hoping that Unison have nothing more in the tank.

The council’s intimidation probably did have a limited effect.

There is a wide range of workers involved in the action. From well-paid planners, some of them recent converts to trade unionism, though nonetheless enthusiastic for that, to low-paid parking attendants. It is the lower-paid who have felt more pressure to knuckle under. They feel the loss of pay more. Also, management had threatened the parking attendants that anyone going on strike would never be given overtime again.

This is management bullying and the union opposes it. However, it highlights of course one of the dangers of unions acquiescing in a situation where low-paid workers can only achieve decent pay through doing overtime.

On 13 September, in spite of all this bullying, however, at least 200 workers did join the strike. Most of them played a very active part on the day. There were picket lines in the morning at the council offices. Strikers spent late morning and the afternoon visiting high streets around the borough to talk to residents about the One Barnet Programme. They distributed 7,500 copies of One Barnet, the newspaper of the anti-cuts group, the Barnet Alliance, which bears the headline “One Barnet Programme: hands off our services!”

In the evening, around 150 people attended a rally at Hendon Town Hall, before the evening’s council meeting.

Next steps

Although Barnet Unison, together with anti-cuts campaigners, Barnet Labour Parties and even local bloggers have built a formidable propaganda machine against the council, aimed at increasing the political costs of One Barnet to the Tories, this strategy can only take the campaign so far. More industrial action will be needed and Barnet Unison have discussed taking further action in October and November.

Up and down the country, councils are using different ways to cut working class people’s living standards. Either through direct cuts to services, or raising charges, or squeezing the pay and conditions of their workforces. Outsourcing is a less risky strategy for councils who want to take on their workforces, as it passes the job of attacking workers to the private sector and over a longer time frame. The alternative strategies of cutting pay and conditions in one fell swoop, as in Southampton, or de-recognising the unions, as in Plymouth recently, are more high stakes. In the long run, however, outsourcing probably has worse implications for the quality of the services that working class people rely on.

In all these cases, the unions and community must campaign together: worse services, and attacks on the workers delivering those services go hand in hand. In Barnet we have been successful in building and stressing the need for unity.

The unions, in the first place Unison, must support branches fighting these massive attacks. In the case of outsourcing, Unison could do a lot more to highlight the problems with past and current outsourcing projects that have gone wrong – there are many – and shine more light on the outsourcing companies – the likes of Serco, Capita, BT – who have so far gone fairly unnoticed by the wider anti-cuts movement.

Of course, they should not be attacking their own activists. It is good that the witch-hunt in Unison seems to have abated. Unison HQ and London region are throwing their support behind Barnet Unison. They seem to have woken up to the fact that Unison’s days are numbered if it cannot defend its own branches.

While the GMB in Barnet has been active in the political campaign against outsourcing, they have been conspicuous by their absence from the industrial struggle. If GMB London region’s strategy in cutting and outsourcing councils is for its members to keep their heads down, they are making a mistake. The bosses know how to play divide and rule. We in the trade union movement should have learned by now that unity is strength!

Barnet Unison letter to members regarding management’s “final offer”

I want to take this opportunity to go over the “council offer”, which has been imposed on staff last week through the use of quite extraordinary communications.

Is this a generous offer?

1. All employees in services moving to a new employer will be able to continue their membership of the Local Government Pension Scheme uninterrupted and unchanged.

2. Local union recognition will be protected for staff moving to external suppliers.

3. Terms and conditions of staff transferred will be protected for at least one year after leaving the council's employment.

4. Any changes to terms and conditions after that first year will have to be negotiated with the appropriate trade union.

Now take a look at the real story they don’t want you to read and then compare it with the “council offer”.

1. Fremantle

When care staff were outsourced to Fremantle they took their pensions with them - less than 20% of staff are now left in the scheme.

When care staff were outsourced Fremantle recognised UNISON.

When care staff were outsourced Fremantle consulted with the UNISON over changes to terms and conditions.

When care staff were outsourced Fremantle waited a couple of years before they destroyed the terms and conditions of our members.

2. Greenwich Leisure

When staff were transferred to Greenwich Leisure they took their pensions with them – there are less than 1% left in the scheme.

When staff were transferred Greenwich Leisure recognised UNISON.

When staff were transferred Greenwich Leisure consulted with UNISON over changes to terms and conditions after a couple of years. There are now no staff left on council terms and conditions.

3. Cleaning contractors (there have been two TUPE transfers in seven years)

When cleaners were transferred to cleaning contractors they took their pensions - less than 1% are left in the scheme.

When cleaners were transferred the cleaning contractors recognised UNISON.

When cleaners were transferred the cleaning contractors consulted with UNISON.

When cleaners were transferred the cleaning contractors waited over a year before attacking terms and conditions.

4. Home care workers

When home care workers were transferred to Housing 21 they took their pension with them – there are less than 20% left in the scheme.

When home care workers were transferred Housing 21 recognised UNISON.

When home care workers were transferred Housing 21 consulted with UNISON when they attacked our members’ terms and conditions.

5. Housing repair workers

When housing repair workers were transferred to Connaught they took their pensions - there are less than 30% of them left in the scheme.

When housing repair workers were transferred Connaught recognised UNISON.

When housing repairs were transferred Connaught consulted with UNISON before attacking our members’ terms and conditions.

Our members working in housing repairs are now working for Lovell but are now facing their fourth TUPE in six years.

Barnet UNISON response to the “council offer”

We told the Council the following:

1. Location is the number one concern for our members. If the contractor plans to deliver services outside of the borough all the other points in the council offer are subsequently meaningless if you are made redundant. UNISON said the services must be located within the borough. We have consistently been saying this since 2008.

2. Pension scheme must be open to new starters.

3. Protection should be for the life of the contract or, in the case of 10-year contracts, a minimum of five years.

TUPE has been a concern for Barnet staff since the launch of Future Shape/easyCouncil/One Barnet. The most common question asked by staff in the last three years is “How long does TUPE last?”

There is no real answer. It covers the moment you are transferred to the new employer. Most companies wait at least a year before they start on terms and conditions. In our local examples above that was the case. UNISON knows it, the Council knows it; which is why UNISON is saying the Council is being disingenuous when it states: “Terms and conditions of staff transferred will be protected for at least one year after leaving the council's employment.”

If the contractor can claim there is an economic and/or technical or organisational (aka ETO) reason for change they can consult on changes to terms and conditions; this is what happened to all the former council employees.

UNISON understands the risks to our members and services to residents. It is our role as a trade union to try and protect our members’ livelihoods. That is what trade unions do.

No self respecting trade union would do otherwise. Our branch has attempted over three years to enter into a genuine dialogue with the Council and that is still our position.

Up until 6 September we were waiting for the full and final offer which we would submit to our members for consultation. However, things changed dramatically when the Council launched a pre-emptive attempt to undermine and spread confusion amongst our members by using what members have described as “bullying and intimidatory use of council communications”.

UNISON have consistently made it clear that we would suspend any action once we received a final offer.

Branch secretary, Barnet Unison

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