Counterfire’s weekly digest with the latest on strikes and workplace struggles
Last week’s national rail strikes have brought the class divide in society to the fore with exceptional clarity. The national cost of living crisis is starting to bite for millions of people and Boris Johnson’s government, with its lack of support and mired in scandal, is historically unpopular and untrusted. In this context, the RMT’s demands for job security and fair pay have clearly resonated with a lot of people, and the strikes have shown the power and possibilities for collective working-class action.
On the other side, the media establishment went into full attack mode, trying to discredit the RMT. This spectacularly backfired, no doubt because of Mick Lynch’s fantastic media performances knocking back the narrative, and also because the attempts at demonising workers were so plain to see. One Opinium poll showed that a majority of people back the strikes, with support increasing over the course of the week.
The Tories clearly recognise the danger they are in with growing working-class confidence and organisation. This is why Grant Shapps has talked about the government looking into introducing new legislation to require a ‘minimum service’ and are now moving to repeal legislation stopping agency workers being hired to break strikes. We can expect the Tories to escalate their attacks and use the law against workers as the strikes continue and more unions ballot to strike.
To remove any doubt that Labour could be the party of workers it was set up to be, Keir Starmer tried to prevent MPs from going to picket lines and David Lammy said that “a serious party of government doesn’t join picket lines”.
As Lindsey German said in her Weekly Briefing, “This is them against us – and Starmer is definitely with them. These will be bitter struggles, but workers have not only right but also power on their side. We need to use it much more in the coming months if we are to beat back these attacks on the whole working class.”
Network error: BT Openreach faced with historic national strike
CWU members employed by BT Openreach have voted overwhelmingly to strike in the first national strike at BT since it was privatised some 35 years ago. Over 28,000 engineering workers at BT subsidiary Openreach voted by 95.8% to strike, and BT workers including over 10,000 call centre workers voted by 91.5% to strike. The CWU has now given BT until the end of next week to return with a "significantly improved offer" or it will give notice of strike dates.
The CWU notes that BT posted £1.3 billion profits last year and the CEO Philip Jansen's salary has increased by 32%. Meanwhile, their workers are expected to put up with a real-terms pay cut. Instead of recognising the scale of dissatisfaction among its employees, Openreach has responded by claiming it has contingency plans if the strike goes ahead. But as the company responsible in large part for the maintenance of the UK's internet infrastructure and with BT holding wide-ranging call centre contracts, including for 999 calls and for government ministries, there is no doubt a walkout of this scale would cause huge disruption.
Fired up: FBU recommends members reject derisory 2% offer
Firefighters have been offered a meagre 2% pay offer by fire and rescue employers. As well as the cost of living crisis, firefighters have seen their real-terms pay cut by 12% since 2009. FBU members will now vote on the pay offer and the FBU has recommended that members reject it.
FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack said:
“It is galling to be insulted in this way, especially after our contribution to public safety during the pandemic” and that if the offer is rejected, the FBU will “consider all options, including strike action.”
Wandsworth cleaners vote unanimously to strike
100% of UVW members working as cleaners at Riverside Quarter luxury apartments in Wandsworth have voted to strike. The mainly Latin American cleaners employed by Endersham Ltd are demanding £12 per hour, paid hourly break, a sick pay scheme and 25 days of annual leave. The vote came shortly after they won recognition for their union by the Central Arbitration Committee.
A UVW spokesperson said:
“Our members are undeterred and will continue until they receive a proper living wage” and continued, “Together, now more than ever, we are going to continue fighting. We are ready to strike, we are united.”
Cabin crew “flying high” after SAS Connect cabin crew deal
150 cabin crew at Heathrow, working for CAE Crewing Services on the SAS Connect contract, are celebrating after their union, Unite, negotiated an 18%-plus increase to their wages. The deal reinstates the 10% cut they, along with so many other aviation workers, suffered during the pandemic.
The deal sees an immediate uplift of 11%, plus a further 4% in November, and a further 3% next March. In addition, the union has won a further 7% for every 2 years employed – up to 8 years service, and a “summer bonus” this year of £1,200. It means cabin crew with 2 years of service will see an immediate increase in their annual wage of £4,019.35. Senior cabin crew with similar service will benefit by £4,789.91 pa.
Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham pointed to the wider implications of this deal when she stated:
“This game-changing deal will see the reversal of the 10% wage cut made during the pandemic and a substantial increase in pay. Without across the board, drastic improvements to the poor wage and working conditions in this sector, the staff shortages driving the chaos at airports will continue.”
Simon, a senior cabin crew member working for BA’s Mixed Fleet told Counterfire:
“This lays down a marker for all those greedy bosses who thought they could use the pandemic to tear up our terms and conditions. It will give heart to crew across the industry that we can win back what we lost – and more.”
BA beware. You have been warned.
More Privatised Bin Workers to Take Action
Bin workers in the town Harlow and the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham have both voted strongly for industrial action, in resounding numbers.
In Tory Harlow, Veolia workers in Unison returned a 97% result when they rejected a 7% offer from the company, saying that they will accept nothing less than a rise that meets inflation (officially 9.1% at the time). The council has washed its hands of the situation and Veolia management have been refusing to negotiate up to this point. Unless talks happen, Unison will be announcing strike days imminently.
At Labour-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham, supposedly a “London living wage employer” but allows Serco to pay its bin workers less than £10 an hour, which is far less. One of the workers was quoted by GMB, saying:
“We all graft hard in this job. We worked throughout the pandemic – as key workers doing an essential job for a London Living Wage council, but we didn’t get anywhere near that rate. We have all been struggling to pay our bills and to keep a roof over our heads that’s why every single one of us voted to support industrial action – because we have no choice. Even though we are employed by Serco this is a council contract and we don't see why we have been paid minimum wages for so long. It’s not right.”
The workers voted unanimously to strike and dates are pending.
BMA ballot on the cards
The British Medical Association is calling for a restorative pay rise after its annual conference noted that doctors pay has fallen in real terms by 30% since 2008. The BMA has said that without an offer to restore pay over the next five years it will begin preparations to ballot junior doctors for industrial action by early next year. Should junior doctors vote to strike it would be only the third time in the history of the NHS, following action in 1975 and 2016 respectively.
Traffic warden strike in Wandsworth
Traffic wardens in Wandsworth are to strike during the Wimbledon tennis tournament with action falling July 4-8. This will be their third week of action as outsourced employer NSL is offering a below-inflation pay rise despite wardens being paid less than those in neighbouring boroughs.
Although Wimbledon doesn’t take place in Wandsworth many visitors park there for the tournament, generating twice as many parking tickets as are normally issued and allowing strikes to disrupt profits for both the council and NSL.
Hugh Baird College in Merseyside: another KO strike ballot
93% of UCU members at Bootle’s Hugh Baird College have given an insulting 1% pay offer the kicking it deserves with a call for strikes. The turnout was 74%.
Since the credit crunch FE pay has fallen behind inflation by 35% and UCU is confident the college has more than enough to offer staff pay justice.
UCU’s Martyn Moss says:
“We believe the college has the money to pay staff more and it now needs to come back with an improved offer that helps our members meet the cost of living crisis. If management refuses to do so, staff will choose key dates in the next academic year to take strike action.”
Let’s hope that “next academic year” opens the door to some coordinated strike action with other education workers.
No cash without a fair pay rise
In an ongoing battle with the Post Office, CWU members responsible for cash and valuables collections and deliveries will be striking on Thursday 14 July. The action will shut down the cash operations at 11,500 sub-Post Offices around the country. Supply chain and admin workers at 114 Crown Post Offices will also be going on their third round of strike action on Monday 11 July.
The Post Office has only improved on their previous pay offer by half a per cent following the previous round of strikes. In the face of a worsening cost of living crisis, it's clear that the workers aren't going to sit back and take this.
Unison at Leeds Uni: more strike action against low pay
Over 500 non-academic staff members (from cleaners to librarians) struck for five days last week demanding a £1250 across-the-board pay increase as a step towards pay justice.
Unison’s Mike Short says: “For years, university workers have endured what amount to pay cuts. Yet, these are the people who made sure students’ learning was uninterrupted throughout the pandemic
“But enough’s enough. University employees simply can’t afford to live on poverty wages or accept woeful, insulting pay offers.”
This is a test case for pursuing a winning campaign and smashing the 50% ballot threshold. These workers have passed with flying colours.
But these local public sector disputes are forming a pattern. The next step is surely national action.
Holland Park School: NEU members strike against academisation
NEU teachers and support staff delivered their tenth day of strike action this week in a campaign against a proposed takeover by multi academy trust United Learning.
The strike was supported by 70% of the staff.
London NEU says:
“Holland Park School is being unwillingly subsumed into a large MAT without any transparent dialogue between teachers, parents and students - a fate awaiting many others across the country. By 2030 all schools are meant to join a MAT. Our members believe that a local MAT will ensure a community driven school - surely this is what schools should strive for?”
In the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, it’s good to see workers still striking politically, and these academies are truly the unacceptable face of neoliberal education.
Fighting for justice for all: why barristers are striking - Counterfire's Yonas Makoni speaks to Attiq Malik, a solicitor advocate with Liberty Law Solicitors about why criminal barristers are striking and why we should support them.
'The fight never stops': GMB's arrested trade unionists remain defiant - The three GMB trade unionists arrested on a Wealdon picket line in May were met with solidarity outside Hastings Magistrates Court, reports Leah Levane.
Tram workers serve an ace at Wimbledon - Unjum Mirza reports on a solid strike by Croydon Tramlink workers in response to a real-terms pay cut.
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