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‘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.