Socialist Worker

Clamping the bosses—Camden traffic wardens' strike

A traffic wardens’ walkout in north London has rattled the bosses. Sarah Bates spoke to strikers about how their fight for better pay, conditions and respect at work has given them a boost

Issue No. 2642

Strikers on the picket line in Camden, north London, last week

Strikers on the picket line in Camden, north London, last week (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Jenny is glad she lives in a different London borough to the one she works in. That’s because Jenny is a traffic warden, and the abuse she suffers would make her fear leaving her home.

“It’s good not to be close to where we work,” she said. “What if I walk out my house and I see someone I’ve issued a ticket to?”

Jenny told Socialist Worker that traffic wardens—officially called Civil Enforcement Officers (CEOs)—face danger “every single second”.

‘We won’t let the NSL bosses push us around,’ say strikers
‘We won’t let the NSL bosses push us around,’ say strikers
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“The public just see the uniform—they don’t see the person behind the ­uniform” she said

But for all the hardships of the job, Jenny is now part of an ­inspiring fightback.

Around 130 traffic wardens in the north London borough of Camden are now in their fifth week of strikes against outsourcer NSL.

The Unison union members are fighting against low pay that they struggle to live on—and for better conditions.

Their recent action has replaced the hard life on the streets with a sense of togetherness.

The exuberant sense of fighting back together has electrified every picket line, march and discussion.

At union meetings people have gained confidence and debated the way forwards. People who are never normally listened to have a voice and are speaking out.

The meetings are not humdrum and bureaucratic. They are a rush of ideas, opinions and encouragement to keep fighting and not be fobbed off by the bosses.

Around 100 of the strikers are street wardens patrolling Camden—and the remaining 30 monitor CCTV for ­traffic infractions.

They’re fighting for an hourly rate of £11.15, improved sickness procedures and more holiday allowance.

Despite having 42.5 contracted hours a week, workers’ pay is so low that many are forced into working 60 hours to survive.

They regularly walk the streets for up to 13 hours a day—with no extra breaks.

Jenny said cold weather is a major hazard. “When the weather is under four degrees, we’re supposed to get an extra ‘weather break’, but we don’t,” she said.

Overtime

Workers can end up buying food and drink at coffee shops during breaks just to warm up. The dependence on extra hours is another way for bosses to control workers.

Bosses aren’t allowed to set quotas for tickets. But strikers say that ­workers aren’t offered overtime if management feel they’re not issuing enough fines. NSL’s contract with Labour-run Camden Council is up for re-tender in April 2020. Strikers think the dispute will make it harder for the firm to bid for the contract.

That’s because Camden Council—which usually collects millions every month from parking fines and ­permits—won’t be collecting the cash during the dispute.

Alongside a five-day strike and two 14-day walkouts, many workers have only been working their contracted hours. Sources say NSL sets aside around 10 percent of its wage budget for overtime—its business model relies on workers picking up extra hours.

That means the firm saves money on hiring extra workers. But it also makes NSL vulnerable if workers only book in for their regular shifts.

NSL should be losing cash too as the council could fine it for breach of contract. But strikers say the council is still paying NSL, despite there being almost no parking operations in the borough.

Alongside pay, a central demand is to reassess the “Bradford Factor”. This is a formula bosses use to punish workers for taking time off.

Using the Bradford Factor bosses calculate an ­“attendance score”—and workers who reach a certain amount are disciplined.

This punishes workers for taking several periods of short-term absence.

For example, ­workers with five instances of absence lasting two days each score 250 points. A worker with a single long term absence for a year scores 240 points.

Jack, who has worked as a traffic warden at Camden Council for 18 years, describes the Bradford Factor as “a form of control”.

“After a certain amount of points you get a letter, then a discussion, then a ­disciplinary,” he said.

“It’s a stick to beat people with.”

Mass meetings

Mass meetings were full of encouragnement to keep fighting (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Workers also lose their attendance bonus if they have two “unexplained absences” a month. So if ­workers are ill, injured at work, or have ­unexpected ­childcare responsibilities they can lose £80 while the threat of being disciplined increases.

Mark, who has worked as a traffic warden for five years, was angry about an offer made before the latest round of strikes.

It apparently gave workers a “pay rise”. But the deal would have absorbed their £80 bonus into their new rate of pay—effectively meaning a real-terms cut.

“You can’t touch the bonus and just put it in the hourly rate,” said Mark. “In this job, knives are pulled out, I’ve witnessed people being threatened. And they want to cut our bonus!”

Strikers are determined that any offer has to improve conditions, not just pay.

The threat of harassment and abuse—much of it racist—is constant. All strikers on the picket line know someone who has suffered violence, or have been victims themselves.

But when a worker is injured at work and has to take time off, NSL counts that as sick leave.

This means it affects their Bradford Factor score as well as their pay.

Strikers told Socialist Worker that one CEO was attacked with a 12 inch screwdriver several years ago. And despite it being reported to bosses, no manager spoke to the CEO about the incident.

Situations can be life threatening.

Jenny said, “There are three CEOs who’ve had serious injuries. One was knocked out with a bicycle chain. He was on the ground, there was blood ­pouring from his face. He could have died.”

Mark said a colleague slipped in a car park while working and had to take two months’ unpaid sick pay. This left him unable to pay rent.

NSL said it didn’t have to pay for sick leave because it didn’t own the car park—until the warden fought bosses and won.

Last week NSL put a new offer on the table. It was a pay rise—but was worth just 17p for most workers. Mark said the offer was “an insult”.

“It’s like someone slapping you in the face,” he said. “When we’ve been on strike before we’ve taken what was offered. This time, we’ve got to keep striking.”

The deal also increased the ­difference between most CEOs and those on a higher grade, such as supervisors. But many strikers rejected it because it failed to address wider issues around how injury at work is treated. Strikers discussed the offer at a mass meeting. Some CEOs ­wondered if CCTV ­workers, who face less risk of injury at work, would be keen to accept the offer.

But CCTV worker Zak told Socialist Worker that unity between workers is a real strength of the strike.

“Management will try to divide us because that’s what they do,” he said. “But we’re one family, we listen to each other and respect each other.”

Supervisors

NSL bosses claim they don’t have enough cash to increase pay. But Zak said the firm gets more from Camden Council than it pays out in wages.

“We’ve heard that Camden Council pays NSL £20 an hour for what we do, and supervisors get around £30 an hour,” he said.

“The money is definitely there—but they want more profit.”

Strikers are furious that they are denied a raise of just 80p an hour when the parking operations make millions.

Striker Adam said, “We will not believe they don’t have money to pay us. How? It’s a 24-hour operation, we generate money every second, every minute, every hour, every day.”

Adam described another CEO who sustained an injury at work and had to take months off unpaid.

He said this is “common” and that workers stay in the job because “a lot of people don’t have the option and they have to go with it”.

The family of the injured CEO had to pay thousands to treat the injury. And the worker will need treatment for the rest of his life.

This is the third dispute for traffic wardens since workers won Unison union recognition in 2010.

Jack said it’s been a long process to get to the five-week walkout.

“We did our best to get union recognition,” he said. “We started in 2007 and once we got it we went on strike within three years over pay.

“The first strike was a test—none of us had any idea what we were doing. The second one we said, ‘We want a little more money’. Now we’re solid.”

And Zak said that the experience of striking—and winning—before makes workers determined to keep going.

“It’s not like we haven’t won before,” he said. “We’ve struck three times and every time has won something.”

Strikers say the walkouts are stronger than ever because supervisors and workers formally on probationary contracts have joined the action.

Tory trade union laws force ­workers to reballot if they want to take more action.

But strikers are determined to keep fighting—and they must be supported by the national leadership of their union. This means supporting longer-term industrial action.

Last year strikers voted to strike indefinitely, but so far the union has only agreed shorter stints of strikes.

Zak said the next step was an indefinite strike. He said, “We’ve done two sets of 14 days, and five days and we’ve seen NSL shaken up—they’ve made another offer. Indefinite strikes would bring them to the ­negotiating table.”

Jenny agreed. “We can’t give up,” she said. “We can’t just say yes to a deal about money that doesn’t look at other issues. We’re ready to keep going. Until we win we will just carry on.”

Workers’ names have been changed

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