Council workers in Birmingham and Doncaster could join the mass public sector strike action on 30 June, as public sector union Unison announced ballots that could see 15,000 workers take strike action.
Birmingham city council, Europe’s largest local authority, the city’s biggest single employer and the largest local authority employer in the UK, is planning to make £300 million cuts by 2015, including the axing of 7,000 jobs — nearly 40% of the total workforce.
The council is also outsourcing 100 ICT and call centre jobs to India, as part of a joint venture with private firm Capita.
The cuts involve contractual changes which will abolish extra payments for weekend and out-of-hours working. Workers could also face unilateral relocation without regard to personal circumstances.
Unison’s regional organiser Mark New said: “The massive job cuts,the pay freeze and privatisation will leave the council struggling to provide decent services to people in Birmingham.”
In Doncaster, the council plans a similar scale of cuts as it looks to save £71 million by 2015. 700 jobs have already been shed and Unison estimates that a further 500 will go in the next 12 months. Warden services for the elderly and home care services have been cut, and the council has a long-term project of library closures.
Doncaster Unison’s branch secretary Jim Board said: “Doncaster Council’s threat of further redundancies and attacks on the pay and conditions of thousands of mainly low-paid women workers will have a devastating effect on the front-line services our communities rely on.”
Alongside the ongoing Unison and Unite strikes in Southampton, which involve an innovative strategy of indefinite rolling strikes, the Birmingham and Doncaster ballot could represent a hugely significant development in workers’ fightback against cuts.
Until now, local government unions — most importantly Unison itself, the country’s second biggest union and the majority union in the sector — have been reluctant to ballot their members for strike action against cuts, sometimes (as in Tower Hamlets) citing inaccurate membership records (which would potentially render any ballot illegal). They have more often preferred to wait for the process of budget-setting and negotiation to run its course.
Now that local government budgets are a reality and the cuts are beginning to bite, even the conservative bureaucracy of Unison has little choice but to move into action.
This is no time for “too little, too late” cynicism. Socialists and other militants working in local government should seize on the Southampton strikes and the Birmingham and Doncaster ballots as evidence that council workers can be mobilised against cuts and argue for the struggles to spread.
The mass strike on 30 June — involving civil servants, teachers and lecturers — will send a loud message to the government. The more workers involved, the louder the message.
But creative strategies like the one adopted in Southampton — based, as it has been, on regular mass cross-union meetings where grassroots members can have a say in the direction of the dispute — can do more than just send a message or act as a symbolic protest; they can exert real industrial pressure on bosses and government that could potentially stop them in their tracks.
In as many areas as possible, 30 June should see join meetings — meeting with debate, not just rallies — of the different groups of strikers, to formulate plans to follow up 30 June with more action on the model of Southampton.