EIGHTEEN YEAR old Keith Burgess is an agency worker who was sacked for supporting the recent strikes by Hackney's refuse workers. His courageous and principled stand is in glaring contrast to the union-busting attitude of the Labour council. His story also highlights the precarious world of 'flexible' work and short-term agency contracts which the government champions.
His pay for loading rubbish onto dustcarts was about half of what permanent workers get. Presumably the agency received as much as or more than Keith. Keith spoke to Socialist Worker:
'I worked for the Crown agency, who supply labour to Hackney council. I'd worked at the Millfields depot for nine months as a loader and thought that this was a job where I could have a future. I only got £143 a week but I hoped that I could get a permanent job and earn better money. I'd just put in to go permanent when the strikes started. I hadn't got round to joining the union and it seemed a lot of money to join out of my wages. But in any case the agency workers weren't balloted and weren't part of the strike, so we were expected to keep working. But it was quite a simple decision for me-my pals on strike, a totally justified strike because they could lose thousands of pounds in pay a year, and I wasn't going to cross a picket line. I suppose I could have just stayed at home or gone sick but I backed the strike, so I went on the picket line. I'd never had any problems at work or complaints from management but Crown told me that Hackney council didn't want me any more. I asked if the agency would get me other work and they said they'd get back. But I've heard nothing. I don't regret standing up for what I believe in. I think it is right to help people who are fighting for justice. I hope the strike gets what the workers want.'
The Hackney bin workers were considering their next move in the dispute as Socialist Worker went to press. The dispute is on a knife edge and it is vital that the strikers, members of the TGWU union, get as much support as possible.
The Labour council broke off negotiations after the strikes last week, claiming that there had been violence at the depot where the strikebreaking dustcarts operate.
The council has also launched a wave of disciplinaries against activists designed to intimidate strikers. The council clearly hopes to break the union and force through its agenda of huge pay cuts and worse conditions. This would not only be a defeat for the bin workers.
It would also set back organisation throughout the council and give a green light to councils across London to try similar manoeuvres against their own refuse service.
Firefighters, health workers, teachers and others have all sent money and offered support to the pickets during previous strikes. This is no time for the union leaders to melt under the heat of the council's pressure.
Further strikes must be called and support stepped up to stop the strikebreaking. Trade unionists should also pile pressure on the agencies who are supplying labour to keep the service going during the strikes. The main one involved is Team Support Services plc.
Scottish nursery nurses
SCOTTISH nursery nurses planned the first of two days of action on Wednesday this week as they start a vote on whether to call all-out action over their pay and regrading claim. A second day of action is set for next Tuesday. More than 4,000 of Scotland's nursery nurses are still in dispute with local councils, eight months after the battle began. Some councils have tried to fracture the action by offering local deals.
But the nursery nurses' Unison union is rightly holding out for an all-Scottish contract. Margaret, a nursery nurse, told Socialist Worker, 'This is now a very important moment in the dispute. I hope this week's day of action will remind people that we are still fighting.
'We won't go away because it is important for the children as well as ourselves that this job is treated fairly. Many of us recognise that it is probably necessary to move to all-out action to resolve this matter.'
Stevie Murray, chairperson of Unison's Fife branch, says, 'Our members remain resolute that this dispute should be resolved though the national bargaining machinery. We are extremely disappointed that the local councils' body, COSLA, has failed to recognise this point. The duties and responsibilities that our members undertake day in, day out are the same throughout Scotland, and this should be reflected in a national grade for these posts. I'd like to thank the public for the way they have supported us. Our dispute is not with them but with the authorities who have failed to agree a just settlement. Like many public sector employees, nursery nurses have been expected to undertake additional duties, which have evolved considerably over the last 15 years, without an increase in pay to reflect the increase in responsibilities.'
UNISON UNION members in Newham, east London, met on Monday night to discuss an offer by their New Labour council. It was designed to resolve a dispute which was on the verge last week of seeing an official strike ballot start. The council had threatened to evict the union from its offices and to cut the number of full time branch officers down to just one.
This attack was sparked by the council's fury at Newham Unison's active role in the long-running fight by council workers in the capital to win an improved London weighting allowance.
Before Christmas Newham Unison members voted by 93 percent for an official strike ballot, and that ballot was due to get under way last week. Workers also made it clear that any move to evict the union from its office would be met with a mass picket. Faced with this determined mood and the prospect of strikes the council blinked and sued for peace.
In talks with London regional Unison officials it has offered to concede on many of the key points. But there were also some unnecessary concessions to the council in the new proposals. 'They are now proposing that we can keep two full time branch officers instead of cutting it down to one, and that is a victory,' Newham Unison branch chair Michael Gavan told Socialist Worker on Monday. 'But some of the proposals are still unacceptable.'
Monday's meeting voted to tell regional union officials to go back to the council and get the unacceptable elements in the proposal scrapped. These include the union's office being moved into the personnel department and a union commitment not to demonstrate on council property. Unless the council drops these, Newham Unison will press for their strike ballot to go ahead. Many at Monday's meeting also had on their minds what seems like a serious retreat by Unison leaders over London weighting. Unison leaders seem effectively to be abandoning further action over this issue. 'Our branch came out in support of the fight over London weighting, and we are being victimised for that by the council,' says Michael Gavan. 'Members will be very angry if the dispute now fizzles out.'
STAFF IN the IT section of Bradford Metropolitan District Council have voted for strike action over a planned privatisation of their department. In a ballot 91 percent of staff voted for industrial action on a turnout of 81 percent. Strikes have been put off until the end of February to give negotiators a chance to agree a deal.
The employer wants to offer a ten-year £100 million contract covering all the IT services provided by the council to one of a shortlist of high-tech companies. The three shortlisted bidders are Atos KPMG and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, with a joint bid coming in from IBM and ITNet.