Over 2,000 workers crowded into Victoria Square in Birmingham last Saturday to protest against council plans to downgrade thousands of jobs.
The rally showed the determination and anger of workers from all sectors of the council not to be intimidated into accepting planned pay cuts as part of a “single status” deal.
A school caretaker told Socialist Worker that he stood to lose £3,000 a year. “It’s terrible,” he said. “I’ll have to leave my job because I can’t afford to take a £3,000 cut in pay. It’s a lot of money, isn’t it?”
Worker after worker spoke of how they will lose pay under the new scheme. One said, “There are people doing the exact same job as me who have been regraded differently to me – and that is not fair. Now I have got to worry about how I will pay my mortgage.”
Caroline Johnson, assistant branch secretary of the Unison union at the council, said, “There can be no justification for men and women not having equal pay. But thousands of those losing pay under the council’s proposals are women.
“Gordon Brown can find billions for war in Iraq, or to bail out Northern Rock. So why can’t he find £2.5 billion to let the council off the hook?”
The momentum for industrial action was clear from the rally.
“Pay grading reviews are happening throughout the country, but the council here in Birmingham is behaving particularly badly,” Peter Allenson, a national officer from the Unite union, told the rally.
“The council has behaved in a diabolical manner – and with a group of staff that couldn’t be more deserving.
“It’s the biggest employer in local government in this country, yet it has set the worst example of how any employer should behave.”
Keith Sonnet, Unison’s deputy general secretary, said, “I warn Birmingham council to pull back from the brink or face a damaging conflict with its own workforce.
“There is no way that Unison could tolerate the wholesale sacking of an entire workforce or the imposition of a new pay structure that does not deliver equal pay but ends with thousands losing thousands.”
For all the talk of single status sorting out equal pay, the Birmingham deal will mean 110 women will lose more than £10,000. Across the council, there are twice as many women as men facing pay cuts.
The picture for those who will get pay rises is also pretty bleak. For instance, over 3,000 women are due to gain an increase of less than £99 – roughly £1.50 a week after tax.
General assistants in kitchens and cleaners are being moved from below the bottom of the nationally agreed pay to the bottom of the scale – an increase of a few pounds a year.
Home carers and care assistants are being placed at the bottom of a pay grade, denying them an increase of £2,000.
While thousands of workers have refused to return their new contracts, some 12,000 others have been sent holding letters – so they still don’t know what their job evaluation is.
At the rally as well as banners from the unions in the council – Unison, Ucatt, GMB and the Amicus and T&G sections of Unite – there was support from other workers.
Derbyshire PCS civil service workers’ union sent a delegation.T there were banners from Birmingham TUC, Birmingham and Dudley NUT teachers’ union branches, and from Unison branches in Wolverhampton, Sandwell, and Telford.
Mary came from Coventry Unison to show solidarity. She said, “The sad thing is that councils have been allowed to stagger their implementation so that the effect hasn’t been the same as if it had happened all at the same time. We should have had a national strike.”
The head of Birmingham Labour Party’s group of councillors, Albert Bore, said that negotiating changes to the structure was not an option.
“It has to be abandoned and the process started again,” he said. “If industrial action is what it takes to achieve this, then each and every member of the Labour group will support you.”
One worker in the council’s finance department told Socialist Worker, “The union in my department has been reinvigorated by the dispute.
“When an email arrived from the head of human resources defending the single status deal, a union meeting was called immediately.
“People were saying that if they hadn’t been planning to vote for a strike before, the council’s attitude would now make them vote yes.”
The unions are balloting members for industrial action, including a strike. Voting closes on Friday of next week. A strike is likely for 5 February.