Uber strike, California Uber strike, California. Photo: Antoine Imbert / Flickr / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

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

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After losing a legal battle in the supreme court last month, Uber has finally given in and accepted that its drivers are employees and as such, entitled to rights such as minimum wage, holidays and pension contributions.

The court ruling marked the end of one phase of this struggle and was led by the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU). The next phase though will be a battle for Uber to shift from their current position of paying only from trip acceptance to drop-off to the whole time drivers are logged onto the app to cover all hours worked by its drivers.

ADCU General Secretary, James Farrar commented at a recent People’s Assembly meeting:

“When we started this in 2015 with the GMB, you couldn’t open a Harvard business review where there wasn’t the Uber of this, the Uber of that. It was the darling of the business world and Wall Street and we’ve managed to change that perception by telling the truth.”

The ADCU has exposed the gig economy for what it is: a hyper-exploitative sector that sucks maximum profits from workers by stripping away their basic rights. Opportunities now for workers in the wider gig economy are huge and a big push is needed to build on this victory and carry forward the momentum it has generated.

Action takes off at aero factory

Unite members at SPS Technologies in Leicester are taking strike action to save their pay and conditions in yet another instance of fire and rehire being used to force workers’ terms and pay down.

SPS manufactures components for aircraft parts and is using the Covid-induced slump in aerospace demand as an excuse to force its workers onto inferior contracts which would see reductions in overtime pay, paid breaks and sick pay. Unite says these changes could see workers miss out on between £2,500 to £3,000 per year. These cuts follow 200 redundancies at the site since the start of the pandemic.

An overtime ban is in place and 200 Unite members will strike on 12th, 19th, 22nd and 26th March.

Unite regional officer Lakhy Mahal said: 

“Our members are incandescent at SPS’s fire and rehire threats, particularly in light of their hard work keeping the company operational during the pandemic. It is shameful that SPS is using this terrible virus as an opportunity to attack its workers’ terms and conditions.

“These penury-inducing cuts would see workers lose between £2,500 and £3,000 a year for performing the same amount of work. If implemented, much of the workforce will be forced to take up pay day loans and second jobs simply to get by.”

Rolls-Royce workers at Barnoldswick have already demonstrated that workers in the aerospace sector can successfully fight against a race to the bottom with strike action. SPS workers are now stepping up their fight too.

Where’s the care?

In a shocking decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that care workers who have to sleep at their workplace in case they are needed are not entitled to the minimum wage. Many care workers report having to work the majority of the time over their night shifts. The case was brought by Clare Tomlinson-Blake against the learning disability charity, Mencap. Mencap and other employers are using sleepovers as a cheap way to ‘look after’ care home residents. Both workers and residents suffer. Especially given the role that care workers have had to play during the pandemic and the suffering it has created for residents, this decision and Mencap’s attitude is a disgrace. 

Ms Tomlinson-Blake has said she was “stunned” by the ruling,

“I was deeply disappointed. I thought this was an opportunity for things to change, and for health and social care workers to start to be valued more, and the work that they do, which is the most important work that you can ever do”

The campaign for the minimum wage over nightshifts, backed by Unison, must go on.

Wake up and smell the coffee: 96% vote yes against ‘fire and rehire’ at Jacobs Douwe Egberts

Nearly 300 workers at JDE (Jacobs Douwe Egberts) Coffee site in Banbury, Oxfordshire are threatened with ‘fire and re-hire’ which would worsen their pay and conditions, as well as an attack on their pensions, have voted yes on a consultative ballot for industrial action with option to strike.

The 96% yes vote is also fuelled by anger that during the pandemic the company has reported growth of 9.1% yet still wants to attack its staff’s pay and conditions.

Tube drivers defiant: strike vote goes up

Aslef tube drivers previously delivered a 95.2% vote to strike in September 2020. The renewed ballot required every six months under the anti-trade union laws, returned a stunning 97.3%. The ballot provides Aslef with a strike mandate to protect existing working conditions and agreements. 

With the collapse of passenger numbers throughout the pandemic, TfL have had to rely on central government bailouts to sustain operations. 

While the current bailout is due to expire on 31 March the government have just announced a funding “rollover” until 18 May.

Among other things, the government’s calculations are aimed to avoid any confrontation with Tube workers prior to the London Mayor election. However, just 12 days later from 18 May, a very different story is likely to unfold rapidly. 

The government aims to “modernise” the Underground through a series of attacks on jobs, pay and pensions. Other Aslef ballots with test trains and transplant engineering drivers have returned ballots with 100% yes votes and 92.7% yes votes.

Cook’s court victory

In 2019 Thomas Cook went into liquidation making 1,500 head office workers redundant without any warning or consultation. A court victory has awarded up to 90 days pay, up to £4,200 each. Shop staff are not included in the judgement but are in the process of an ongoing employment tribunal.

TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes said: 

“Our members endured harsh treatment from the start, not only through the actions of the company, but at the hands of a government which failed to step in to save this cornerstone of our high streets when it made perfect sense to do so”

Police crackdown on pickets

Police waded in to disperse picketing workers at SAICA Packaging UK in Edinburgh earlier this week with Covid restrictions used as the excuse. Unite says that those on the picket were threatened with fines but the picket conformed with restrictions and police were notified in advance.

The workers are currently on an overtime ban to oppose their employer’s decision to pull out of an industry-wide agreement that will see working hours extended and potentially lead to a race to the bottom in the paper industry.

Unite intend to mount a legal challenge to the decision to break up the picket. It follows similar police activity in England last year which the union took to court and won.

London bus strikes set to spread

Following Bus strikes at Go North West in Manchester and RATP bus strikes in London, Unite is balloting bus workers across Metroline garages in London. The ballot opened at the beginning of the month and closes on the 9th April. Metroline is proposing that bus drivers sign on and book off remotely which means bus drivers will only be paid when at the wheel of the bus.

Speaking at a Peoples Assembly Meeting, Joanne Harris of the London Busses Regional Council, Unite explained that this would essentially turn bus drivers into zero contract workers. Bus drivers could be sent anywhere in London to drive a bus but will not be paid till they are at the wheel of the bus. This means no breaks or time to relax throughout the whole shift and if there is it will be unpaid. It also means there will be no access to facilities such as toilets which has already been a huge problem for bus drivers throughout the pandemic.

Joanne calls this ‘deregulating employment’:

“We are going to fight that with everything we’ve got. This ballot is going strong at the moment… this is another form of fire and re-hire in effect”

Frimley NHS Trust: privatisation bridgehead smashed by joint union action

Neoliberal expansionism suffered a blow last week as Frimley NHS Trust’s plans to outsource over a thousand nonclinical hospital jobs to a wholly owned subsidiary (WOS) have been put on permanent hold.

This inspirational result had its roots in a joint 2019 campaign involving both GMB and Unite union representing the porters, maintenance, cleaning, and catering staff affected. The pandemic had suspended negotiations.

GMB regional organiser Asia Allison said: “This is fantastic news! GMB members who simply refused to accept being privatised have finally seen the threat of being transferred out of the NHS to a wholly owned subsidiary stopped.

Unite regional officer Jesika Parmar added: “This is a great victory for all those fed-up with the continuing fragmentation of NHS services and a sterling tribute to the solidarity the workers at the trust have shown over two years of vigorous campaigning.

This is a timely reminder that the only people who don’t like collaboration among the unions are the bosses.

‘We’re prepared to take further action’: security workers stand up to Kingdom

Security workers at Royal Berkshire Hospital have just finished a third block of strikes over over pay and conditions. The workers are demanding £12 an hour for office workers and £13 for supervisors as well as better sick pay – key to safe working in a healthcare environment during the pandemic.

They are currently in talks with Acas but have made clear they will not back down and will take further action if their employer Kingdom doesn’t budge. Read this excellent interview with the striking workers here.

Border dispute: Heathrow passport control workers set to strike

Staff working in passport control at Heathrow have called a month-long work to rule and overtime ban. The PCS union has promised to escalate the action if there is no progress. This follows a ballot in which 96.4% of those who voted said ‘Yes’ to strike action.

The action is against unworkable roster changes imposed by local management without any reference to the union.The Home Office have themselves admitted that the new rosters have caused operational difficulties which have sometimes led to breaches of Covid security. Action will start on March 24.

Unite to #KillTheBill

The Police and Crime Bill that passed its second reading in parliament this week is an attack on all dissent and protest, including by trade unionists. It gives the police hugely increased powers to ban demonstrations and protests of all kinds, so vital for the labour movement.

The attacks on the women’s protests in the last week show the police and government are in a mood to clamp down on opposition. In particular the bill’s provisions to stop protests on the basis that they cause disruption could potentially be used against people picketing, as demonstrated by police breaking up a picket line in Edinburgh this week.

As a result of the mobilisations the government has been forced to delay the bill, but it will be back. Even with amendment, it is a dangerous bill that needs to be scrapped altogether. The whole movement needs to get behind the campaigning to Kill the Bill and the People’s Assembly demonstration called for June 26 will be an opportunity to demonstrate our strength. We can defeat the Tories’ new authoritarianism.

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