Donate to build socialist media: We have the biggest opportunity in a generation for socialist ideas to gain ground. Help us raise £10,000 so we can rise to the challenge. Read more »
Close this message


Southampton: Unions set the pace

Peter Apps looks at the unique campaign of strikes sweeping the city
13 July 2011



'I’d say it’s a unique action - something that’s never happened before,' Mike Tucker, branch secretary of Southampton Unison tells me.

'Never before in Southampton?' I ask. There is a pause.

'No,' he says, 'never before in the country.'

It is then that I finally realise the scale of what has been happening in Southampton over the last month. While the most obvious sign of the industrial unrest are the piles of rubbish building up on every corner, what Southampton’s council workers are doing is likely to set the standard for unions and public sector workers fighting pay cuts, dismissals and pension reforms for years to come.

Industrial action has been on the cards for some time. Since Royston Smith took over as head of Southampton's Conservative city council, the city has suffered some of the worst cuts of any local area in the country. Among many other things, rent in council houses is being hiked, local charities are losing funding, millions have been taken out of funds for disabled adults, and pensioners are losing day care centres and cheap meals on wheels.

Most significantly in terms of the industrial action, the council announced that all staff earning over £17,500 would be subjected to a 5.4 per cent pay cut and 250 council jobs would go.

This 'offer' was unanimously rejected by Unite and Unison, the unions representing the majority of Southampton’s council workers. The employers then told staff they would be dismissed and rehired on the new, inferior terms. These dismissals took effect this Monday, 11 July – but the fight continues.

Since March, the unions had been promising the most serious industrial action ever seen in the city. In May it arrived.

Toll collectors from Southampton’s Itchen bridge and traffic wardens walked out for a series of week-long strikes, estimated to cost the council a quarter of a million in toll collection and parking fines, no doubt much to the delight of Southampton’s drivers.

Perhaps less pleasing for the city’s residents was the refuse collectors’ strike: they have been walking out on and off throughout June. City bins are taped up, and piles of rubbish are mounting up outside houses, particularly where Southampton’s student population has moved en masse out of the city for the summer.

While the action has not been constant, the waves of on-off strikes have left mountains of rubbish baking in the sunshine, attracting flies and rats. Yet there has been little backlash.

'People are still generally supportive,' says Mike Tucker. 'They know we live in the city too, we all have to deal with it. Once the strike ends it will be difficult and unpleasant for the workers to clear.

'They want nothing more than to be back at work, but they’re in a position where they don’t feel they have any choice. Some workers are in a position where, with inflation, they could be losing 15 per cent of their income in one year.'

After six weeks of strikes, the unions remain resolute. This week the action has spread to embrace more sections of the council’s staff. Port health officers are now on strike, causing problems for the city's £300 million a year port.

Street sweepers, library workers, building maintenance workers and social care contact supervisors make a total of 668 workers from eight sections on strike, with most actions lasting for seven days.

Those in work, meanwhile, have been contributing to the strikers' hardship fund, as well as carrying out other forms of industrial action, including working to rule and refusing overtime.

'The tactics we are developing here,' says Mike Tucker, 'will be used elsewhere.' This mass action is certainly unprecedented, and the outcome will be watched closely. It is one of the first real battles against the Coalition government’s programme of austerity cuts, and there is a feeling that it may set the blueprint for battles up and down the country.

So far, the council has failed to give in to the unions' demands, pleading poverty. But according to the unions, the lack of money does not justify the cuts.

'They are trying to solve their own financial problems at the expense of the workers. Their political priorities come first. Southampton is almost unique in having a council tax exemption for all over-65s: an expensive policy which keeps them voting Tory. Then they found £15 million to spend on the Titanic Museum.'

The cost of this museum totals 60 per cent of the financial black hole that the council has been using to justify its cuts to services, pay and staff. The council sold assets and took short term loans to fund it, somewhat punching a hole in its narrative of 'dire' financial circumstances.

In the general election last year, council leader Royston Smith ran John Denham to within 200 votes in the former Labour safe seat of Southampton Itchen. As a consolation prize, Smith took over as head of the Conservative city council, and, perhaps with half an eye on his future career, began engineering the budget which has caused such fury in the city.

But he is being faced down by a determined and united workforce who have managed to fight a unique campaign against his programme of cuts. After being derided in the local press for taking a holiday in Egypt in the middle of the strikes, his party may well suffer the backlash in the local elections next year.

For now, though, the country should be watching the Southampton strikes. Whatever the eventual outcome, the unions are giving an outstanding lesson on how to fight Coalition policies on a local level.


 

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan

A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

New Cross fights new wave of housing privatisation

Lewisham residents object to a new trend in local authority housing developments

Stand-off with prison profiteers at the Tower of London

Marienna Pope-Weidemann reports on disruption at the European Custody and Detention Summit

Nowhere to go: Sisters Uncut demand homes free from violence

South East London Sisters Uncut stormed Southwark Council’s quarterly cabinet to highlight the council’s failure to support domestic violence survivors. Emma Snaith reports




c b 13 July 2011, 15.59

If only what you wrote was accurate instead of half truths:

the city has suffered some of the worst cuts of any local area in the country.
–INCORRECT. The cuts have been the same across the country, except in Southampton the city council decided to try to retain jobs by cutting higher paid staff pay-THOSE ON £65K YEAR–cut by 5.5%. Unlike Labour controlled manchester whom cut 2000 jobs.

most significantly in terms of the industrial action, the council announced that all staff earning over £17,500 would be subjected to a 5.4 per cent pay cut and 250 council jobs would go–INCORRECT. Only those making over £65k per year will be getting the 5.5% pay cut, but they also get an additional 5 days holiday time. Staff on less then £21k actually getting pay RISE. The pay cuts are incremental, meaning those on less pay get less cut.

This ‘offer’ was unanimously rejected by Unite and Unison, the unions representing the majority of Southampton’s council workers. –INCORRECT. 11% of staff voted to strike out of 22% participation to vote. this is hardly “unanimous”. Most staff realised the goal was to save jobs and signed their new terms and conditions.

Toll collectors from Southampton’s Itchen bridge and traffic wardens walked out for a series of week-long strikes, estimated to cost the council a quarter of a million in toll collection and parking fines, no doubt much to the delight of Southampton’s drivers.
INCORRECT. £250k is complete fabrication. try getting a FOI on the actual amount if you like. By deducting staff wages, the overall cost to SCC was about £20k as most law abiding people paid their parking and the bridges were manned by managers at peak times. Nice attempt at PR but a complete lie.

piles of rubbish are mounting up outside houses, particularly where Southampton’s student population has moved en masse out of the city for the summer.–REALLY? so students that have LEFT the city are generating rubbish in the city?…umm..not quite…the areas where rubbish got piled up was predominately council areas populated by irresponsible people on benefits while if you go to any area where people work for a living and take responsibility for there lives, you would note that those people just took their rubbish to the dump….

While the action has not been constant, the waves of on-off strikes have left mountains of rubbish baking in the sunshine, attracting flies and rats. RATS? COMPLETE FICTION. flies yes, in the council block areas.

Yet there has been little backlash.’People are still generally supportive,’ says Mike Tucker. –COMPLETE FICTION. tell that to the rubbish bin collectors whom were threatened and blocked in by residents demanding their rubbish be collected…

‘They want nothing more than to be back at work, but they’re in a position where they don’t feel they have any choice. Some workers are in a position where, with inflation, they could be losing 15 per cent of their income in one year.’–COMPLETE FICTION BY UNION LEADERSHIP.

After six weeks of strikes, the unions remain resolute. This week the action has spread to embrace more sections of the council’s staff. Port health officers are now on strike, causing problems for the city’s £300 million a year port.–INCORRECT. vast majority of port is private and they carry on working. ABP has hired temps to do some other jobs.

Street sweepers, library workers, building maintenance workers — NO ONE CARES ABOUT THESE…

‘The tactics we are developing here,’ says Mike Tucker, ‘will be used elsewhere.’ —GOOD LUCK!!

‘They are trying to solve their own financial problems at the expense of the workers. Their political priorities come first. Southampton is almost unique in having a council tax exemption for all over-65s: an expensive policy which keeps them voting Tory. Then they found £15 million to spend on the Titanic Museum.’–COMPLETE FICTION. council tax exemption for over 65’s, some of the most vulnerable in society, cost SCC £1 million per year = 30 union jobs. SCC needs to find £65 million over 4 years. The Titanic museum £15 million is from Capital spending and lottery heritage grants, nothing to do with the revenue accounts and the union leadership knows this, but its a good PR line. COMPLETE NONSENSE.

I DOUBT VERY MUCH YOU WILL HAVE THE COURAGE TO PRINT THIS COMMENT AS THE TRUTH IS HARD TO HEAR…is it better to have a pay cut and a job or is it better to have NO job ??? decide….


grd 13 July 2011, 17.59

the only posting on the site has to come from a Tory, and very possibly a Tory councillor. When will they ever learn that bully boy tactics dont work, they only back fire on the bully eventually, and they will in Southampton and on central government .


GJM 13 July 2011, 18.51

I agree with grb, go UNISON and UNITE!!!!!!!


GJM 13 July 2011, 19.01

Street sweepers, library workers, building maintenance workers — NO ONE CARES ABOUT THESE… How dare you say this, that ‘no one cares’ If you are an SCC employee, you should be dismissed for your above comment, also, please publish your true identity, I have a lot of friends in street cleansing, librararies and the trades that would like to siscuss this with you.


David Moynagh 7 August 2011, 22.46

The stink of uncollected rubbish is less of an assault on the senses than a living tory. Continue with the strikes until the air in Britain is clean for ever.



Comments are now closed on this article.






Red Pepper · 44-48 Shepherdess Walk, London N1 7JP · +44 (0)20 7324 5068 · office[at]redpepper.org.uk
Advertise · Press · Donate
For subscriptions enquiries please email subs@redpepper.org.uk