ReportsGeorge Binette

Strikes: a time of spreading 'contagion'?

ReportsGeorge Binette
Strikes: a time of spreading 'contagion'?

LAST YEAR'S FIGURES for strike action approached record low levels. The number of officially recorded work stoppages plunged to just 81 nationally, the second lowest figure since 1930 when official monitoring first began.

Nearly two-thirds of recorded strike days occurred in the education sector, largely because of the pensions dispute in the older universities. The number of days of action in the public sector fell to its lowest level in more than two decades. Overall, fewer than 40,000 union members were involved in official industrial action in 2018, though this actually marked a slight rise on 2017.

On the face of such evidence, then, the cumulative impact of the defeats of the 1980s, draconian anti-union legislation, strengthened still further in 2016, and a depleted corps of shop stewards - frequently focused on individual casework for apathetic members - all seemingly spelled the consistent, long-term, if not terminal, decline of the strike in Britain. And yet recent weeks have seen a flurry of strike ballots and industrial action in both the public and private sectors.

Beyond the national ballots among the CWU membership at Royal Mail and Parcelforce, and the UCU poll across universities reported in this issue, BA pilots grounded some 1,600 scheduled flights on 9th and 10th September with more action threatened towards the end of the month. Nearly 4,000 ground staff at Heathrow are again on the brink of action after rejecting two revised pay offers. Workers at two Hull-based factories (Crown Paints and Karro Foods) have mounted multiple walk-outs over the summer, even as the RMT’s dispute over the role of the safety-critical guard rumbled on at South Western Railways with four days of action in late August.

Elsewhere, some 1,600 GMB members employed at depots in Magor, South Wales and Worksop, Nottinghamshire, operated by discount retail giant Wilko, were set to strike in late September after a 84% Yes vote in opposition to the imposition of new contracts that included mandatory weekend working.

Both GMB and Unite members were set to slow the flow of whisky and other spirits in September from distilleries in Scotland, operated by multinational Diageo, with a 10-day programme of rolling strikes due to start on 17th September.

Meanwhile, Unite-organised health visitors in Lincolnshire have continued their unprecedented fight over drastic pay cuts, mounting a week-long strike from 9th September. Unison members at Birmingham University have also struck in September with further action planned even as the union has launched a ballot for action over pay at virtually all universities, timed to coincide with potential UCU action in response to a proposed average ‘rise’ of 1.8% (in short, another real terms pay cut for most staff). Unison has also announced a ballot of catering staff, cleaners and porters at the Royal Cornwall hospital on an outsourced contract with the notorious privateer Mitie in one of several disputes this year with private contractors at NHS facilities.

The non-TUC affiliated United Voices of the World union, which has organised largely among ancillary workers on outsourced contracts, has promised an ‘autumn and winter of discontent’ in Greater London with seven strike ballots either completed or underway. There is even a strike threatened by furious Unite members, who are outsourced workers in the kitchen at Colfe’s, one of London’s oldest elite private schools where Unite claims workers are each owed nearly £5,000 in back wages at an institution where annual pupil fees can top £17,500.

In addition, two indefinite strikes, covered in last month’s issue continued. Library workers, outsourced to the so-called social enterprise GLL by Torycontrolled Bromley council, have entered the third month of their action, while catering staff and cleaners belonging to the PCS are still staging loud and lively pickets. These workers on strike since mid-July saw dozens of other outsourced PCS members at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) swell their ranks between 2nd and 13th September with further action planned before the end of the month.

The two private contractors, Aramark (catering) and ISS (facility management), are refusing to budge in response to demands for the London Living Wage (LLW) and improved holiday and occupational sick pay, claiming that the power to resolve the dispute rests with BEIS management and, ultimately, the BEIS secretary, now notorious Brexiteer, Andrea Leadsom. A PCS committee member, who has been party to talks with BEIS management, reported that there was no desire to concede the LLW, with a senior manager voicing the fear that the ‘contagion’ of strike action could spread to other outsourced contracts across the civil service.

Addressing BEIS strikers and their supporters on 5th September PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka reported that the union is currently engaged in 15 separate disputes including strikes at a service centre for Universal Credit in Stockport and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency’s IT section in Nottingham and Swansea.

Of course, this is no return to the heady days of the 1970s and there have been previous false dawns for a return of union militancy, but a shift does seem to be taking place in spite of Tory legislation that was designed to consign industrial action to the dustbin of history.

Though the above is only a partial list of recent strikes, actual and threatened, there does seem to be an escalation of hostilities with bosses across both the private and public sectors and a wide swathe of Britain. Clearly, anger at stagnant and often very low pay is a common denominator, especially in the context of eye-watering increases in executive remuneration packages and in some instances hefty dividends for shareholders.

Ultimately, a fundamental shift in the balance of forces in workplaces may require a Corbyn-led Labour government committed to scrapping the Trade Union Act 2016 and other legislation stemming from the Thatcher/Major years. At the same time, however, the eventual success of ‘the Corbyn project’ itself may well hinge on a revitalised union movement with rising membership and organisation, based on commitments to collective action and far greater internal democracy.

In the meantime, activists in CLPs must do far more to identify local battles and transform their parties into early ports of call for practical solidarity in the form of a Labour presence on picket lines, speakers’ slots at constituency meetings and fundraising efforts, at the same time as demanding that Labour politicians take a similar stand.

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Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP Trade Union Liaison Officer