IN RECENT YEARS, all-out, indefinite strikes in Britain have been rare indeed. At times such actions had seemingly been relegated to the labour movement’s history. This summer, however, has witnessed a modest revival with two indefinite strikes already underway and a third threatened to get underway by late August.
All three disputes - one involving Unite members, another PCS-organised workers and the third Unison members - are related to the outsourcing of public sector jobs and its damaging consequences for the workers concerned.
The longest running strike involves some 50 Unite members employed as library staff in Tory-controlled Bromley council, which outsourced the management of its libraries to GLL (Greenwich Leisure Limited) in 2017.
The current action started on 6th June. GLL, which trades under the name of Better, has local authority contracts to operate leisure services in 16 London boroughs. In the past decade it’s also become the single biggest manager of ‘public’ libraries in England with council contracts in five authorities including Lincolnshire. All told GLL is responsible for more than 110 library branches, exceeding the total for any English local authority. Though branded as a ‘social enterprise’ and so having charitable status, its employment practices have made it indistinguishable from any other private company leeching off the public sector.
The Bromley library workers concluded that they had no option but an indefinite withdrawal of their labour over GLL management’s failure to fill staff vacancies even as employees received no additional payments for acting up and others hadn’t received their basic contractual rates. In addition to pickets outside libraries in the south-east London borough, the workers have organised a series of protests at four GLL facilities elsewhere in London as well as a demonstration outside the Bloomsbury headquarters of SportsAid, whose royal patron is the Duchess of Cambridge. Unite is also urging a public boycott of GLL-operated leisure facilities for the duration of the strike.
Meanwhile, the protracted battle to secure the London Living Wage (LLW) and other improvements for outsourced workers at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has escalated dramatically with catering workers and cleaners, organised in the PCS, launching indefinite action from 15th July. The catering staff, employed by the US-based multinational Aramark, had already taken more than three weeks of action since the start of the year, while the cleaners, who transferred to the Danish-based outsourcing giant ISS on 1st March, had previously participated in two short strikes. These workers were joined by other recently recruited PCS members on the ISS contract, working as security guards, porters and post room staff, for a full week from 22nd-26th July. Assuming that there is no settlement before the end of August, these ISS employees are likely to rejoin the fray in September.
While the new Secretary of State for BEIS, Andrea Leadsom, had seen the introduction of the LLW on outsourced contracts at her previous government department, she has also called in Parliament for scrapping the minimum wage and rights to maternity/paternity pay for employees in smaller businesses. Thus far, she has not intervened in the BEIS dispute so she may soon face a visit to her South Northamptonshire parliamentary constituency by irate strikers, similar to what her predecessor Greg Clark faced in Tunbridge Wells in June. In the meantime, the BEIS strikers have forged links with cleaners, also PCS members, fighting for similar demands on an ISS contract at three HMRC offices on Merseyside.
Potentially the largest of these indefinite strikes, involving roughly 300 Unison members at Bradford teaching hospitals, stems from the threat of outsourcing. Having mounted a two-week strike, the workers have unanimously backed indefinite action from 26th August. The ancillary staff - mainly cleaners, porters and security guards - are waging a determined fight to remain direct NHS employees.
Hospital trust management are aiming to transfer their jobs to an arms-length company from October and while management has issued public pledges to honour all NHS pay awards, terms and conditions, the workers are rightly sceptical. After all, why go to the trouble of setting up such a company unless the objective is to slash labour costs?
In addition, the limited protection afforded by TUPE doesn’t extend to future recruits.
Precisely because these strikes have become all-out and indefinite they have a disproportionate significance. For workers’ battles to reach this stage requires commitment from local union representatives, frequently from fulltime union officials and, crucially, no small measure of courage from the workers themselves, who must combine a willingness to sacrifice with a confidence that they can indeed win their demands.
Obviously, it is easier to surmount the hurdles imposed by the Tories’ most recent anti-union legislation with small, geographically concentrated workforces. While these three strikes involve fewer than 500 workers and won’t generate mainstream headlines, the issues posed affect quite literally millions of workers across Britain on a daily basis. Victories in these three battles could serve to bolster that great intangible - workers’ confidence - and also embolden union leaderships to consider once more the possibility of a wider revival of an old weapon in the working class arsenal.
How can you help these workers win? For Bromley library workers, please make cheques payable to ‘Bromley Unite’ and send for the attention of Onay Kasab, regional officer, c/o Unite, 33-37 Moreland Street, London EC1V 8BB. For PCS strikers at BEIS, send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org, while donations can be made here. For Unison strikers at Bradford hospitals, please donate via bank transfer to Unity Trust, sort code 608301, a/c no 49021215, or cheque made out to Bradford Health Services Branch and posted to UNISON office, Field House, Bradford Royal Infirmary, Duckworth Lane, Bradford BD9 6RJ.
Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP