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British Gas strike picket line

British Gas strike picket line. Photo: Margery Thorogood

Counterfire's fortnightly digest rounding up the stories of working people getting organised and fighting back

British Gas engineers stand firm

The second round of strikes is underway from British Gas engineers who are fighting back against having their terms reduced. Strikes are planned to last until February 1st as the workers show they won’t accept cuts,

Last Friday saw the striking workers burning their new contracts in a sign of defiance against the reduced terms.

The TUC recently reported that one in ten workers had been forced to reapply for their roles on worse terms and conditions in the pandemic. Earlier this week, the Labour Party raised a motion in the House of Commons, calling on the government to ban fire and rehire tactics which the Tories decided to abstain on. There is popular resentment against fire and rehire as the general public overwhelmingly oppose it. This shocking opportunism amongst employers must be opposed by workers at every instance.

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.

Breaking: BA strike halted for workers to consider deal

Unite announced that British Airways cargo workers are to vote on a deal put to them after nine days of strike action was taken in opposition to their employer’s plans to fire and rehire them.

The strike, which received 98% support in the ballot, caused massive disruption to the airport’s cargo handling over Christmas and New Year.

Unite is reporting the key points of the deal proposed as:

  • End of fire and rehire (the last area of BA where this was a threat)
  • Workers will revert to previous contractual provisions subject to agreed changes
  • No compulsory redundancies
  • Improved pay protection for staff whose pay sits above the new agreed rates (up to 95 per cent of present pay rates)
  • An increase in pay for a significant proportion of staff
  • Members who did not sign the new contract and were dismissed will be offered their jobs back on the agreed terms.

BA has been involved in several disputes with Unite members over the course of the pandemic as they have constantly sought to pass any losses to their workers. Unite expects the members to vote for the deal and this looks like the union has secured important concessions at British Airways.

CWU members at Openreach join the new year ballot-wave

BT Openreach workers are the latest to be hit by the bosses’ Terms & Conditions offensive.

BT Openreach supports the technical infrastructure, including internet hardware, of BT (formerly British Telecom). They share the same union as the posties.

CWU members in the workforce have responded in kind with a statutory industrial ballot. This is their first in a decade.

This poll is hot on the heels of a similar CWU ballot that delivered ‘Yes’ vote by nine-to-one in a 92% turnout.

CWU deputy general secretary Andy Kerr has helped to raise the temperature:

“The precise nature of the attacks our members are witnessing vary in different lines of business, they ultimately come down to an arrogant and dismissive attitude towards team member employees by senior managers who seem to think they have a divine right to treat to treat staff appallingly and without any dignity or respect.”

Victory for International Paint workers - strike suspended

GMB and Unite workers at International Paint in Gateshead have called off planned strike action after accepting an improved pay offer.

After balloting in December, it was decided that an immediate overtime ban would be implemented and strikes were planned for two days, starting from the end of January.

But the strike was called off after the employer presented their offer and it was accepted by the workers at the company. According to Unite, the deal consisted of a 1.5% pay increase, backdated to 1 April 2020, including a two per cent and four per cent related performance payment There were also improvements to the holiday scheme; and 1.5% for 2021 with the proviso that if any other UK site receives more than that figure the Gateshead workers will receive a similar uplift.

The threat of strike action was enough to force International Paint to propose a deal that the workers could accept and narrowly averted what would have been the first strike at the site in its over 100 years history.

No to fire and rehire at Go north West!

Bus drivers at Go North West’s Queens Road depot in Manchester are balloting for strike action after the company decided once again to threaten the workforce with plans to fire and rehire 500 drivers.

The site’s management has a history of constantly attacking its workforce and plans to fire and rehire first surfaced last year. As a result, community activists took direct action against the company’s decision to suspend Unite rep, Colin Hayden. 

The company eventually dropped its plans, reinstated the rep and started to negotiate with the union. But a couple of weeks ago, Go North West decided they had enough of the negotiations and would proceed with their original plans. Drivers will now ballot to strike and save their terms including sick pay which Go North West is disgracefully trying to reduce in the middle of a pandemic.

A massive 94% of drivers at the depot voted in favour of action last year before suspending to negotiate. If those numbers are anything to go by, expect another big ‘yes’ vote this time.

“School’s out in Hackney” (with apologies to Alice Cooper)

The mood of anger in the education sector, over Covid but also over management’s contemptuous treatment of staff (“In public, we’re heroes; at work we’re just a number’) looks set to spill over in Hackney.

Teaching support staff at two schools, Colvestone Primary and the Thomas Fairchild Community School have called strike action over threats of up to 18 jobs going from the 30-strong workforce.

And the 32 drivers and assistants who provide transport for disabled pupils are striking over their employer (Hackney Borough Council) to pay a Covid-related bonus and health and safety issues.

Both groups of workers have decided to take coordinated action, on the same days Wed.10/Thurs/11/Friday 12 of February.

Goldsmiths UCU ramps up the action in South London

The University and College Union (UCU) campaign is against deteriorating conditions and potential job cuts.

The staff involved are no longer releasing students’ marks and covering for colleagues on leave or doing overtime.  

Goldsmiths is part of the University of London and based in the New Cross area.

Goldsmiths UCU say:

“It is our greatest hope that SMT will decide to meet our demands ASAP so that the negative impact on students can be minimised. However, the responsibility lies with them to do so and stop further industrial action.

“If SMT does not cooperate, or if they take punitive measures such as withholding our pay, we have to be honest with you, there may be more disruption to come.”

There is a lot of turbulence in the higher education sector, but Goldsmiths is one of the few branches actually taking action.

Assessment boycotts have long been mooted as an effective industrial weapon for lecturers and administrators. Goldsmiths UCU are hoping to prove it.

Refuse workers refused ballot

Council workers for Thurrock council are getting increasingly frustrated by what one Unite member described as ‘foot-dragging’ by their union. Despite the willingness to take o the employer in defence of terms and conditions, the legally required ballot has yet to materialise. The members claim they have been told the reason is that they cannot ballot until they have set dates for strike action, and that they cannot ballot until the employer’s internal grievance procedure has been exhausted. Neither of these arguments present any legal obstacle to a union conducting a ballot, and the members are starting to question the real reason.

Some members are talking of appealing directly to the Regional Secretary of Unite to clear the logjam.

Safety first: Firefighters stitched up 

On 20 Jan, fire service bosses unilaterally terminated an agreement with the Fire Brigades Union over the health and safety of their members assisting with the Covid-19 response. Since March 2020, firefighters have helped with driving ambulances, transporting bodies to mortuaries and fitting face masks in care homes.

Following the ending of the agreement, HM Inspectorate of Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) launched a political attack on the FBU claiming that the health and safety agreement had limited the ability of firefighters to support the pandemic response.

The FBU’s general secretary Matt Wrack responded,

“Our priorities throughout this pandemic have been to ensure firefighters can safely support their communities, the NHS, and the care sector. 

“The FBU wants firefighters to continue supporting the pandemic response but sadly it seems the inspectorate, doing the bidding of the government and fire chiefs, is more intent on attacking our trade union and helping to undermine the terms and conditions of firefighters.”

FBU members are meeting on Wednesday evening at 7pm to discuss the political attack and the next steps the union is taking.

No holding back: Chicago Teachers refuse in-person teaching in unsafe schools 

The Chicago Teachers Union categorically refused to return to in-person teaching in schools today with health and safety talks with the Chicago Public Schools and the Mayor failing to reach an agreement. The union instructed all its members – pre-kindergarten through to high school, clerks, librarians and assistants – to not go in and teach remotely instead.

The CTU says the CPS has failed to provide assurances on basic provision of PPE, adequate ventilation and cleanliness, let alone on vaccinations and testing for staff and remote work accommodation for those with vulnerable family members.

Having threatened to not let teachers teach remotely and thereby withhold their pay, the threat of all-out strike action has forced the Mayor to retreat and informed parents that teaching will be done remotely for the remainder of the week.

This is also an apt reminder for school staff in Britain who are again facing pressure to reopen schools before it is safe that taking decisive collective action is necessary to win.

Stay alert – the bosses are waking up to the new period

The in-house journal of the UK’s capitalist class, the Financial Times, is always an astute observer of developments on our side.

They recently reported,

“Union membership numbers in the UK have been ticking up in recent years, though they still stand at half the 1979 peak. The most recent available data for the whole workforce, which predates the pandemic, shows 6.4m Brits, or 23.5 per cent of the workforce, were card-carrying members,”

Concluding that,

“With the pandemic entering its second year, executives must be alert to discontent triggered by new working arrangements, from supermarket staff required to police mask wearing by customers to trainees locked down for months in tiny bedsits. Cutting employment protections and office space will initially boost bottom lines. But both trends impose financial and psychological costs on staff. The feebler the trade-offs provided by employers, the better it will be for union recruitment,”

Whatever the musings of the governors, our watchwords remain solidarity and recruitment. 

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