Industrial news in brief

Submitted by Matthew on 25 October, 2017 - 3:55 Author: Gemma Short, Peggy Carter, Charlotte Zalens and Neil Laker

PCS members at Eastern Avenue Jobcentre in Sheffield started a continuous month long strike on 23 October in opposition to the closure of the site. On the same day it was announced that members at Plymouth Processing Centre, another site marked for closure had voted 76% in favour of strikes to defend that site and would begin their strikes on the 6 November.

Members at Eastern Avenue have already struck for 27 days since the proposal to close the Jobcentre was announces earlier in the year. The closure of both sites is part of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) estates rationalisation programme.

In laymen’s terms: The largest public sector office closure campaign for decades with many offices closing by March 2018 and hundreds of civil servants facing compulsory redundancies. Unfortunately, PCS nationally has not called a national ballot to stop the closures, but may decide to ballot on the issue of redundancies.

The PCS DWP group executive meets to discuss as Solidarity goes to print. That it is these workplaces striking is not a coincidence. The Sheffield and Devon branches — where activists from the Left Opposition grouping in PCS, Independent Left are prevalent — have a long-term strategy of building the union at the workplace level and taking localised action when needed. This has built up a culture where members are confident and willing to organise, support and take-part in action from below.

We encourage people to raise these disputes in their Labour and union branches, asking for solidarity and money.

• For Sheffield, the branch hardship details are: Sort code 56-00-09, Account number 22371214.

• Solidarity messages for Sheffield to Bev Laidlaw.

• For Plymouth PCS DWP Devon

Students support UCU strike

UCU members at the University of Manchester struck on 23 and 24 October to stop the university′s plan to cut 140 jobs. Large pickets were staged, which turned away many students and workers. UCU members were supported by students mobilised by Manchester Labour Students amongst others, who cooked for strikers and joined their picket lines.

Bianca, a Spanish teacher at the University, told Solidarity: “There is a good feeling among the union members on strike today. In our department, which is being disproportionately hit with the cuts, almost all classes are cancelled and we have turned many workers and students away with our picket. There is a sense that we can win on this — I have not seen the union mobilise as hard as this before, and recruit as many new members during a dispute. We must fight because the precedent this restructuring sets hands too much power to the employer. [Vice Chancellor] Nancy Rothwell thinks this is a business, she sees herself as a captain of industry, but she is wrong, and we are prepared to stand up to her. We know this may be a long campaign but my big worry is that many staff are in a precarious position and may feel they cannot afford to lose many more days’ pay over this.”

Unison and Unite, who represent most non-academic staff, have not balloted, seeing their members as ″less affected″, but this is a mistake.

Housing workers to strike again

Members of Unite who work in housing maintenance in Manchester under contractor Mears have voted to continue strikes.

Workers have already struck for over 40 days over pay differences within the company for people doing the same work, and attacks on their terms and conditions. Unite said ″The new industrial action is being taken as a result of Mears failure to meaningfully negotiate on pay and conditions, the detrimental treatment of workers during the previous dispute, attacks on workers’ holiday entitlement, allocation of work to sub-contractors, inappropriate allocation of work to apprentices, trainees and improvers, and proposed unilateral changes to working hours and conditions for some of the affected workers. ″ Strikes are expected in November.

Airport workers strike over pay

Workers at Manchester, Heathrow, and Gatwick airports are on strike in disputes involving a variety of workers. Cleaners at Manchester Airport employed by Mitie have announced an escalating program of strikes in their fight for better pay.

Strikes have been announced for 3-4, 6-8, 9-11, 13-18, 20-25 November, 27 November to 2 December, 4-9, 11-16 December, and 18 December to 12 January.

Cleaners are currently on £7.50 an hour, and are demanding an increase to just over the Living Wage at £8.45, and an extra £1 an hour backdated to April 2016. Security staff, engineers and firefighters at Heathrow Airport have voted to strike but one of the groups of workers missed out on the 50% threshold. Baggage handlers for Norwegian airline at Gatwick will strike on Monday 30 October over pay.

Guards sold out?

On 19 October, train drivers’ union Aslef finally announced what weeks of secret talks had produced for their members in “parallel” disputes over pay and Driver Only Operation (DOO) on Southern rail. The deal ties their pay increase into a settlement of the long running DOO dispute that, while a small improvement on what was previously rejected by Aslef members, sells out both drivers and guards.

The headline pay increase looks impressive at first — 28.5% over five years, with a minimum of a 2.5% increase (or more if RPI is higher than 2.5%) in the last year of the deal, bringing the basic pay to a big-sounding £63k. However, even working on a very conservative assumption that the union secures RPI-level increases over that period, and that RPI runs at an average of 3%, the element of the deal that compensates the drivers for taking on the train dispatch and other safety responsibilities of the guards is only around £5-6k per year after five years.

That is precious little in order to sell out a whole grade of workers and assume their responsibilities, especially in a recent climate where traincrew are relatively frequently being dragged into court and blamed for accidents that occur during train dispatch.

This deal, if it goes through, bodes ill for the RMT’s ongoing disputes over the issue of DOO at Southern and Merseyrail, Northern, Greater Anglia and South West Trains. Aslef leaders argue the deal is much improved — the previously long list of “exceptional circumstances” where trains would be allowed to run without an “on board supervisor” has been shortened significantly. But any concept of “exceptional circumstances” should not be accepted, however thin the end of the wedge. In practice, the company will flout the agreements and claim these criteria have been met whenever they think they can get away with it and it will fall to workers themselves to police these agreements.

With RMT members exhausted after a lengthy dispute and ASLEF members led by a conservative executive committee and officials who would always prefer to cut a deal than fight, it won’t be long before GTR Southern and the Tory government achieve what they set out to in all but name. Both union leaderships are responsible for the state things are in — the RMT leaders are desperate (not without some justification) to place blame for their defeat solely at the feet of Aslef, while Aslef leaders refuse to accept any responsibility for the fate of guards and seek to justify their collaboration with employers excluding RMT from the negotiations.

RMT needs to ramp up its action at Southern and the other train operating companies to heap pressure on the government and employers — sporadic one or two day stoppages will not cut the mustard. Neither will its continued failure to act as a genuine industrial union. RMT organises workers in engineering, maintenance, cleaning, and revenue grades who should be joining the guards in action to increase the impact of the strikes, not told to cross picket lines and keep working while their fellow members struggle to save their jobs. Aslef should formally join the disputes at Northern, Merseyrail, GA, and SWT and force the employers/government to the negotiating table, instead of forever keeping its powder dry and pontificating from the sidelines about what a poor job the RMT is doing.

At the very least its leaders could do their basic duty and organise behind the scenes for their members to start respecting the RMT’s picket lines on strike days. There are still only very small numbers of drivers doing this, except on Merseyrail where all drivers have refused to cross picket lines. Both unions should turn outwards to the rest of the labour movement and seek help — solidarity to boost morale and financial assistance to keep members going while they strike and, in the case of Aslef, to give it the confidence to ballot its members for action and risk being dragged into the courts again. It is widely thought that this is the real reason Aslef refuses to join the disputes — the risk of being bankrupted by legal costs fighting injunctions or legal challenges.

A national labour movement campaign is urgently needed to make sure these disputes are won.

Picturehouse to strike 5-6 November

Workers at Picturehouse cinemas have announced more strikes for 5 and 6 November. Workers from the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and Hackney, Crouch End, East Dulwich and Central Picturehouses will walk out at 2pm on Sunday 5 November before holding a demonstration in central London, and will strike from 3pm on Monday 6 November. Living Wage week starts on 6 November, and community support activists are calling for a day of action around Picturehouse and Cineworld cinemas across the country.