Counterfire’s weekly digest with the latest on strikes and workplace struggles
The two largest unions in Britain, Unite and Unison, are both likely to put motions towards this year’s TUC congress containing calls for “coordinated action”. While the details are likely to fall far short of calls for a “general strike”, this is a very significant step for the leaderships of both unions, reflecting both the scale of generalised crisis in the economy and society and the feeling among trade union members and activists.
The wording of the two motions will not the be the same and reflecting differences in approach between the two leaderships but Unite and Unison members have taken part in coordinated actions in some localities this year, and the possibility of mass strikes uniting tens of thousands across the unions in a range of areas, particularly the public sector, is real.
The leaderships of RMT and CWU, themselves staging mass strikes in the transport and communications sectors as we write this, have welcomed the call, and expressed a willingness to participate in coordination.
The obstacles to a genuine general strike in Britain remain enormous: aside from most workers not being in unions, the restrictive anti-union laws that already exist in this country mean striking workforces must be balloted workplace by workplace. That is not to say these calls do not represent anything: firstly, they are a challenge to a Tory government that is seeking to ratchet up the anti-union laws even further, to the point were striking is all but illegal. Defiance is the only response to this.
But more than this, what these motions represent is the mainstreaming of the idea of coordination of different groups of workers, opening the possibility of doing it much more widely. Motions before TUC seldom fall, so we can expect they’ll become policy, but the message we should send out is that the real work of making united disputes happen is going to come on the ground and in the workplaces.
GMB, Unite and Unison suspend their Scottish strikes as Cosla presents a new offer
Local government strikers have had their next phase of action averted by a revamped deal from Cosla (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities). The workers, primarily refuse and school support staff, are set to consider it. This dispute has been going on for months.
Unite’s Wendy Dunsmore says:
"We now have a credible offer which our local government representatives can recommend to the membership for acceptance."
Unison’s Mark Ferguson added:
“Do not underestimate the scale of the achievement for Unison members. We have won significant increases from where we started 8 month ago. We have had to drag the employer to the table to even talk to us. This will go some way to help them through the cost of living crisis but by no means is the fight over.”
News from the Frontline will present a fuller report in its next edition. The joint action conducted by these unions is exemplary and appears to have paid dividends. The message is clear: if it’s a bad deal, don’t take it and keep striking.
A tale of two ports
The Mutt and Jeff approach of the Port of Felixstowe to their workforce continues. On the one hand, the company has written to every docker, claiming their shop stewards are manipulating them, and their union, Unite, is using them as pawns in a political game. On the other hand, the word is the stewards have been informed the company is preparing a new, improved, offer.
This approach is surely responding to the news that the Port of Liverpool dockers have voted by very nearly 100% for strike action over pay, and a delegation of Scousers told the Felixstowe pickets last Saturday that no boat diverted from Felixstowe would be handled by Liverpool dockers.
We know that senior management from the two ports have held talks together, and there is little doubt that the central thrust of that was how to prevent dockers uniting across ports to improve pay and security of employment for all dockers.
The driverless tugs and automated gantries being introduced at Felixstowe show the importance of unity among dockers. The dockers’ reps at Felixstowe have the real chance to ensure the bosses divide and rule strategy fails.
Scottish public sector strikes: a pause in Renfrewshire
Amid widespread strike action throughout Scotland in most local authorities and involving workers in both waste disposal and education, the GMB has suspended imminent action in Renfrewshire following a new offer from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla).
The action had been planned for three days next week and may proceed if workers are not satisfied with the offer.
Even if this strike does not go ahead, all three of the main public sector unions continue to have disputes throughout Scotland, and pressure is mounting on the SNP government to increase council budgets.
Unite members at West Midland Metro are being balloted for strike action, with the ballot ending on Friday 23 September, which could see stoppages to services begin in October.
Unite is seeking a pay deal that will see a minimum pay rate of £27,000 for tram drivers & customer representatives and a £5,000 increase for all other grades. The tram drivers and customer representatives on this network are currently paid one of the lowest rates in the UK for this kind of role. The West Midland Metro light rail network covers Birmingham and parts of Wolverhampton.
GMB to ballot NHS members
NHS workers represented by GMB are to ballot over whether to reject a flat rate pay offer that has been described by the union as a ‘punishment’ after a decade of pay cuts.
The below-inflation offer would see wages rise by 1-7% depending on pay band, while inflation runs at 12.3%.
Red Funnel pay deal ‘ferry ferry good’
The dispute by over 100 staff operating the Southampton to Isle of Wight ferry service saw a series of strikes over the company’s ‘unacceptable’ 4.5% pay offer.
The action was suspended last Monday 22 August to allow the Unite members to ballot over a new pay offer which was overwhelmingly accepted.
Whereas the company could only afford 4.5% two months ago, now it can afford a deal worth 18.3% to the lowest paid staff, and a minimum of 13.4% to the rest, plus improvements to sick pay, food allowances and health benefits.
The strikers say they owe a big thank you to the trades unionists, members of the public, and particularly Unite’s Community members for the support shown to their picket lines.
Stop press: 1,150 Reach journos walk out over pay
Wednesday 31 August saw day one of four days of planned strike action by National Union of Journalists (NUJ) members employed up and down the country by Reach plc.
Reach is a UK media group whose most notable print titles are Daily Mirror and Daily Record. The dispute is centred on pay and the rejection of a pathetic 3% offer.
NUJ’s Natasha Hirst commented from the Cardiff picket line:
“There’s been a real lift in the mood today and a sense of agency and a recognition from members of the importance of fighting as a collective for fair pay. Jim Mullen (Reach boss) has hugely underestimated his staff. More new members have signed up during the course of the morning, our strength is building.
“One trainee was telling me that once the initial novelty of being on a salary wore off he started questioning why he is on such low pay. He has a masters, really enjoys his job but really needs better pay. He joined the union within the last two weeks.”
As News from the Frontline is always keen to report: nothing recruits like a strike. Let’s hope the strikers can seize the opportunities for coordinated action that the current period is presenting our movement.
Stansted Airport workers to ballot
Over 1,000 workers at Stansted airport are balloting for strike action after rejecting a pay offer of 7.5% when executive pay has risen by over 20%.
The Unite ballot closes 19 September, with the potential for staff including firefighters, maintenance staff and security officers to shut down the airport should they vote in favour.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:
“Stansted and MAG expected our members to make financial sacrifices during the pandemic and they expect them to do the same thing now during the cost-of-living crisis.
“Everyone is expected to tighten their belts except MAG’s rich executives. Our members won’t stand for it and they will receive Unite’s full support in fighting for a fair pay rise.”
NIHE workers will strike again over pay
300 members of Unite will be taking 4 weeks of strike action at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) starting on 5 September over pay. Bosses at NIHE, which is the largest social housing landlord in the 6 counties, have so far failed to make an improved pay offer after two strikes earlier this year.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said:
“Retail price inflation is already above 12 percent and is widely forecast to hit 18 percent by the end of the year. In such a cost-of-living crisis, workers need a decent pay increase to protect themselves and their families. The NIHE should make an offer to the workers, and they should do that as soon as possible.”
On the site
Tory transport austerity and the mass resistance we need: The RMT and Aslef joint national rail strike on 15 September offers a glimpse of the kind of resistance we will need to defend public services and workers against Tory cuts, writes Unjum Mirza
Fighting spirit: London rallies to save public transport: Alia Butt reports on a packed-out RMT rally to save London transport as the next round of Tory attacks on workers and services is revealed
Make the bosses pay: defiant CWU strikers rally in London: Peter Bird reports from a lively CWU strike rally in London which saw striking postal workers joined by trade unionists and activists bring solidarity and connecting the struggles
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