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Inflation chart. Photo: The Phoenix / CC BY-ND 4.0, license linked at bottom of article

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

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The latest ONS figures now show that inflation measured by RPI, the method the unions insist is the most relevant to working people, is standing at a massive 9.9% over the last 12 months. This makes it the highest level in 32 years, which in many cases will mean workers have never faced such high levels of inflation and there is currently no let up on the horizon.  

In the middle of another capitalist crisis, exacerbated by rising energy costs due to the war in Ukraine and with global supply chains still in disarray after the squeeze of instant demand post-pandemic, it is quite feasible that inflation will continue to soar.

The TUC Demo on 18 June in London is an opportunity for trade unionists to send a clear message to the government that political change is urgently needed in this country.

The bosses and ruling class always try and make workers pay for a crisis as they protect their profits at our expense. As News from the Frontline has reported, workers are fighting back in massive numbers and winning. Now is the time to follow their lead: strike for better pay!

Chep workers: record-breaking victory

The long-running dispute at Chep in Trafford Park was won this week with a massive victory after 21 weeks of strike for a decent pay rise. The dispute began in December and escalated shortly after to a continuous strike. When they reballoted to extend, the first 12 weeks, their mandate shot up to a huge 94%.

Now, the workers have voted to accept a deal which Unite reports is worth 14% overall. Counterfire’s Chris Neville spoke to Chep’s Unite rep, Gary Walker about the dispute and what the future holds for the strikers.

The bin strikes continue

After weeks of build-up, Rugby bin workers in Unite the Union have commenced a fortnight of strike action from Tuesday this week. The Tory council has not made any serious offers of inflation or even near-inflation pay rise so far.

The workers have massively increased in union density this year, and large lively pickets have been held at Rugby refuse depots. Their colleagues down the road, in Coventry, are still having the longest-running bin workers dispute currently ongoing. The council is currently denying that it has plans to resolve the strike by 'brute force' by sacking the HGV drivers, but it is also continuing to claim - without any evidence - that it cannot negotiate with the union. There has been a demo called in support of the Coventry strike at 11 am on 3 May which starts at 1 Friargate.

Unite bin workers in Cardiff have called off action this week, in very different circumstances. The strike was called over bullying and intimidation, which the council this week made an offer to take serious steps to resolve. Action is being postponed for a month while talks resume. Ugly rumours surround the management of Cardiff's sanitation service and the ‘mob-like’ bosses of it.

Bin outsourcing company Biffa is facing strikes in two localities. GMB workers in Wealden were suspended, but then almost immediately put back on to start next week, when an ‘eleventh-hour’ pay offer was not a significant improvement on the previous one. In Manchester, both Unite and GMB workers are currently still on track for an all-grades shut down of the service next week.

Airbus workers win

A long-running dispute over wages has been decisively won by workers, after over 3,000 Airbus workers have accepted an improved pay offer. Members of the Unite union had voted to take industrial action in February, but the deal includes a big pay rise and an extra day's holiday so action has been called off.

The new offer accepted by the workforce is an 8.6% increase over 13 months, as well as a backdated 5.1% lump sum payment. Workers will also have an additional day's holiday in 2023 and in 2024.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:

“This win is further proof of Unite’s determination to drive up pay and conditions across the UK’s aerospace sector. Our members stood together and secured a significantly improved pay offer. Their decision to back strike action sent a strong message.

Second day of strike at Fawley refinery

Workers at the biggest oil refinery in the country took their second day of strike action on 25 April to demand a pay increase and sick pay. With the rate of inflation soaring and energy companies like Exxon raking in the profit, the workers are determined to fight for what they deserve.

Their next strike date is 6 May, get down to Southampton and support their picket line if you can. 

Photo: @unite_southeast

The gloves are off: civil service union PCS now formally in dispute with the Tories  

With its eyes on an early Autumn strike ballot, the Public and Commercial Services Union is talking tough, hoping to set the tone for their May conference.  

“Our members voted in record numbers in our recent consultative ballot to support our national pay claim of 10% and to get the 2% they have overpaid towards their pension refunded and backdated to April 2019. 98% of members endorsed the claim and 81% indicated they would be prepared to take industrial action if the government didn’t listen.

“The government refuses to listen and also intends to make cuts to the civil service redundancy scheme. It is not a coincidence that they want to make these cuts at a time when Jacob Rees-Mogg is calling for more than 65,000 jobs to be lost in the civil service.”

Promisingly, the PCS are linking their campaign with the TUC/PA national demo on Saturday 18 June in Westminster. “If we stick together, we can win,” they say.

The PCS are right.

Stanlow fight for jobs and pay

Unite members employed by Veolia at Essar’s Stanlow refinery are balloting on strike action over the company’s miserly 3.5% pay offer. The workers operate and provide essential maintenance on chemical and vacuum tanks.

The 19 workers are disgusted that, with inflation running at 9%, the company want to effectively cut pay for their workforce - who helped make the profit that paid for Veolia’s £12.9 billion buy-out of rival company Suezm three months ago.

They are aware that this is a company-wide strategy, with their fellow Unite members at Fawley refinery striking over a 2.5% pay offer.

Whirlpool: workforce put bosses in a spin

Tight-fisted directors of the domestic appliance company Whirlpool face being put through the wringer by their workforce, currently balloting over an ‘insulting’ 2.5% pay offer. 

The workers, members of the Unite union, deliver, install and service household appliances across the UK. They are the main service providers for household names such as Indesit, Hotpoint and Whirlpool. The workforce is particularly disgusted that, with the company announcing they had more than doubled profits (up from £4.8M in 2019, to £12M in 2020) they are still insisting on a real-terms pay cut.

Full steam ahead

After the first strikes in 45 years at Rugby’s 120-year-old GE Steam turbine factory, the situation is now escalating as the company tries to use outside consultancy firm Shape Associates to ‘undermine’ union organisation.

With the next strike on the 29 April, Unite is preparing to re-ballot more than 75 members at the factory to extend strike action over attacks on pay. The initial round of strike action began on 17 April and is due to end on 2 May.

By giving the responsibility of running the factory to Shape Associates, the consultancy firm is trying to force through cutbacks prior to the site’s sale to EDF.

Unite regional officer Zoe Mayou said:

“Since GE Steam Power bought the factory 11 years ago, they have tried over and over again to undermine our members’ pay and benefits despite the company’s operations being extremely lucrative.  

“GE has hired Shape Associates to run the factory and to squeeze whatever else they can before the sale to EDF. While taking on GE’s dirty work, Shape has ignored Unite’s recognition agreement, a move that has backfired and only strengthened our members’ resolve.”

Financial Conduct Authority strike set to start

In a historic first, Unite members working for the Financial Conduct Authority are to strike on 4-5 May, followed by a continuous overtime ban to run from 6 May. They are in dispute over issues including a 10-12% pay cut, narrowing of pay bands, discriminatory rates of pay for Scottish staff and a threat of future pension cuts while senior staff are having their pay uprated.

Teachers strike against homophobia

The Catholic school, John Fisher School in Croydon was closed on Thursday due to strike action by NEU members after the school banned a talk with a children’s author, Simon James Green, whose book has gay characters.

Following this decision by the school, the governors voted not to cancel the talk, two of the school’s governors resigned and the rest were sacked. The picket lines were solid, lively and well supported, staff had made their own placards and the author Simon James Green sent the workers chocolate brownies.

President of the NEU Daniel Kebede said:

"Staff and pupils are absolutely gutted about what has happened. Banning a gay author from attending a book talk in the school sends out a really horrific message to the young people in this school and particularly to those who may be gay or lesbian.”

Photo: @DanielKebedeNEU

Council workers want a proper pay rise

Council and Housing Executive workers across Northern Ireland commenced two weeks of strike action on Monday. The workers are striking after refusing to accept a 1.75% ‘pay offer’ which is in real terms a massive pay cut at the beginning of a cost of living crisis.

Unite workers in the Education Authority joined the pickets on Tuesday.

Kieran Ellison from Unite said:

"Common sense should prevail but someone please explain to me how they think that 1.75% is fair, proportionate and reasonable for our members."

Oxford MINI strikes postponed after new pay offer

Four days of strike action scheduled for late April have been called while workers consider a new deal.

The 180 warehouse workers and shunter drivers are Unite members employed by Rudolph & Hellmann involved in MINI production at Cowley. BMW oversees the whole operation.

Unite’s Sharon Graham is looking at the big picture:

“Unite will not accept a situation whereby BMW’s profits are being made off the backs of low wage workers in the supply chain. 

“Rudolph & Hellman – and BMW - need to start taking account of our members’ rocketing living costs and put forward an offer they can accept.”

Strike action will resume on 10 May if the workers reject the offer.

Peterlee factory worker dispute escalates

Workers at NSK Bearings and AKS Precision Ball in Peterlee are continuing their industrial action with a further 11 days of strikes between 20 April and 15 May, following 8 days of strikes after rejecting a 1.6% pay offer earlier in the year.

Employer NSK Europe has not responded with either an improved offer or an agreement to enter negotiations with Unite, which represents the workers in dispute.

Victory for Royal Berkshire security guards

Outsourced security guards at the Royal Berkshire hospital who went on strike for 5 weeks from December 2020 and then another 3 weeks in July 2021 have finally won their dispute. Despite having worked through the pandemic and having to go above and beyond their duties to help keep the hospital running, the workers were given inferior contracts and lower pay than their in-house NHS counterparts and treated with contempt by their employer, Kingdom Services Group. 

Even in the face of Kingdom attempting to undermine the strike by bringing in agency staff, the strikers remained determined and they have now succeeded in winning a 7.5% pay rise from December 2021 and further back pay from December 2020 of around £400. 

As Unite has stressed, this victory is not the end of the fight. The demands of the workers were ultimately to be brought in house so that they have equal sick pay and benefits of other in-house colleagues, and this is something they will continue to fight for.

NEU strike in Walthamstow Primary

Among the wave of strikes by NEU in Waltham Forest staff at the Walthamstow Primary school held a further strike on 28 April. There is solid support from the group of women seeking equal treatment for the staff at the school which is part of the United Learning chain of schools and further ballots will be held if scheduled talks don’t make progress.

There is great support from parents who have written to the Chief Executive and handed in a petition of support. The strikers greet the children arriving on strike days with an offer of breakfast snacks and music. On a busy road there is a lot of support from passing commuters in cars, trucks and bikes

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