In 2010-2011, Southampton council workers fought a bitter strike campaign to defeat the Tory plans for massive pay cuts and other attacks on terms and conditions. The campaign ultimately succeeded in kicking the Tories out of office, and winning a “phased reversal” of the pay cuts from the new Labour administration. But now council workers face new cuts and service closures. Solidarity spoke to Mike Tucker, Southampton District Unison Branch Secretary, about the potential for a fightback. He was speaking in a personal capacity.
We do not agree with his views on the rebel councillors, or on the possibility of councils taking an anti-cuts stance. We publish the interview as a contribution to discussion and debate within the labour movement.
The dispute of 2011 has certainly left a legacy. Both Unison and Unite still have strong and vibrant stewards’ committees. When the unions were working through a response to the budget crisis, both unions held regular stewards’ meetings and then jointly agreed a position to take to the membership meeting. There was quite a broad debate at that meeting, and the motion from the stewards’ committees was agreed with only one vote against. Unison and Unite continue to work well together.
That’s not to say there isn’t tiredness and frustration. Members have had a three-year national pay freeze and a two-year increment freeze, so people’s take-home pay has gone down substantially. When people find it more difficult to make ends meet, energy is reduced.
The Tories agreed to fund a new “Sea City Museum” and arts project. They borrowed £100 million, with considerable interest charges. They also froze council tax for two years, meaning the council’s revenue base was reduced. The pay cuts they made didn’t actually save money, as they just led to workers leaving the council and having to replaced by agency workers, which is more expensive.
As a consequence of all of that, the council is now facing a budget crisis. The budget cuts the new administration is proposing include 325 job cuts. That’s 9% of the directly-employed workforce. There are a number of services threatened with complete closure – the four main ones are the youth and play service, the last remaining council-run children’s home, the council’s archaeological service, and the tourist information services. Up to 25% of jobs in areas like libraries, street sweeping, and parks are also at risk. It’s the worst budget situation the council’s ever faced.
In meetings we’ve had with members, the anger is still directed largely towards the previous administration. Politically, most people accept that the Labour administration isn’t “to blame”, as such, but they still want to fight against the cuts and to save their jobs.
The council is setting up a campaign called “Stand Up for Southampton”, which is about demanding an increase in central government funding. The formula the government uses to calculate local funding is making the situation in Southampton worse than the rest of Hampshire. The unions are supporting that. Where initiatives can be made to campaign to save particular services, involving both workers and service users, we’ll pursue that. We’re calling a demonstration and lobby on 13 February, when the budget is due to be set. We’ve also decided to consult members on striking on that day.
We’re opposed to all cuts, but the unions aren’t calling on councillors to refuse to implement them. We’re calling on the council to implement its own redeployment policy, which will ensure some workers who might face redundancy are redeployed instead. We’re also trying to renegotiate the redundancy policy, which was imposed by the Tories and which discriminates against lower-paid workers facing compulsory redundancies.
Ultimately, however, we accept that the council has to set a lawful budget. If they don’t, commissioners will come in and run the council. They’ll make worse cuts, and they’ll greatly worsen the industrial relations climate at the council. When they’ve finished, there’d be fresh elections and the Conservatives could come back into power. We didn’t spend two years fighting to kick the Tories out just to have them come back in through the back door.
I know the argument of rebel anti-cuts Councillors Keith Morrell and Don Thomas is that if Southampton refused to set a budget, it could be a beacon. That’s not our assessment. That strategy failed in the 1980s, and whatever other assessments we might make of the situation now, the labour movement is not as strong as it was then. In a city like Southampton, you had strong industrial unions in the past in workplaces like Ford and the docks. That’s gone now, and we don’t feel that in three months’ time the level of support and mobilisation necessary to back up a rebel council can be achieved. The Labour administration said they considered not setting a budget, but ultimately decided that it would have been irresponsible to do so.
Because of privatisation, and the autonomy of many schools, the council now directly employs only around 3,800 people. Of those, around 2,200 are union members. They were the people who sustained the industrial action. Many of the members of both Unite and Unison are in housing, which the council still directly runs, and although they were affected by the pay cuts, they’re not affected by this budget. We were able to sustain the industrial action because of financial support from the national unions; that won’t be forthcoming again. Sustained industrial action is unlikely to be achievable again.
We have won some concessions by putting pressure on the Labour administration. They had initially planned to continue with the Tory administration’s plans to privatise council museum services, and through pressure we got them to drop those plans. They were also considering transferring adult social care to an arm’s-length company, which we’ve also stopped. We’re confident the current administration won’t undertake any further privatisations. Virtually none of our Unison branch activists, including myself, are Labour Party members, so that makes applying direct pressure through Labour Party channels difficult. Unite are perhaps better able to do this, as most of their activists are Labour Party members.
There are no wider anti-cuts committees in the town. There have been initiatives in the past, but these have largely petered out. There was a particular campaign around the Oakland swimming pool led by the two rebel councillors. That was probably the highest profile, but the decision to withdraw the subsidy has gone through and the pool is closed. The pool is part of a school complex, which has become an Academy and which has built an entirely new campus nearby. The site is near an expanding shopping centre, so its earmarked for demolition. The argument wasn’t just about closure, therefore, but about what that land was used for more widely.
The intervening months between now and the budget being set in February is about trying to generate specific campaigns led by our members in the areas threatened with cuts and closures. Those campaigns have to be led by the members themselves. The branch will provide funding and support, but it must be member-led.
In our industrial dispute, the leadership of the strike committee was essential. The circumstances were somewhat unique, in terms of how universally the pay cuts affected our members, but the democratic leadership offered by stewards’ committees and the strike committee was vital to the success of the dispute. The national union and its officers worked with us rather than against us, too, providing financial support and sanctioning whatever strike action we asked for. When you have the whole union pushing in the same direction on an action like that, it can win.