Counterfire’s weekly digest with the latest on strikes and workplace struggles
After striking for eight weeks, Clarks workers have been victorious in stopping the company’s fire-and-rehire plans. The deal, to which the members of Community Union agreed, will protect hourly pay for established employees and increase pay for new workers.
While the exact details of the deal have not been made public, this is a huge win for workers who were facing a 15% cut to their wages.
The notorious tactic of fire and rehire has been a favourite tool used by employers to push the costs of the pandemic onto their workers and slash their working conditions. The victory for Clarks warehouse workers is significant in its own right, but will also strengthen struggles elsewhere against the bosses’ underhanded tactics.
Clarks workers have shown that concerted collective action can win, and this will give confidence to others across industries to unionise, organise, and fight back.
Striking For Our Lives: the resistance is here
This week News from the Frontline organised an online rally which brought together strikers and workers organising on the frontlines. We heard some excellent speeches from Feyzi Ismail, a Goldsmiths University striker, and David Birchall, an Actavo Scunthorpe scaffolder currently on strike, as well as Lee Hunt from Stagecoach Wales whose recent strike action ended in victory, Holly Turner a nurse and a rep for GMB who are currently balloting health workers for industrial action and Unjum Mirza from Aslef who are preparing for a big battle on the London Underground.
The speakers all put their struggles into a wider context of the attacks by the government and employers on workers, their pay and conditions, but also the growing industrial resistance in the form of increasing levels of unionisation, balloting and strike action. The overarching theme throughout the meeting was the need for solidarity and unity in action in building and generalising the struggles.
Videos of the speakers will be available on the Counterfire website soon and we're hoping to organise a follow up rally in the new year, so stay tuned!
This is just the beginning: University staff fire back
University staff at 58 institutions around the country went on strike for three days this week to defend pensions and over employer failings on pay, casualisation, conditions and equalities. While they were attacked in the mainstream press and by the vice chancellor's club Universities UK, on the ground lecturers saw high levels of support from students, other staff and trade unionists from other sectors.
Even in universities where student unions shamefully refused to support the strike, large numbers of students were seen out on the picket lines in solidarity. Students at the University of Manchester and Sheffield Hallam University even occupied buildings in solidarity with their lecturers.
There was a widespread feeling among the strikers that this is just the beginning of the battle and that more strike action in the new year will be necessary to scale back the attacks from the employers and the government.
Scaffolding win: Unite does the business at Mitsubishi Chemicals in Teesside
Unite members subcontracted to Mitsubishi Chemicals at Billingham via Altrad have suspended their strike action following the acceptance of a pay deal. Their strike action had begun on 4 November.
From January 2022, the workers will receive a pay rise ranging from 6.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent. The annual leave for all workers will also increase from 22 days to 25, plus bank holidays.
Unite’s Sharon Graham says:
“This is an excellent result for our members at Altrad in Billingham and shows what can be achieved when workers stand together in a union.
“The inflation-busting pay rise at Altrad, as well as similar victories at other workplaces across the country, shows this approach is paying dividends for Unite members.”
Let’s hope this success sets the trend for scaffolders in struggle everywhere.
Sheerness dockers’ fire-and-rehire battle
More than fifty Sheerness dock workers are balloting over their employer’s threat to slash jobs and hours. Unite, the union representing the dockers, has said that GB Terminals’ proposals amount to a 75% cut in staffing levels, and are an attempt to introduce fire and rehire by the back door.
This employer has form: it took the threat of strike action last year before the company agreed to talk about pay and finally produce an offer that was acceptable to the workforce. That obviously still rankles.
The strikers are responsible for the movement on the dock, and preparation of, imported cars from Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, and other European manufacturers. The morale was boosted by the refusal of Unite-organised transporter drivers to cross the picket line.
Pushing back against ‘pushbacks’: PCS joins legal challenge against Home Office
After the horrific drowning of 27 refugees in the Channel, the PCS union, which represents Border Force workers, has joined a legal challenge against Priti Patel’s plans to ‘push back’ refugees. PCS has joined the legal action launched by Care4Calais against the Home Office over proposed plans to get the Border Force to turn away refugee boats in the Channel in violation of international law.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said:
‘The Pushback policy being pursued by the Home Secretary is unlawful, unworkable and above all morally reprehensible.
‘If the government does not abandon this appalling approach, we will pursue all legal avenues including a judicial review.
‘PCS will not rule out all forms of industrial action, including disrupting the implementation of the Pushback policy if the Home Secretary insists on going ahead.’
Support Tracey Scholes, Go North West’s first female bus driver
Go North West management, who earlier this year were pushed back by the longest bus strike in British history, have dismissed Tracey Scholes, the depot’s first female bus driver, who has served the company for over 34 years.
The company bosses have decided that, rather than make necessary adjustments to new vehicles that would accommodate Tracey’s short stature, they will dismiss her. Unite, is considering how to fight back, and Tracey addressed attendees of a Manchester People’s Assembly meeting on Thursday night.
Local activists stand ready to support Tracey, as they did the drivers when they were on strike. In the meantime, please sign the petition in support of Tracey.
Low-pay excuses won’t wash with Foyle Port workers
Across the water in Ireland, Foyle Port dockers are on strike over pay. The company is refusing to concede a paltry 2.1% pay claim. This is on the back of a pay freeze last year.
The company’s statement that ‘Average remuneration for employees last year was above median earnings for the local council area’, translates as, ‘We’ll use low wages to justify low wages.’
The dockers are determined that they won’t accept that logic, and don’t accept the employer’s attitude that they should be grateful for having a job ‘at any price’.
The money's missing
Biomedical scientists at Blackburn and Burnley hospitals are considering more strike action over unpaid wages. Two strikes have already been held this year, with the prospect of a third strike over the Christmas period.
The 21 workers have been paid at a band 6 on the NHS Agenda for Change pay scale since 2019. However, at varying stages, the workers claim they became eligible to be paid at band 6 since 2010.
The skilled NHS staff are owed on average between £8,000 and £12,000. Unite negotiated a deal for the workers to be paid what they were owed in 2019, but they claim that the Trust went back on the deal.
South Yorkshire bus drivers strike over ‘poverty pay offer’
Stagecoach is the wealthiest bus company in the UK. In 2020, Stagecoach made £54.8 million profit and has £875 million of available liquidity.
Much of Stagecoach’s profits come from the government grants that also prop up its share value. Yet, despite this fabulous wealth, Stagecoach has insulted its workforce with a 2% wage increase. The drivers have labelled the offer ‘poverty pay’.
Drivers in Sheffield, Rotherham, and Barnsley are just coming to the end of their first week of strike action, but will resume industrial action in the run-up to Christmas.
Drivers across the country are sick and tired of low pay, long hours, and poor working conditions. A recent survey by the drivers’ union Unite, shows that across the UK there is a driver shortage that is leading to the cancellation of bus services and the abandonment of less profitable routes.
South Yorkshire bus drivers have a strong hand to play and little reason to back down, despite the intransigence of Stagecoach at the present time. We should build support for strikers across our workplaces and communities, and banish poverty pay.
Boris Johnson’s promises of a high-wage economy that gives the north fair treatment is being revealed as yet another broken promise. Strike action will do more to ‘level-up’ workers’ pay than any Tory minister.
Amazon Black Friday protests: our pain, their profits
Amazon depots at Leicestershire, Coventry, Peterborough and London all saw protests last Friday 29 November – Black Friday – attacking the megacorporation’s notoriously bad conditions. Infamously, ambulance callouts to Bezos’ sites increase by 50% in the days leading up to Black Friday.
The protests were led by an alliance of unions, charities and NGOs, including by Extinction Rebellion who blockaded thirteen of Amazon's distribution centres and mdae the connection between Amazon's environmentally damaging practicices and exploitation of its workers. The action was coordinated internationally with organisations and activists in multiple countries protesting, striking and blockading Amazon warehouses.
GMB’s Mick Rix says:
“While most people enjoy their Black Friday bargains, Amazon workers are being pushed beyond the limits of human endurance. Each year, ambulance call outs to Amazon sites rocket as workers desperately race to hit their crushing targets. Workers are breaking bones, being left in pain at the end of a shift, and even reportedly being burned by chemicals and getting barred from work for raising Covid complaints.”
The anti-poverty charity War On Want’s Owen Espley says:
“Jeff Bezos wants to be seen as an innovator and an astronaut, but he’s nothing but a pandemic profiteer. Amazon’s astronomical profits are made whilst Amazon workers face unsafe conditions, constant surveillance and are treated like robots. Amazon’s power must be brought down to earth.”
Unionising Amazon has to be a key objective for our movement. These protests are a fantastic start, but the campaign needs more breadth and depth. TUC, we’re talking to you.
Striking like it’s a Benz: Mercedes workers begin balloting
Mercedes technicians have begun balloting for strike action after the company announced a pay freeze for a second year running. Around 175 Unite members across nine sites will be balloted from 2–20 December.
The decision to freeze pay is especially insulting when the workforce had to work through the pandemic, when inflation is soaring, and when the company has posted a net profit of €4bn (£3.4bn) in 2020 – up from €2.7bn (£2.3bn) in 2019.
Unite regional officer, Clare Keogh, said:
‘MBRG (Mercedes Benz Retail Group) is currently looking for a buyer for the business, but our members’ wages can’t be “parked” to make the enterprise look more attractive for a potential investor.’
Unison ballots nationally over ‘pitiful pay offer’
A pitiful ‘pay offer’ of 1.75% has resulted in 370,000 Unison council and school workers nationally being balloted for strike action. This offer would mean the workers are paid just pennies more than the government’s new minimum wage of £9.50, which is coming into effect in April. Some of the workers on the lowest pay have been offered 2.75%, this is also way below inflation, with RPI at 6%.
The workers being balloted include refuse collectors, teaching assistants, and social workers. The ballot opened on 1 December and closes on 14 January. Unison says local government workers have received a real-terms pay cut of 25% in the last decade. Unison, Unite, and GMB are demanding a minimum 10% pay increase for council and support workers. Cambridgeshire, Peterborough, and Suffolk Unison workers held rallies this week to launch the ballot.
Pallet shortage looms as Chep workers decide to strike
Unite members at pallet supplier Chep in Trafford Park have voted to strike over a 2% pay offer.
Chep is the main pallet supplier in the UK, and strikes could have a massive impact on an already fragile national supply chain. Seventy-five percent of those who voted decided to proceed with strike action.
Strikes will happen on 3, 6, 10 and 13 December.
UVW cooking up a pay rise at Harrods
UVW restaurant workers at Harrods, who are in the middle of balloting to strike over pay, have been offered a pay rise from £9 an hour to £11.50, a 25% annual increase, above the London Living wage.
The chefs are now on at least £12.50. The ballot continues, the workers have been calling for a minimum of £12 an hour.
Teachers’ epic strike ends
A bittersweet end for the NEU strikers at Oak Park School, Ilford as they return to school following a historic and yet bitter six-month, thirty-three-day dispute with the headteacher and local Labour-led Council.
Despite having no support from Labour MP Wes Streeting, or the Council Leader, Jas Athwal, the striking staff were in it for the long haul. The crux of the dispute centred around issues of safety at work. Following a letter from parents, and a petition with more than a thousand signatures presented to Redbridge Council and the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the headteacher agreed to a meeting with the union and strikers.
This strike was a great victory for the NEU; the longest in its history at six months. It meant that the headteacher, governors, and the council finally had to meet around the table. In a statement agreed by all parties, there will be an independent enquiry into the culture of bullying and intimidation of staff at Oak Park during the time the current head has been at the school.
Weetabix still in a fix!
Weetabix Engineers, members of Unite the Union, working in their Northampton factories, producing three cereal favourites, Weetabix, Alpen, and Ready brek, have had three weeks of strike action recently.
The dispute was triggered by what Weetabix Ltd. are calling ‘termination and re-engagement’! The engineers know it by a more familiar name, fire and re-hire, a strategy being used more and more by companies when they want to squeeze more out of their workforce to increase their profits, whilst giving their employees less!
The new contracts in this case will lead to a £5,000 loss in salary for many engineers. However, it’s more than the loss of salary, it’s the loss of pension, holiday, sick pay, and other benefits gained often over many years of working for the companies in question.
The engineers want the public to hit Weetabix Ltd where it hurts, and are asking the public to boycott Weetabix, Alpen, and Ready brek this winter, and to sign a petition demanding the company cease their fire-and-rehire strategy.
Willie Howard, the London and South East Regional Unite Organiser, had this to say:
‘Weetabix are an immensely profitable company that saw their profits rise sharply throughout the pandemic. They are in turn owned by an American conglomerate, Post Holdings, which is also posting record profits, much of which is decanted into a company registered in the Cayman Islands.
‘Firing and rehiring workers is motivated by opportunistic greed; money is being sucked out of working-class communities in Northamptonshire and being funnelled into the hands of multinational oligarchs. It is a disgrace and the workers are prepared to fight it every step of the way.’
The dispute is far from over. Following a consultative ballot, and the return to work following the first three weeks of strike action, the threat of being fired remains. Unite members at Weetabix have overwhelmingly decided to re-ballot for further strike action.
Lost: NHS trust
GPs in England have voted in favour of industrial action. Four in five of the GPs, who voted in an indicative ballot organised by the British Medical Association, backed the withholding of information about how they hold appointments, to thwart the government’s plan to ‘name and shame’ surgeries that see too few patients in person.
Eighty-four percent of doctors indicated their willingness to refuse to comply with the issuing of Covid-19 exemption certificates: ‘The results of the indicative ballot show that the profession has had enough. Relationships are broken and trust has been lost,’ said Dr Farah Jameel, the new chair of the BMA’s GP committee.
She warned ministers that ‘demoralised, broken, and exhausted’ family doctors may refuse to undertake some normal duties to show their anger.
Health minister, Sajid Javid, is feeling the pressure enough to postpone plans to force GPs who make at least £150,000 a year from the NHS to disclose their earnings.
No to the academy! NewVic resists
Teachers at Newham Sixth Form College (NewVic) went on strike this week to oppose academisation as well as bullying and workloads. The NEU members held a lively picket line on Wednesday for the first day of their strike. They were joined by other NEU members including the Oak Park strikers, as well as former staff and local residents.
They will be back out on strike on Wednesday and Thursday next week (8-9 December), get down to the picket lines from 8am and show your support!
You can B&Q it if you strike
The mass pickets at the B&Q distribution centre in Worksop are the largest pickets the town has seen since the miners’ strike in 1984-5.
A carnival atmosphere on the picket underlines both the anger and confidence that the workers feel.
The strike is about two things: an insulting pay offer, and repeated attempts to victimise and coerce Unite union reps by Wincanton. The set-up in Worksop is of a piece with many workplaces at the moment.
The workers are employed by Wincanton, who are the contractors working for B&Q at the distribution centre. But guess what: both Wincanton and B&Q are owned by Kingfisher, a multinational corporation headquartered in London and listed on the FTSE 100 index.
No wonder the workers in Worksop rejected the 2% pay rise offered to them.
The strikers have just finished their first week on strike, and will be following it up with more action unless things start to move. To get an idea of the determination of the strikers please listen to the senior site rep Pat McGrath, and see the numbers on the picket line.
This is definitely a strike that can win.
There are also strikes coming at Tesco distribution centres in Doncaster and Goole. Linking up these disputes could start to make the qualitative changes to the struggle that we need. The working class has not been bought off, and it is certainly not dead. The Tories are not as safe in the so-called Red Wall seats as they think.
No walk in the park for the bosses: Natural England set to strike
Workers at Natural England, the government’s natural environment agency, are set to strike after years of overwork and underpay.
Their ballot met the threshold, and 76% of the workers voted to strike and 85% voted for ASOS (action short of a strike.) Mandates like this don’t raise an eyebrow these days. The strike is set to kick off on 4 January.
Prospect’s Mike Clancy says:
“Prospect members at Natural England have been left with no option but to vote for industrial action. Protecting the environment is not just a job to them – it is their calling – but they can’t continue to do it on a shoestring, with stagnating wages and heavy workloads.
“Natural England has to recognise that if it wants to fulfil its role then it must pay proper wages, reduce workloads, reduce pressure on staff and end the unacceptable pay inequality.”
All workers have a breaking point, even vocational ones. Bosses forget this at their peril.
Before you go...
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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