Striking RCN member at the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital in December 2020. Striking RCN member at the Belfast Royal Victoria Hospital in December 2020. Photo: Facebook/RCN Northern Ireland

Counterfire’s weekly digest rounding up the stories of working people getting organised and fighting back

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The pathetic 1% offer to health workers – effectively a pay cut – is inflammatory even by the standards of this government given the role of health workers during the pandemic.

The nurses’ union the RCN is absolutely right to respond by setting in motion plans for a campaign of industrial action for a decent pay rise. The other health unions need to follow suit.

But as Alia Butt argues here this is a fight for all of us and an issue that will be enraging millions of people across the country. It epitomises the attitude of this government to working people in general and trade unionists in particular. The needs to be the biggest possible response to this insult.

The whole of the labour movement needs to get organised now to force the government to pay up for the health workers. 

Get on board with the busworkers

Unite bus drivers from Go North West’s Queen’s Road depot in Manchester are almost a week into their all-out strike against fire and rehire which commenced on Sunday and has no signs of de-escalating anytime soon.

Go North West has launched a propaganda offensive to put out messages to the public which distort the real issues behind the drivers’ decision to strike, saying that the drivers voluntarily accepted contract changes.

Colin Hayden, the Unite rep at the depot refuted this as nonsense at a recent Manchester People’s Assembly meeting saying:

“They started bringing our members in and refused them representation on one-to-one meetings where they were told they have seven days to sign a contract or lose their rosters and/or their jobs.

“They say it was voluntary, drivers build their life around their rosters and that’s done for many years. The threat was that if they didn’t sign in seven days, they would lose their rosters and that was done on a first-come, first-served basis.

“They had seven days to go over what I can only describe as five documents that you would need a solicitor full time to help you through. Changes to terms and conditions, contract of employment, sick pay, pay reviews, they were all in there.”

Despite their best efforts to run scab contracted services and break the strike, Go North West is already facing shortages of vehicles, as evidenced in a video obtained by Unite that showed a replacement service carrying more than the covid-safe recommended number of 18 passengers and the union has raised this as a serious safety concern with Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham. Burnham’s recent refusal to pick a side in this dispute and flip-flopping over franchising of Manchester’s buses however makes it seem unlikely he will step into this dispute in any meaningful way.

So the strike goes on, but with the drivers in a stronger position next week as Go North West’s ability to break the strike is hampered by the increased demand of school reopenings. This will increase the potential of forcing Go North West to back down in a dispute which, if won, will serve as a warning shot to other dodgy bus companies seeking to undermine their workers’ pay and conditions.

British Gas engineers resume strike after fire and rehire plans not dropped

Striking British Gas engineers will resume their strike action for four days from today after rejecting an offer put to them through ACAS because fire and rehire plans were still not dropped.

This will add up to a total tally of 30 days strike action from GMB members at British Gas who remain determined to win their battle against the company’s plans to fire and rehire them on inferior terms. Should the company not drop their plans, the workers plan to continue striking throughout April.

Justin Bowden, GMB National Secretary, said:

“Strike days 27 to 30 will go ahead at British Gas after gas and electrical engineers overwhelmingly rejected a revised offer at ACAS because the company didn’t take fire and rehire off the table.

“British Gas’ fire and rehire plan is the main obstacle to members accepting a deal – they need to remove it now if we are to progress.

“GMB’s executive has determined action could continue to mid-April in this deadlocked dispute.

“After 26 days of strikes, more than 210,000 homes are in a backlog for repairs and 250,000 planned annual service visits have been axed. “The company is misleading the media that it is catching up after 24 hours.” 

Please support the British Gas strikers by urgently passing this model resolution at your trade union branch, CLP or other organisation and sign the solidarity message here.

London’s bus drivers reversing race to the bottom

The 2,000 bus drivers employed by the three RATP-owned London bus companies are continuing their strike action this week. RATP owns the London United, London Sovereign and Qualityline companies.

According to Unite, RATP is using the pandemic as a cover to slash the pay and conditions of drivers, trying to drive pay back to 2015 levels, and expecting workers to work longer hours for the lower rates.

London Sovereign drivers, operating from their NW London garages, struck on Wednesday, with further strikes planned for successive Wednesdays March 10th and 17th. With schools planning to open from March 8, this will cause considerable disruption and delays.

London United drivers will be renewing their strike action on Friday March 5 and Saturday March 6, as will Quality Line drivers. As both companies operate routes across South and West London, each action will reinforce the other.

Babcock hits turbulence

50 Unite members at RAF Leeming, providing operational and engineering services, are taing strike action for pay parity with fellow workers at RAF Valley, Wales. They want the same shift allowances as their Welsh colleagues receive, which amounts to around £5,000pa.

Unite Regional Officer Neal Howells, who described the pay disparity as “plane wrong”, has said the picket lines have swelled by 30% as  more workers have joined the union since the action started.

Strike action is taking place from 07.00 Tuesday-Friday each week through March, after which the members will consider upping the action if the employer does not sit down and talk.

Babcock hits rough waters: at the same time, 1,000 Babcock Marine workers are taking rolling industrial action in Scotland at the Faslane and Coulport naval bases, following a 95% vote  to reject a ‘derisory’ wage offer. Regional Officer Stevie Deans (the unfairly sacked convenor at the INEOS refinery) said the 95% vote for industrial action “should be seen as a strong signal of the genuine anger felt by the workforce”. He added that attempts by the employer to “gag” workers to prevent them raising the matter with their MPs ‘will not be accepted by the union’ and was an ‘unacceptable attempt to prevent our members exercising their democratic rights.”

Cumberland Infirmary: two days’ strike action is just the beginning

More than 150 porters, cleaners, and catering staff at Cumberland Infirmary have stuck over payments for working unsocial hours.

This initial joint strike action was Friday 26th February and Monday 1st March, and involved Unison and GMB workers.

Cumberland Infirmary is a hospital in Carlisle, Cumbria and is managed by the North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust. But they subcontract this kind of dirty work to outsourcing giant Mitie.  

Unison’s David Atkinson said: 

“It is incredibly disappointing that key workers, who have put their lives at risk to keep us safe during this pandemic, have been forced to take strike action by their intransigent employer Mitie.

“Having risked their lives for the last year, this committed group of hospital cleaners, caterers, porters and switchboard staff are determined to secure the unsocial hours’ payments they are rightly owed.”

No workers should be treated like this, least of all NHS workers, and this is why trade unionists oppose outsourcing to the point of principle. 

Goodlord workers strike for a living wage

Over twenty Goodlord Unite workers working in the referencing department, which checks references for several estate agents including Winkworths among others, commenced 4 days of strike action on 22 February.

The dispute is yet another case of fire and rehire. The new contracts would mean a loss of £6,000 in pay and reduced maternity, holiday and sick pay. These workers were hired on the basis that they lived within commuting distance to the central London offices. Now the offices are permanently closed.

Goodlord claims the workers no longer have to pay to live in London as justification for reducing their pay. Striking worker Scott said:

“We’re fighting for a London living wage, because that’s what we deserve as workers”.

Unite regional officer Steve O’Donnell says strikes will continue until these workers receive the London living wage. 

Teacher militancy hits the posh schools

NEU Teachers at Wycliffe College, a private boarding school in Stroud have commenced 6 days of planned strike action over Pensions. The college is planning to remove staff from the Teacher Pension Scheme onto a much worse pension scheme which includes an increase to employer contributions and resulting in teachers working longer hours, paying more and getting a lot less when they retire. Staff have been threatened with being fired and rehired onto worse contracts if they do not accept the new terms. 

Local rep Nicky Bryant said:

“We have suggested achievable savings that would more than fund the deficit. Our members are professionals who take pride in the education they deliver to a very high standard.”

Once again pensions reveal themselves to be an absolute line in the sand for workers, and one that they are prepared to fight for.

Solidarity messages should be sent to: [email protected].

#No2ESO Hinckley Point electricians vigilant against deskilling

Angry construction workers were outside the Hinckley Point protesting at the latest attempt by  major construction contractors to attack terms and conditions. Unite General Secretary, Len McCluskey condemned the attempt to  replace skilled electrical workers with part-trained apprentices. He reminded employers that:

“We saw off the attempt to drive down skills and pay in the 2011/12 BESNA dispute, and we will do so again. Our message to the industry is clear. Unite and its electrical membership will oppose any and all efforts to weaken the skill set of the trade. Any deskilling of electricians will result in a race to the bottom, and would be highly damaging to industrial relations across the sector.”

The statement was welcomed by Frank Morris and Tony Seaman, the Executive members representing the construction sector, who said they were elected by the rank and file construction workers precisely to oppose employers’ attempts to deskill and lower pay in the sector. Tony also pointed out that the scaffolders strike at British Steel Scunthorpe (see last week’s news from the frontline) highlighted the need for constant vigilance against the employers’ attacks.

Warning: may contain nuts – Tomahawk Steakhouse’s indecent proposal

Workers at the Tomahawk UK-wide steakhouse chain have been asked to return 10% of their furlough pay to the company as a ‘loan’ or face the sack.

Staff, many of whom are on minimums wage, received a notice and a loan agreement which said “the company has a short-term cash flow issue and it now requires your help and support” and “we respectfully ask, in these difficult times, for you to support us by agreeing to pay your own Employer’s NIC/Pension Contributions by way of a voluntary “loan” to the company, whilst we are in lockdown.”

There was a subsequent Zoom meeting where workers were told “‘fuck off somewhere else if you don’t like it” and if they didn’t sign the company “will review whether you are suitable for your role”.

So much for “respectfully ask”.

GMB regional Secretary Neil Derrick, who has intervened on behalf of the workers, said: “This is an outrageous abuse of the furlough scheme and a legal loophole that must be closed. It’s never been easier for businesses to access cheap money, yet Tomahawk is bullying its own young, low-paid staff to raise interest free cash.”

This is another example of the bosses’ cynical exploitation of the pandemic and, most critically, why trade union membership must be extended to every worker in the UK. 

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