A rash of disputes has broken out in councils across the north west of England. They are driven by workers' anger at New Labour councils' cuts and huge attacks on working conditions. Thousands of council workers are involved in the battles. It is the first time many of them have attended mass meetings or stood on picket lines. All are determined not to let New Labour get away with slashing services or driving workers into the ground. In KNOWSLEY council workers are fighting against the council's attempt to increase their working week from 35 hours to 37 hours. They held their second round of action last week.
Alison Philcock and Dave McNally described how a 700-strong union meeting before last week's two-day strike showed people's determination to fight. 'There was an overwhelming vote to continue our strike action after the two-day strike, and to ballot members, including those in schools, who are already on a 37-hour week over reducing their hours to 35,' said Alison. 'Local officials from the TGWU, GMB and UCATT unions received a huge round of applause at the meeting, as their members refused to cross picket lines. They are talking about balloting their members so the demand for '35 hours for all' can be a united fight in Knowsley.'
Dave spoke about the enthusiasm on the picket lines. 'The strikes are seen by long-standing activists as the most solid to have ever taken place in Knowsley. On the Wednesday morning picket lines were bigger and stronger than the previous week. They involved disco lights and foghorns! Senior managers found the light switches during this strike, having resorted to wandering round with torches last time. They abandoned plans to open the 'One Stop Shop' in Kirkby when it became obvious they would have to serve the public themselves.'
Council workers in WIGAN are also facing a fight over working hours. They recently had a mass meeting of over 1,100 workers to discuss how to fight their council's demand for a 37-hour week.
Dave Lowe explained, 'In the wake of that unprecedented meeting the council have threatened us with the sack unless we accept a 2 percent pay cut. 'But people are very angry, and we are planning to put the pressure back on New Labour. We're having a lobby of the town hall and are currently balloting over strike action.'
MANCHESTER housing workers have already taken that step, with a lively strike on Tuesday of last week that shut down the majority of housing offices. They are fighting the closure of 14 housing offices, up to 70 job losses and the introduction of a call centre.
Richard Searle said, 'For the vast majority of staff it was their first ever strike, and in a couple of the housing offices it was just one lone picket that shut the whole office down. We invented the 'mobile picket', using mobile phones to communicate between picket lines across the local authorities of Manchester, Tameside and Rochdale. We could send pickets to offices that the management were trying to get GMB members into. The members would ring to tell us, and we made sure by the time they arrived a UNISON picket was already there.'
Marion Doherty added, 'About 50 staff lobbied the Labour group on the strike day, and the Labour group split with 25 voting for the closures, 22 against and 31 abstentions. Senior management have never looked so rattled. In a fit of petulance they have decided to withdraw our right to attend monthly stewards' meetings. But workers are very excited that one day's strike has so nearly defeated the council's plans.'
Housing workers in BLACKPOOL were joined by workers in social services on their picket lines last week. Even the smallest picket line had 30 people attending. The action was the first of four days of strike action against 20 compulsory job cuts. As one Blackpool social services worker reported, 'This is a really dramatic turnaround. No one can recollect a dispute like this in Blackpool. Even six months ago no one would have bet on this happening. 'It is as though it has come from nothing-the anger has just welled up. We have watched managers and assistant directors get 15-20 percent pay rises. Blackpool's chief executive now gets nearly £100,000 a year. TGWU members joined our picket lines, and one Transco shop steward came out and gave us £10 to buy ourselves hot drinks. In some cases elderly service users joined us on the picket.'
These disputes show how widespread anger can boil over into confrontation with council bosses and New Labour.
Over 500 council workers crammed into Wakefield town hall on Thursday of last week for the UNISON annual general meeting. It was the biggest political gathering in the district since the miners' strike. A normally bureaucratic gathering turned into an electrifying mass meeting which took branch officials by surprise.
The bulk of the audience were home care workers whose service is increasingly being dismantled and sold off to private companies under the Best Value scheme. Many came to their first ever trade union meeting to discuss a motion calling for resistance to Best Value, and a postal ballot over action is due to go ahead.
We must use this wonderful turnout to launch a real rank and file campaign of active resistance to privatisation and Labour's policies.
Seventy Newcastle council housing workers were on strike last Wednesday against the council's plans to reorganise the service. Up to 200 staff and council workers from Gateshead joined the strikers at a lunchtime rally. Hundreds of workers also refused to cross the picket lines, and in the evening over 100 home care workers lobbied the council meeting.
'The council is declaring war on the workforce,' said Hackney UNISON branch secretary John Page last week. He was responding to the decision by the leaders of Labour-Tory coalition in east London to issue 5,000 90-day redundancy notices, dismissing the workforce, and offering them their jobs back on lower terms and conditions. This could mean workers getting £30-£80 a week less, as well as fewer holidays. Hackney's workers have already struck for one day in December and three days in January against the cuts programme. Hackney workers must step up their resistance. The union leaders should launch an all-out strike before the council's budget day on 7 March.
Council workers in Edinburgh have launched a campaign to stop the closure of creche facilities at five swimming pools and sports centres in Edinburgh. The trust that runs the facilities is pushing through £605,000 worth of cuts. Edinburgh council is also pushing through £6.1 million cuts in its social work budget. This will mean closures of residential facilities for the elderly and adults with learning difficulties, and children's centres.
UNISON SHOP STEWARD
Members of UNISON in Telford & Wrekin council are getting increasingly angry about the union's delay in starting an industrial action ballot. A mass meeting unanimously voted in favour of the ballot four weeks ago to fight my victimisation by the council for my opposition to job losses and cuts. Workers plan to lobby a meeting of the Labour group which controls the council this Saturday, and are organising a day of action including a rally on Saturday 24 February.
Messages of support: Telford UNISON, fax 01952 201 427.
Around 60 social workers in Bristol joined a lobby on Monday of last week as part of a campaign to stop job cuts in childcare. The workers have already voted to take industrial action against the cuts and were due to discuss on Friday what action they will take.
Some 550 members of the UNISON union who work in old peoples' homes in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, are to strike next Monday. The dispute is over the council's proposals to cut staffing by 25 percent. Even though all the UNISON members are guaranteed to retain their jobs, they are still taking action because of their concerns over the impact of cuts on the quality of care.
Messages of support: Kirklees UNISON, 20 Queen Street, Huddersfield HD1 2SP. Fax 01484 450 174.
Over 100 TGWU and UNISON members joined a lobby of Wirral Borough Council on Monday of this week. They were protesting against planned budget cuts of up to £14 million which will lead to closure, or reduced opening hours, for Wirral leisure centres, community centres, swimming pools and other facilities. The council is threatening compulsory redundancies, and ballots for industrial action are being prepared.