Around 500 refuse workers in the east London borough of Newham walked out spontaneously and unofficially on Thursday of last week over attempts to cut their pay.
The workers received a letter from the Labour-run council on Monday of last 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 will 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 on Thursday.
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. Workers are bitter at the way they have been treated by Newham’s New Labour council.
Michael Gavan, the branch chair of the Unison union, told Socialist Worker, “People are very angry. They are facing pay cuts of up to £3,000 a year. People could be losing a fifth of their pay and they are not highly paid to begin with.”
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 in contractors.
“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?
“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.”
The strike has also involved workers who are not members of the unions and agency workers.
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.
After a debate back at the depot the workers decided to return to work the next day. They took a decision to reconvene next week 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.
The workers also voted to implement unofficial overtime action. Showing how under pressure they are, management have offered to pay the workers for the strike day if they clear up the excess rubbish by the end of this week.
But the council has also upped the stakes by sending letters to workers across the council giving them 90 days notice that a redeployment agreement is to be cancelled.
This was won after strikes and allows workers redeployed to keep their old grade. Its cancellation means many workers will face pay cuts.
What are the problems with single status?
The single status deal at the heart of the current disputes potentially affects around one million workers across Britain.
The agreement was signed in 1997 by local government employers and national trade unions. It followed a number of successful employment tribunal cases on equal pay.
Typically women working as school caterers or home helps were doing jobs of equal value to men working in refuse collection or maintenance, and had been on the same pay grade as them for many years.
But they were not eligible for bonus payments that the men received. In some cases they were getting 40 percent less. Local authorities agreed they would equalise wages and conditions and in return trade unions let it be understood that tribunal cases would halt.
Single status deals are supposed to deliver a common pay scale for all jobs, harmonisation of conditions, a standard working week of 37 hours or less, grading reviews based on equal pay and equal status for part-time employees.
But some workers suffered pay cuts, while others saw their hours reduced.
The problem is that the government has refused to give local authorities extra funds to pay for those who gain from the deal. Some authorities have threatened more privatisation to escape from single status requirements.
Every authority is supposed to implement a deal by 1 April 2007, but according to local authority employers only 34 percent of councils have reached agreements.
The unions need a national strategy of fighting to defend the wages of all staff and levelling up those who have been discriminated against.
Round-up of single status battles across Britain
Street cleaner and Unison union shop steward Tony Jones says he is having to sell his house because his pay is being cut by Coventry council.
He cannot afford the mortgage repayments of more than £500 a month since the changes to his wages.
He is now waiting for a phone call to see if he can be rehoused in rented accommodation. Tony was on the picket line last week with other striking street cleaners who are angry at losing thousands of pounds a year.
He earns £18,000 a year driving a pavement sweeper, but was told last June the job was worth only £14,000 to £16,000 a year.
He said, “I’m angry, because I’m losing money. My mortgage has gone up, interest rates went up, council tax is going up. We want a fair day’s pay for the fair day’s work that we do.”
As part of the indefinite rolling action the street cleaners returned to work on Friday of last week and council workers in exchequer banking will be out on strike from Tuesday of this week.
The workers collect over the counter payments including council tax. They don’t lose out from single status but are supporting their colleagues who will.
Coventry Unison member
Carers working for Fife council have attacked a new pay scale which they claim will leave them hundreds of pounds worse off each month.
Some 1,500 employees face a drop in salary under the new system. Carers and clerical workers say low paid staff will be among the worst hit. One worker said, “Carers are talking about industrial action because our manager told us if we don’t like it we can go and get another job.”
Carers across the council said that although they have been given a pay rise of 50p per hour, losing enhancements for weekend work and unsocial hours will leave them out of pocket by up to £250 each month.
Clerical staff have also been hit. According to one, “In my service the staff on the lowest clerical grades have seen their pay cut, and I reckon around half will be worse off. One person is facing losing £6,000 per year.
“There are senior staff who are already well paid who are getting more out of this exercise. Is this what fair and equal pay was really supposed to be about?”
A lawyer acting on behalf of 86 Falkirk council workers has submitted cases alleging unfair dismissal and sex discrimination by the local authority.
The council has been embroiled in a dispute with unions representing 5,000 employees as it attempts to implement a new single status pay agreement.
Unison union branch secretary Gray Allan said, “We consider the intervention of ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers into the industrial relations’ arena to be damaging in the extreme.”
Hundreds of workers are facing salary cuts in order to meet single status pressures in Perth and Kinross council. Under the proposals, about 17 percent would see pay cuts,
Hundreds of jobs could go at Scottish Borders council over the next four years.
The GMB, Unison and T&G unions have accepted Moray council’s five point £6 million single status agreement. Tommy Campbell from the T&G union says his members were accepting Moray council’s pay package under protest.
Manual workers in the GMB union at Birmingham city council are set to ballot for action against pay cuts while council cleaners are set to ballot for a pay increase.