Around 500 refuse workers in the east London borough of Newham walked out unofficially and spontaneously today over attempts to cut their pay.
The workers received a letter from the Labour-run council on Monday of this week telling them that the “council is having to change some people’s terms and conditions” as part of the single status agreement.
Single status is a government plan which claims to achieve pay parity for all workers regardless of gender and age, but has seen many workers take a pay cut.
In Newham refuse workers lose thousands of pounds from their wages. What is angering them even more is that the council has not told them who will be losing out and by how much.
The workers are mainly in the T&G and Unison unions. Without any prompting from union officials they held a mass meeting at their depot at 7am this morning. They voted unanimously for a canteen sit-in until management came down and gave them the required information.
When management said they weren’t coming to the depot the workers voted to march to East Ham town hall.
Boss Shirley Clark, the head of the ridiculously named “public realm” department in Newham, spoke to the workers and tried to get them to go back to work without offering them anything.
Under pressure she agreed to speak to them again in an hour. The strikers than marched round to the front of the town hall to angrily lobby Sir Robin Wales, Newham’s Labour mayor.
But the council locked them out of the town hall’s grounds and called the police, increasing the workers’ anger.
Michael Gavan, the branch chair of the Unison union, told Socialist Worker, “People are very angry. They are all facing pay cuts of up to £3,000. People could be losing a fifth of their pay. They are not highly paid to begin with.
“Management refused to come and address the mass meeting this morning and sent us a letter saying that it was not an authorised meeting. People are not going to take this anymore.”
Alan O’Carroll, a Unison rep, said, “We are facing an attack on our current wage structure due to single status. We could be losing thousands of pounds a year but the information that is coming from the council about this is non-existent.
“Nobody knows anything and we are getting the usual threats and intimidation. We’re in a situation where we will lose out. The council wants to attack and downgrade us so that it can bring contractors in.
“For a Labour council to treat its workers like this is a disgrace. But then how ‘Labour’ is this council? How Labour is Robin Wales?
“The feeling among workers is that we’re not going back to work unless we get an answer, even though losing a day’s pay for low paid workers is a lot.
“No one should lose a penny. The Unison regional officers should get down here and support us. But they are reticent to because of the union’s link with Labour. They don’t want to embarrass the council.
“There is a lot of discontent among people.”
Seth Geddah, a Unison member, said, “They are starting on the poorest people. Manual workers are going to lose out.”
The strike has also involved workers who are not members of the unions and agency workers.
One non-union member told Socialist Worker, “They are saying they want to take our money away. That’s not good enough.
“We are struggling to live as it is - paying bills, feeding the kids. Lots of people are living on loans. They want us to do extra work and take some of our money.
“We have signed a contract and now they’re taking that back. Management are talking about docking us a day’s wages for striking today, but no one’s bothered as they want to take more of our money away in the future.
“We do a good job and want to get paid properly for it. We should be getting pay rises, not losing money.”
Shirley Clark refused to come out to meet the workers again and passed on her message through Michael Gavan. She offered to draw a line under the strike and that she would come to speak to them at a mass meeting in two weeks time.
Angry workers refused this offer. They marched back to their depot for another mass meeting. They were banned from the canteen but after an argument they managed to hold the meeting there.
After a debate the workers decided to return to work tomorrow. They took a decision to reconvene in two weeks time to hear management give a clear definition of the offer.
If there is not a satisfactory offer they will demand that the Unison and T&G endorse a ballot for official industrial action.