On 23 May local government workers employed by Southampton City Council began indefinite rolling strike action in a dispute with the council over pay cuts. The dispute involves both Unison and Unite and will see a different section of council workers taking strike action each week. On 31 May, Council Enforcement Officers, Parking Equipment Technicians and Cashier Driver/Collectors began seven days of strike action. Mike Tucker, the branch secretary of Southampton District Unison, spoke to Solidarity.
This dispute is about wages of council workers being cut by the Tory-controlled council.
They’re doing it in three ways; they’ve stopped incremental increases for two years, they’re imposing a two year wage freeze and they’re cutting wages between 2.5% and 5%. That’s a permanent reduction. They’re also removing allowances such as car allowances.
Our demand is to halt those contractual changes and reach a negotiated settlement. We balloted our members on the council’s demands and they were rejected. In response, the council dismissed the entire workforce and offered re-engagement on the new terms, which come into effect on 11 July. Both Unite and Unison are taking the council to an employment tribunal.
The council made its proposals public at the beginning of November. We held a packed-out members’ meeting in November, and then had a joint Unison-Unite meeting in January. There were about 800 people there; we had a march following the meeting to the civic offices. We had a further joint meeting in February with 700 people and a demonstration at the end of March. The combined membership of Unison and Unite is about 3,000, so those figures represent a very level of participation.
Southampton City Council has privatised a number of services over the last five years, so although our membership is strong it’s not as strong as it was. Those workers are excluded from the dispute. But Unison and Unite represent over 50% of the council’s workforce. We’ve always tried to work together in previous disputes but the current attacks have brought us together more strongly. We’re meeting regularly to discuss and coordinate the action.
The view of our members was that a one-day protest strike wouldn’t achieve very much, and there was a reluctance to lose too much money in the context of pay cuts. We identified key sections of the workforce and called them out section by section. The wages of those workers are being supplemented by money from Unison and Unite strike funds. We’ve also had a lot of donations come in since the dispute began. Unison locally has also donated some money to Unite’s strike fund as Unite members were the first section to come out.
We want ACAS negotiations, and although the Tory council leader says he’s prepared to do that, the dates he’s proposing aren’t until late June or early July. The dispute is deeply political; the council leader is very high profile. He was a Tory parliamentary candidate but lost, and he’s obviously seeking to use his leadership of the council to position himself for another parliamentary election.
We passed a resolution to back the return of a Labour council. Labour gained at the last election and the Tories only have a two seat majority. The Labour group on the council is supporting us and we’re trying to work with them as far as possible to win the dispute.
Our members are no different from other public sector workers; they’d prefer to be doing their jobs. They’re under immense pressure just to deliver services, but we all know it’s necessary to take this action. We’re well aware of the implications if we lose this dispute.
We really appreciate the support we’ve received so far in this dispute.
• More info: www.soton-unison-office.org.uk