Thursday, October 13, 2011

Southampton - A Case Study in How Not to Defend Living Standards

Workers said no, but union and council bosses say yes
Leaders of the Unite and Unison unions have hailed what's happened in Southampton over the last five months as a "smart "model for the kind of struggles they intend to lead across the country, as councils seek to cut back their costs and resolve their funding crises. But for council and other workers, there's a big problem with that: the Southampton strikers lost.

As I reported in July, four and a half thousand Southampton council employees were struggling against a pay cut of up to 5.5%, to be followed by two years of wage freezes. If inflation were to remain at around 5%, the workers would find their standards of living slashed by one fifth by the end of the three years, with no guarantee of any improvements down the line.

Not surprisingly, they were determined to put up a great fight. But they were led astray by the union tops, and the vast bulk now find themselves signed up to the same contracts as they originally rejected by a huge margin.

From Southampton Council's perspective, the Unite and Unison leaderships have played a blinder. As regional organiser Ian Woodland told The Guardian over the summer:
"The unions are looking at a strategic campaign where we are using selective action. It is not just bringing everyone out, which is the old-fashioned view, but bringing out key workers that will have an effect on the state nationally and locally. We have shown how it can be done locally."
Indeed they have. The rolling strikes allowed each and every worker multiple chances to vent their anger, while the disruption to the running of Southampton was limited and manageable. After months of such actions, the council staff were already severely out of pocket, and by July 11th 98% reluctantly signed new contracts, facing dismissal if they refused.

But anger levels are still high, and a mass meeting on August 10th voted for further strike action. However, the Unite and Unison leaderships sat on this grassroots mandate, arguing that they could still be dismissed under anti-strike legislation if they struck outside the twelve weeks following the original ballot. Only when Conservative council leader Royston Smith indicated that they would permit a further 'day of action' did the joint leadership set a date for October 6th.

The leaderships of Southampton Council and the unions all fear the grassroots gaining control of their own struggle, and presenting a real challenge to the imposition of cuts, hence their manoeuvring over last week's stoppage. They will now be hoping that this will be an end to it, and that the unions won't have to listen to their Southampton members for another three years. But the bureaucrats in every region will be looking to discipline their memberships over the coming months, as they sacrifice rank-and-file wages on the altar of their dues base.

Workers need an independent voice to refuse council attacks
Unison, Unite and the GMB collaborated with Shropshire Council when it sacked all its employees and re-engaged on the basis of a 5.4% pay cut. When Unison members voted to strike on September 22nd, Shropshire threatened to strip the union of a subsidy. The bureaucrats came scurrying to the negotiation table, agreed 2.7% immediately, and are currently 'negotiating' over the other 2.7%.

Similarly, Plymouth council de-recognised Unison, when it failed to sign up to cuts already agreed by Unite and GMB. After a feeble campaign entirely based on emails, Tweets and letters, Unison caved in just a few weeks later.

While the three councils I've mentioned are Conservative-controlled, the unions are promoting Labour for next year's elections in Southampton. But local Labour leader Richard Williams has distanced himself from the strikes, and indicated that his preferred solution is to sack over a quarter of the workforce instead. Around the country, Labour councils are just as committed to slashing costs as their Conservative and Lib Dem counterparts, and national leader Ed Miliband has proposed no alternative to making working class people pay for the financial crisis.

In Southampton, Shropshire and Plymouth - as all around the world - it is necessary for workers trying to defend their livelihoods to make a decisive break with the union bureaucracy, and set-up their own independent, democratically-run organisations.
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