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PCS BEIS picket line, January 2019

PCS BEIS picket line, January 2019. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

Counterfire's weekly digest with the latest on strikes and workplace struggles

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There is a growing wave of workers taking industrial action against unscrupulous companies that hold contracts for public services. Workers at the Royal Hospital London, Ealing council traffic wardens and Bexley bin workers are taking on shady conglomerate Serco.

This week, workers employed by ISS at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy voted 97.3% on a 100% turnout for strike action. Despite workers here taking strike action several times over recent years, the company thinks it can get away with treating the workers abysmally.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union representing the workers, said,

“ISS is treating its staff appallingly and despite repeated strike actions in recent years, it seems the contractor has not learnt its lesson. Support staff are poorly paid and the least they deserve is a decent rise and to be treated with dignity at work.”

The union has also pointed out the hypocrisy of BEIS announcing a new "workers' rights watchdog" while workers subcontracted in its own department are treated badly.

As with the other industrial action being taken against dodgy companies with little regard for their employees, the workers and their unions are calling for the contracts to be taken back in house and for an end to privatisation which is clearly not working.

While employers like ISS and Serco have terrible records in general and are clearly using the pandemic as a cover for further deteriorating the conditions of their workers, it seems the tide is turning against the failed free-market ideology that has corrupted our public services.

Serving time on Serco

Bexley refuse and cleansing workers are set to go back on strike on 12 July. Around 140 Unite members will strike, initially for two weeks, in protest at a pathetic 1.5% pay rise, disparities in pay rates and the removal of sickness benefits. All this despite the fact that refuse workers have been working right through the lockdown in the most dangerous circumstances.

The staff are employed by outsourcing giant Serco which keeps failing to put refuse staff on a pay progression scale.

Refuse staff in Bexley earn much less than their counterparts in other areas of the capital. For example, in neighbouring Greenwich refuse staff earn a minimum of £13 an hour, compared to £10.25 paid by Serco in Bexley, which is below even the London Living Wage.

This strike follows a series of successful industrial disputes in Newham, Tower Hamlets, Bexley itself and most recently Thurrock, in which workers won significant concessions from management.

If you want to support the Bexley workers, please donate to their strike fund:

Account name: Unite Le/649  Account number 20441911 Sortcode 60-83-01

Bringing down the Kingdom: Royal Berkshire Hospital security staff renew strike action

Following nearly 5 weeks of strike action in February and March, security workers at the Royal Berkshire Hospital have announced another 3 weeks of strike action from 12 - 31 July.

In what's been described as a David and Goliath battle, the security workers are taking on the multi-million pound Kingdom Services Group that they are employed by after the company's failure to agree a fair pay rise or to give some of its workers proper sick pay.

The workers are demanding that the NHS trust to take the security services back in house and dump Kingdom.

Unite regional officer Jesika Parmar said:

"The security guards, who have been on the Covid-19 frontline for the last 16 months, voted overwhelmingly for a renewal of strike action as Kingdom Services Group continues to treat them in a shabby way over pay, and health and safety concerns."

In an interview in March after the previous set of strikes, Counterfire spoke to the strikers about the conditions they face and how they are organising to win. 

The strikers will be joining the NHS 73rd anniversary protests with a rally and march in Reading on Saturday 3 July. Please get down and support if you're live nearby, and sign the petition demanding fair pay.

Amazon: chipping away at the neoliberal behemoth 

No company represents modern-day exploitation more dramatically than the retailing colossus Amazon.   

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, is committed to producing a steady flow of slick propaganda to convince us that staff at his notoriously anti-union workplace are all fine and dandy. Mr Bezos, we think you protest too much.

Recent research by the GMB shows that ambulance call-outs to Amazon warehouses spike prior to Prime Day, Black Friday and Christmas. This suggests that health and safety is the first thing to have its comers cut when the whip starts cracking.

GMB national officer Mick Rix says:

“Workers are expected to operate like robots gone haywire, picking and packing at a furious rate to meet completely unrealistic targets. It’s time for the richest company in the world to invest in safety, sit down with GMB and make sure staff work in a safe environment.”

But no tyrant boss is invincible.

Thirty recently-dismissed electricians got their jobs back at the Amazon Gateshead construction site last week following three days of protest.

A local worker commented:

“It's absolutely a victory. All the lads got offered their jobs back at 5pm on Wednesday, they were sent emails telling them their jobs are there if they wanted to start back on the site on Thursday morning.”

This is not the first time a short, sharp walkout has got quick results.

Trade union rights and recognition at Amazon remain our movement’s litmus test.   

Usdaw in Kettering: the Weetabix war continues

A dispute over shift payments has entered the strike ballot phase this week with the Northamptonshire workers receiving their voting papers.   

Usdaw could never be accused of being a strike-happy union so this is a big step. It’s yet another indicator of the new mood.

Usdaw’s Ed Leach says:

“It is very disappointing that the company has pushed this dispute, over unsociable hours shift premium pay, to the point of industrial action, which is very much a last resort for our members.”

News from the Frontline readers will know that Unite are already in dispute with the breakfast giants over their fire-and-rehire sortie on engineers.

Perhaps some joint action could get the bosses in line.

Kicking back against fire and rehire at Clarks

Clarks workers represented by the trade union Community are considering strike action after being threatened with fire and rehire.

The company, recently bought by a Hong Kong-based private equity firm, is attempting to shift its lockdown losses onto the employees of its Somerset warehouse. The new contracts would see the staff who have worked for the company for the longest have their pay cut by 15%, have three days less holiday, worse sickness terms and no breaks.

The company has launched a 45 day consultation after which it could fire all the workers affected. Community union's assistant general secretary John Paul McHugh said,

"The workers most adversely impacted by these changes are those who have been employees for decades, sticking with the company through thick and thin, stepping up in the last year during the challenging pandemic period.

"Fire-and-rehire is no way to thank your employees or your customers. We ask Clarks to call off the diminishing of terms and conditions."

The union is consulting its members and has said that all options are on the table to stop the fire and rehire, including strike action.

Tring Governors placed in the limelight as Teachers strike against fire & rehire!

NEU & NASUWT members and teachers at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts have commenced 5 days of strike action against fire and rehire. Two days of strike action took place this week and last with workers receiving solidarity from six form students and their parents.

Further strikes will commence on 6-8 July. Governors at the school are intending to withdraw teachers from the Teacher’s Pension Scheme (TPS).

In April the school started a consultation with staff which made apparent that the school is intending to sack staff that refuse to sign new contracts moving them to a defined contribution scheme which would see them with much worse pensions.

Governors are now refusing to have any meaningful discussion with reps. NEU Regional Secretary Paul McLaughlin said:

"Unilaterally taking teachers out of the valuable Teachers’ Pension Scheme onto what we believe is an inferior scheme, is not acceptable and members are standing up for their rights."

Dagenham Teachers stand up for themselves

On Wednesday, NEU teachers at Valence Primary in Dagenham commenced strike action where nearly half the workforce face pay cuts and demotions. Teachers on the picket line held placards declaring ‘I teach my students to stand up for themselves and here’s my TURN!’

If the school fails to reach an agreement with staff further strikes will take place on 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 July.

Mr Byrne from the NEU said:

“Support for the strike is strong and we expect the school will be closed on every strike day”

College staff vote for industrial action in Scotland

Lecturers at Scotland's Rural College (SRUC), who are members of Scottish teacher’s union, EIS have voted overwhelmingly to take action in a long running dispute over pay and grading.

The ballot returned an 86% vote on a 65% turnout for action up to and including a strike. The EIS says that the dispute revolves around an overdue and previously agreed pay and grading review that the college has kicked down the road and has instead been substituted with a below inflation offer for many of its members, with some receiving no increase at all.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said:

“This is a very clear ballot result which demonstrates the strength of feeling amongst EIS members at SRUC. Pay for lecturers at SRUC has fallen significantly behind the norms across both the Further and Higher education sectors, and the pay offer made to our members for this year was also completely inadequate. It is time for management at SRUC to pay their lecturers fairly and, also, to carry out a long-overdue pay and grading review that was previously agreed.”

NHS worker, Karen Buckley on the NHS day of action across the UK

As an NHS (mental health) worker and union rep, I get to see what this government is doing to our NHS and it’s not good. There’s been the years of underfunding, privatisations by stealth, cuts to services, hospital closures, loss of beds, enormous stress upon staff who have felt forced to leave in their thousands, pay freezes and below inflation pay rises, thousands of unfilled vacancies, cuts to nurses bursaries (and much more).

But I also get to see what an incredibly valuable service our NHS is and what a huge difference it makes to people’s lives. Undoubtedly, it is one of our most valuable institutions. So I strongly believe we must all come together to fight for our NHS, to preserve it for future generations and ensure it is fully funded and publicly run.

This weekend marks its 73rd birthday and on Saturday 3 July there will be NHS protests nationwide as part of an NHS Day of Action. This has been called for by Keep Our NHS Public, Health Campaigns Together, NHS Workers Say No and NHS Staff Voices. The key demands of the protests are for patient safety, pay justice and an end to privatisation.

I will be at the protest in Manchester, (11am, Piccadilly Gardens) organised by Greater Manchester Keep Our NHS Public. Hopefully you can join one too.

A list of the nationwide protests

Are you ready for Revolution!?

Next weekend Counterfire is bringing together a brilliant line-up of speakers for our Revolution! Festival.

With industrial action on the rise, this event will be an important opportunity to discuss trade union strategy and the role of the unions in the struggle for socialism.

Sessions will include 'Fighting on the frontline: a Marxist approach to trade union organising' with Unjum Mirza and 'Revolutionary ideas: Class and class consciousness' with Lindsey German. Other speakers will include US socialist Mike Davis, former Shadow Secretary for Employment Rights Laura Pidcock, French MP Daniele Obono and many more.

You can find the full timetable and book for the event here.

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Before you go...we need your help

Counterfire is expanding fast as a website and an organisation. We are trying to organise a dynamic extra-parliamentary left in every part of the country to help build resistance to the government and their billionaire backers. If you like what you have read and you want to help, please join us or just get in touch by emailing [email protected] Now is the time!

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