George Binette

Unions: Local ripples, but no national wave

George Binette
Unions: Local ripples, but no national wave

AS SPRING APPROACHES, there are certainly green shoots of renewed combativity among sections of organised workers. These are frequently in ancillary jobs outsourced from the public sector, alongside ongoing battles by RMT members at regional rail companies and lecturers in both the further and higher education sectors.

Obviously, these actions are hugely important to the workers directly involved and warrant both a higher profile and more practical support across the wider labour movement. But, with notable exceptions, few strikes last more than two days and usually involve at most hundreds rather than thousands of members.

Nonetheless, the opening weeks of 2019 have seen two long-running, significant disputes move towards positive resolutions. In Glasgow, hundreds of workers rallied outside the city’s grand council chambers to celebrate a settlement to an equal pay dispute affecting thousands of women employed as carers, cleaners and catering staff, as well as up to 300 men working as school janitors. The deal hammered out between Unison and GMB negotiators and council management, which entails hundreds of millions in back pay, came after more than a decade.

A two-day strike last autumn, involving some 8,000 workers, proved decisive in breaking the deadlock.

In addition, the protracted battle by RMT members to retain guards on trains across the North West has inched towards settlement, with management at Arriva Rail Northern conceding that conductors should feature on all trains. While there is not yet a final agreement, the RMT’s executive agreed to suspend strikes for further negotiations after 47 days of action over nearly two years. Meanwhile, RMT members on South West Trains, also opposing driver-only-operation, have again voted overwhelmingly to continue with strike action after an 88% Yes vote in the fourth ballot mandated under the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act.

Elsewhere in the transport sector, Uniteorganised bus drivers in County Durham secured an improved pay deal through the threat of a further strike, while other Unite members at First Group’s Yorkshire bus operation won the reinstatement of two suspended union representatives after an overwhelming Yes to action among 3,500 members.

Unlikely militants

The past year has seen strikes by traffic wardens employed on outsourced parking enforcement contracts in three London boroughs (Camden, Hackney and Wandsworth). Since late January GMB-organised wardens have struck for four days to support a demand for occupational sick pay from NSL, the sector’s largest player. NSL is also the contractor in Camden, which has witnessed the most sustained action with Unison members striking for 33 days between October 2018 and mid-February in pursuit of a substantial rise in basic pay and improved terms for annual leave and sick pay.

While current legislation demands a second ballot in the near future, the resolve of the largely black African workforce remains remarkably strong.

Workers on the single biggest NSL contract in the City of Westminster, now in the GMB, also look primed for action after rejecting the company’s pay offer. Regrettably, there is not yet any co-ordination between the two unions and across the NSL contracts.

Though these strikes have gained little media coverage, they highlight migrant workers’ willingness to organise and fight back against poverty pay and poor working conditions that have arisen as direct results of privatisation and the erosion of union strength. Such actions also deprive cash-strapped councils of vital revenue even as private contractors such as NSL continue to get their contractual payments, underscoring the perverse nature of the outsourcing regime.

Pop-up Co-operation

Migrant workers are at the centre of another dispute involving ancillary workers on outsourced contracts for cleaning, reception and security at two central government departments, the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Since the start of this year there have been four days of action with a welcome degree of co-ordination between a so-called pop-up union, United Voices of the World (UVW), which has proved itself effective in a number of battles for the London Living Wage, and the main civil service union, the PCS.

The two departments have contracts with different firms but, given similar demands around the introduction of the London Living Wage, UVW and the PCS have opted to co-ordinate strikes to maximise their profile and impact. This may well mark the first example of formal collaboration between a TUC-affiliated union and one of several pop-up formations, which have had some success in organising among outsourced workers and in the ‘gig economy’ (e.g. Deliveroo and Uber).

The NHS and the Outsourced

Ancillary workers employed by private contractors at NHS hospitals have been among those threatening strike action. At Kingston Hospital in south west London GMB members working as cleaners, kitchen and portering staff, have staged a series of lively protests over the refusal of multinational ISS to offer occupational sick pay. Once again the workers involved are overwhelmingly minority ethnic including many recent migrants. At the Liverpool Women’s Hospital some 40 Unison-organised workers, employed by privateer OCS, voted unanimously to strike in pursuit of parity with directly employed NHS workers.

In the further and higher education sectors the UCU lecturers’ union is mounting limited action over pay in response to a derisory 1% offer from FE employers, while also balloting university lecturers for action. EIS-organised lecturers have already staged more extensive action in Scottish colleges. In England Unison is now balloting members among support staff in some 20 FE colleges.

A Way Forward?

Despite the sharp falls in membership density and workplace organisation, these examples show that unions may be down but are certainly not out. Even so, the union response to the nearly decade-long austerity offensive has been woefully inadequate. The virtual absence of national action beyond the odd TUC initiated Saturday stroll through central London still seems extraordinary given the scale of attacks, which have slashed hundreds of thousands of jobs, eroded real pay and squeezed pensions across the public sector.

The outcome of the recent consultative ballot across the membership of the largest teaching union, the NEU, underscores the challenges. While an overwhelming majority of members participating in an electronic ballot that ran for nearly two months supported action against the impact of funding cuts, fewer than one in three actually voted, with only eight of the union’s scores of associations surpassing the 50% threshold imposed by the Tories’ 2016 legislation.

Undoubtedly, repressive anti-union laws - among the most draconian in the western world - pose real obstacles, and demands on a Labour government to repeal the whole arsenal of Thatcher/ Major era legislation are utterly justified. But removing legal shackles will hardly prove a panacea. The NEU ballot result points to low morale among all too many teachers and suggests a dangerous disconnect between the national leadership, union activists and the membership at large - with school reps and lay officers frequently ground down by workloads. These problems are, of course, far from unique to the NEU, though other unions including the CWU (Royal Mail) and UCU (pre-1992 universities) have succeeded in beating the Tory-imposed thresholds.

All too often the anti-union laws have served as a pretext for full-time, often appointed, officials to delay or halt action. Sectional and inter-union rivalries have also blocked effective co-ordination, while proposals for episodic one-day strikes hardly inspire confidence of victory. In addition, the patchy effectiveness of social media has not compensated for the decline of the mass meeting and the marginalisation of workplace reps.

Abysmal turnouts in elections for senior union posts and vacant positons for local stewards attest to the need for far greater membership engagement. Strengthened accountability and transparency at all levels of union organisation aren’t simply desirable but essential, however challenging in the context of ‘super unions’ that cut across industrial sectors.

There has also been far too little done to engage service users in opposition to cuts in provision through sustained community campaigning, though this has now become a key dimension of the Birmingham Unison branch’s battle to defend the jobs and pay of homecare workers with door-to-door canvassing in Labour-controlled wards. The workers haven’t secured a victory, but the campaign has highlighted divisions within the ruling Labour group and triggered resignations from the council’s cabinet.

Meanwhile, another union, the PCS, by far the largest in the Civil Service, is about to undertake a national industrial action ballot to press its demand for a 10% rise. The official postal ballot opens on 18th March and will run for six weeks among some 120,000 union members across central government departments.

The union ran a dress rehearsal of sorts in late 2017, which fell just 12,000 votes of beating the threshold. The upcoming ballot is clearly a critical test for the PCS, but it should also serve as a wake-up call to union activists more broadly that a generalised fightback really is possible, especially at a time when Irish nurses and midwives are staging multiple days of action and teachers in US cities and states have mounted indefinite, successful strikes.

Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP