Council tenants in Sefton, Merseyside, voted just three months ago to reject plans to sell off their homes to a housing association. But that was the wrong answer as far as Sefton council was concerned — so now it has decided to hold the ballot again.
The council sacked two Unison union officials — Nigel Flanagan and Paul Summers — earlier this month for their involvement in Defend Council Housing (DCH), which campaigned against the privatisation scheme alongside the Unison union.
With Nigel and Paul out the way, Sefton councillors met in a closed cabinet meeting on Thursday of last week to discuss their plans to reballot 11,800 tenants.
Tory councillor and cabinet member for housing Syd Whitby emerged later to announce, “We have reached a unanimous verdict and decided we will go for another ballot.”
And just to make sure they get the correct result this time, the council is threatening to use the courts to silence campaigners against stock transfer.
“They told me they’ve decided take out an injunction against any individual or organisation that ‘sets out to mislead tenants’ during the ballot campaign,” said Nigel Flanagan.
This extraordinary assault on democracy is sanctioned by each of the three main parties—they all have a hand in running Sefton council.
The council has also compiled a “dossier” of absurd smears against Sefton DCH to justify its decision to ballot tenants again.
These include lurid claims of “tenants being offered £10 for ballot papers” and “offers of a ‘pint for a vote’ in local pubs”.
Meanwhile Sefton Unison has voted to escalate its ongoing selective industrial action in defence of the two victimised branch officials. A mass meeting of over 600 Sefton council workers met on Tuesday of last week to discuss their response to the sackings.
The meeting voted unanimously to bring out another two groups of workers on strike to join the 100 or so already out.
Workers also voted for a strike by 2,000 union members across the council on Wednesday of this week — but this was suspended by union officials on Tuesday for talks at the Acas conciliation service.
After the mass meeting a delegation of top level managers from Sefton council went to speak with the groups of workers due to join the strike, adds Nigel.
“They wanted to show them all their ‘evidence’ against us to persuade them not to come out. But having listened to them, the workers told them to get stuffed.”
Having engineered the sacking of Nigel and Paul, the council is now lashing out with a smear campaign against them.
Sefton chief executive Graham Haywood wrote a letter to all staff on Thursday of last week urging them not to back the strike. And two local papers—the Daily Post and Liverpool Echo — have run extensive articles attacking Nigel, Paul and the strikers.
A pattern of threats to staff
Austin Mitchell MP, chair of the House of Commons council housing group, has written to deputy prime minister John Prescott highlighting the case of Nigel, Paul, and other council workers being victimised for opposing stock transfer.
The “nervous zeal of councils anxious to win ballots” has resulted in “sanctions against staff who dissent or try to give a more balanced view”, says Mitchell’s letter.
He cites the case of Eileen Short, a DCH activist and Tower Hamlets council worker whose job has just been axed by the council.
“This looks like a pretty scurvy way of victimising her for her work as a steward and for campaigning via DCH against privatisation,” says Mitchell.
“Some pressures are even more flagrant, bringing councils into collision with union and democratic rights, curtailing the work of union stewards and threatening the jobs of dissenting staff. There is a set pattern of pressuring, even threatening, council staff into supporting privatisation.”
Mitchell calls on Prescott to “issue a public statement deploring such pressures”.
Send messages of support and donations to Sefton Unison, Mersey Seaman’s Mission, Colonsay House, 20 Crosby Road South, Liverpool L22 1RQ or phone 0151 928 9911