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Amazon warehouse. Photo: Lewis Clarke / Geograph / CC BY-SA 2.0, license linked below article

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

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Last week, workers at Cranswick Continental Foods, a food factory in Bury, walked out for two days over low pay and poor conditions. The Manchester Evening News reported one worker as saying:

"In the mornings I am giving a lift to some of my colleagues because they can't afford to come to work in their own car. We need better conditions, and to be treated like human beings and the wages have to go up - they have to do something about it. I am sure they are aware that the cost of living is too high.

"Maybe they have a nice bank account and earn a lot of money and don't realise for us workers it's not the same. We should take home after tax at least £330 to £350 a week to be okay. We are on the minimum wage working in hard, cold, conditions."

This week, that anger turned into action at Amazon’s Tilbury fulfilment centre as warehouse workers walked out after being offered a measly 35p per hour pay rise. A video on social media shows the workers downing tools as a manager desperately tries to deescalate the situation.

Novara Media spoke to one worker who said:

“For everyone, rolling sentiment was, [the pay offer was] a kick in the teeth. During Covid we were required to still come in and work. Many people made sacrifices. Many workers felt it was shameful from Amazon Tilbury. Many workers are trained in multiple areas. So in a day a worker could be going to pack, then stow, then picking. All extra jobs for just 35p more.”

With so many strikes making headlines across the country, it’s perhaps no surprise that the appetite for workers to take their destiny into their own hands is spreading and recent reports suggest that the wave of worker militancy is making its way over to unorganised workplaces.

Organising Amazon workers has proven unachievable in the UK so far. Maybe now is the time for unions to seriously allocate some resources there?

Striking barristers raise the bar

The Criminal Bar Association is still in dispute with the government over the low pay for criminal barristers and the government is dragging its feet over raising fees. Although the headline is that fees are going by 15%, the reality is that this will only apply to new cases from the autumn, which is an insulting offer when barristers face many months of backdated cases as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The strikes are set to go on for alternating weeks for the foreseeable future.

Where next for the rail strikes?

The rail strikes are becoming increasingly bitter as the Grant Shapps and the employers’ intransigence leads to further industrial action. On Saturday 13 August, Aslef train drivers on Avanti West Coast and CrossCountry will extend the previous powerful strike on 30 July and bring services to a standstill across now nine train operating companies (TOCs).

The RMT will lead national action with the TSSA and Unite co-ordinating on Thursday 18 and Saturday 20 August. Meanwhile, RMT members will bring London Underground to a halt on Friday 19 August as talks between the DfT and TfL fail to reach an agreement on funding and the rail unions fail to receive the assurances sought on jobs, terms and conditions and pensions.

Unite members employed by RATP on London buses will be joining RMT London Underground on strike on 19-20 August. Over 1,600 bus drivers will be walking off the job and will bring a new level of shutdown to London transport.

Scotland RMT have called a Protest outside Scottish Tory HQ on Thursday 11 August at 11.30am calling for ministers to stop blocking a resolution to the railways dispute and for Truss and Sunak to drop their attacks on the right to strike. RMT Hitachi Rail workers began 3 days strike on 1 August over pay and conditions.

Read Unjum Mirza’s report on the previous strikes and the urgent need for co-ordinated and decisive action here: How to turn a strike wave into a tsunami.

london-bridge-rmt-tssa-aslef-strike-lg.jpgPhoto: Cici Washburn

From North West to North East: Go Ahead faces another continuous strike

Bus operator Go North East is planning to close its Chester-le-Street depot, threatening the jobs of cleaners and admin staff while forcing drivers and engineers to relocate to other garages as it cuts routes across the region.

170 Unite members are to stage all-out continuous strike action from 12 August in order to force the employer to negotiate on plans that will have a serious impact on the largely rural communities served by their buses as well as having a detrimental effect on workers.

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said:

“Unite’s members are making a stand for the local community. The closure of the Chester-le-Street depot threatens the employment of bus workers and will damage the quality of bus services to local areas.

“Go North East needs to withdraw its poorly thought out closure plans and enter into meaningful negotiations with Unite to ensure an improved service can be implemented.

“Our members at Go North East will receive Unite’s total support until this dispute is resolved.”

Police arrest peaceful picket at Surrey refuse works

A GMB union official representing bin workers in dispute with the privateer Amey was arrested by police directly off a picket line on Tuesday morning. Gary Palmer, who can be seen in recorded footage wearing his union hi-vis vest, calmly responding to police questions, was suddenly instructed that he was under arrest. Despite walking with them to their car without being forced, one of the officers placed him in handcuffs as he walked towards the vehicle!

Amey have been taking a very aggressive line on the dispute, having put out intentionally misleading press releases claiming that GMB has refused to negotiate and commanding managers to break the strike themselves. The involvement of the police to break a picket line is, however, a serious raising of tensions.

Gary Palmer was previously arrested on the same picket line and is awaiting trial in November. There have been other arrests and examples of management and strike breakers dangerously driving vehicles at pickets – but that only makes this yet another warning sign of what the authorities are willing to do try and undermine workers’ rights. 

More care worker strikes planned in Somerset and Bristol

Care staff at St Monica Trust in Bristol and North Somerset are preparing for further action after staging five days of strikes against fire-and-rehire tactics that would see workers thousands of pounds worse off.

St Monica Trust continues to refuse to meet with Unison to negotiate fairer terms and will not allow workers to have union representation in meetings.

unison-st-monica-strike-lg.jpgPhoto: @BristolUnison / Twitter

It’s finally over: Coventry bin workers win fight with council

Following 6 months of continuous strike action, the Coventry HGV bin drivers have won their dispute. Unite says they have secured a 12.9% pay increase which will result in £3,600 a year plus Christmas bonuses. Unite shop steward Pete Randle who was suspended during the dispute has had all disciplinary charges against him dropped.

On the day the victory was announced victimised rep Pete Randle said on Twitter:

“Been one of the proudest days of my life. Putting my neck out there to fight the fight. My members stood by me. Unite and Sharon Graham stood by me. We won it’s that simple, I’d do it all again. Solidarity has been incredible. When you hold out we win!”

Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said:

“It is quite frankly wrong that our members were forced to take this action against a Labour Council, but Unite will always back its members against any employer who refuses to negotiate. I am very proud of our reps and members today.”

coventry-bin-strike-lg.jpgPhoto: @UniteWestMids / Twitter

University of the Arts parental leave win

Swanky London art school consortium UAL is introducing cutting edge parental leave policy from 1 October 2022 thanks to the deft campaigning of GMB, UCU and Unison. 

From the beginning of the next academic year, staff will be offered 26 weeks maternity and paternity leave at full pay. This will be open to biological birth parents, persons with responsibility for care at time of birth/adoption, partners (female, male, trans, non-binary) and same-sex couples and those with surrogacy arrangements. 

GMB Branch Secretary Alex Brent says:

“This victory is the result of hard-fought and long-term campaigning from trade unions at UAL. This shows the power of solidarity shown between the GMB, UCU and Unison. 

“However, I am disappointed that the policy does not extend to our outsourced members. It bears saying that the majority of our cleaning staff are women, who may well have benefitted from such a policy – and for whom fair treatment by the employer remains a long, long way off.” 

An excellent result, but the battle’s not over.

Unite ballot’s London bus drivers

1,400 Unite Arriva bus drivers in North London are balloting to strike over pay. Unite says bosses have failed to make a pay offer for this year and that strikes could begin next month.

The ballot opens on 5 August and closes on 26 August. The bus garages being balloted include Barking, Clapton, Edmonton, Enfield, Palmers Green, Tottenham, Wood Green and Ash Grove.

Unite regional officer John Murphy said:

“Unite’s members have been left with no alternative but to ballot for industrial action. Arriva should come back to the table now, armed with a decent offer. Otherwise, it faces the prospect of serious strike action.”

Open University: biggest decasualisation victory ever, says UCU    

Around five thousand associate lecturers, previously on short-term insecure contacts, will now receive the same pay and conditions as permanently employed academic staff at the Milton Keynes-based Open University. 

This realignment, which began on Monday 1 October, is the result of extensive negotiation between the bosses and academic union UCU, and includes up to 15% higher wages, extra annual leave and staff development allowances. 

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady says:

“The new contract is life changing for the 4,800 associate lecturers who have been moved onto secure contracts that mean they no longer have to re-apply for their jobs every year. 

“UCU is immensely proud of reaching this agreement, with The Open University, after many years of hard work and while we recognise there is still more to do, we are celebrating this huge step forward in ending casualisation at the OU.” 

A first-rate victory; let’s get this generalised around the sector and help step up the resistance to neoliberalism both in and outside the academy. 

Lancashire OCS strike escalates

Cleaning and catering staff at two Lancashire hospitals have continued their industrial action this week. The staff at the NHS hospitals in Blackburn and Blackpool are contracted to facilities management company OCS.

The private company is paying these workers £2,000 a year less than their colleagues working for the NHS and they also get 7 days less annual leave and lower sick pay.

Via their union, Unison, these workers initially submitted a collective grievance over these issues in May 2021, but the company responded by blaming the NHS. Frustrated by the lack of progress Unison members delivered a fantastic 97.8% yes vote in a ballot for industrial action.

So far, they have taken 7 days of strike action in their fight for parity pay and conditions and an end to a two-tier workforce. More strike dates have been planned later in the month.

Sign the petition in support of the strike here.

Sainsbury’s Scottish supply problem

Unite members working at a DHL Supply Chain in Scotland will be going on strike from 13 - 20 August. Workers at Langlands Park distributions centre are taking the weeklong industrial action after getting a 96% yes vote on a 68% turnout of members.

They’re taking this action after the company has so far only offered them a below inflation pay deal, representing a real terms pay cut. To add insult to injury, staff are already on lower wages than those who work in the DHL/Sainsbury’s distribution network in other parts of the UK.

The company supplies all the Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Scotland. DHL and its German-owned parent company, Deutsche Post DHL Group, have been accused by the union of treating their members as second-class workers.

Red Funnel Ferries update

Red Funnel members of Unite and their supporters stood in solidarity at the Town Quay in Southampton to demand an end to poverty wages. The staff are protesting at the ‘rock–bottom’ pay that they receive whilst the owners of Red Funnel have billions in the bank. They do not even receive overnight food expenses - even though they may spend days away from home.

This industrial action has been taken as the last choice as the company has left them no other option. The owners can afford to improve the worker’s pay to a living wage but are choosing not to do so. Those of us who stood in solidarity with them were surprised at the amount of support they were receiving from passing traffic and even lorries and cars in the queue, waiting for ferries in the reduced service being provided, cheered on those in the picket line.

The mood of the public is definitely changing to support those taking action. As companies, like Red Funnel, continue to treat their workers badly, the finger of blame is being pointed to them and not those standing in solidarity on the picket lines.

On the website:

No to bus cuts! Transport for London HQ occupied: Londoners make their feelings clear about appalling plans to cut buses and routes, reports Peter Bird.

Pressure mounts on BT after second day of successful strike action: Tayo Aluko reports on the second day of the CWU's national BT OpenReach strike from his local picket line in Liverpool.

: The attack on Des Freedman and Gholam Khiabany, two respected academics at Goldsmiths, is an attack not just on these individuals but on the whole union.

Connection interrupted by solid CWU national BT OpenReach strike: The summer of discontent just got hotter with around 40,000 BT OpenReach workers walking out on strike against poverty pay. Counterfire members report from picket lines.

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