Workers at the London Borough of Hackney went on strike on Tuesday 1st May over widespread attacks on pay and conditions. The action follows 24-hour stoppages in December and March, and a three-day stoppage in January.
Meanwhile, all sections have been applying localised “withdrawal of goodwill” to fit the problems workers face in their own sections. This means going back to not covering for vacancies, working to grade and job description, not doing extra hours, etc. Not only does this link in with the corporate dispute, but it also gives workers a chance to take direct action over issues which immediately affect them, and to gain confidence from immediate results.
These local actions and the all-out strikes are feeding off each other, and are helping workers to build up grassroots organisation which can be used both to strengthen all-out action and to win in their own sections. There will be further battles to come whatever the outcome of the present dispute so proper organisation in the workplace – not just electing Stewards and leaving it up to them – is vital.
An example of how organisation has paid off in this way is in Libraries where the three-day strike was 90-95% solid, i.e. supported by all UNISON (and GMB) members and even some non-union members didn't go in. This is the result of Stewards concentrating on organisational work rather than getting sucked into dealing with management, and putting the emphasis on workplace meetings at individual libraries, where workers have to discuss issues and what they are going to do about them with the colleagues who face the problems and have to take the action.
This shop floor organisation has been boosted in turn by the confidence workers have gained from the strikes, and has led to longstanding problems in Libraries being tackled by workers. Closures of Sites and Sections for short periods have forced management to tackle the shortages of senior staff (caused by recruitment problems due to under-grading). Library workers are beginning to implement minimum staffing levels and no cover policies for the first time in ten years.
Lower pay, longer hours
The dispute is about the determination of management, and the ruling Labour-Tory coalition, to abolish the Low Pay Supplement, all other Plus and Premium Payments, shift allowances, etc. Along with hundreds of redundancies, and cuts in services, there are also plans to increase the working week to 36 hours (from 35 in most cases); to cut Annual, Dependency and Carer Leave; to restrict flexi-leave, Car Allowances for essential users and other benefits. However, the underlying issues are Single Status and Privatisation.
Single Status is being used as a Trojan horse to bring in the wage cuts, which mostly affect Manual Workers in the short term, even though Single Status was sold to workers by UNISON as benefiting Manuals by bringing them into line with APT&C (White Collar) Workers. Beware any agreement UNISON claims as a victory for workers! It is also being used as the vehicle for the increase in hours and the reductions in various leave entitlements and allocations.
An example of how this has already been attempted locally is Hackney Passenger Transport Service, where attempts have been made to impose new contracts on workers where a split shift would result in them being paid for less hours, but being required to be available for work between shifts – effectively at work for more hours than at present. Two occupations in a week forced management to back down, but these attempts show what's at stake for all workers if they win.
The Council claims that a longstanding financial crisis means that workers' pay and conditions, which they also claim are too expensive compared with equivalent local authorities (a lie), have to be reduced to bring us into line and to save money in the long term. In fact, the projected savings for the cuts are a paltry £1.5m, while the Council's budget deficit is around £76m.
To add insult to injury, in the last year Chief Executive Max Caller has been allowed to increase his salary to £150,000 (from a base rate of £75,000), other Directors now get between £80,000 and £100,000, and there is a proposed new tier of managers on £40,000 each in Social Services. By contrast, salary protection for workers who stand to lose money has been set at £15,600, after which pay will be frozen until the reduced pay rates catch up (in about five years or so).
Government is bailing the Council out of its immediate financial crisis, and the Borough recently made £86m on a land deal in the City, but management insist that cuts are necessary. The reason is that Government spending policies in Local Government are designed to force Councils to seek private finance in order to fulfil their statutory service obligations. £104m in Government grants have been clawed back from Hackney since 1994 (according to the Borough Treasurer).
This is clearly not about saving money; this is about making services attractive to private contractors (notwithstanding the £25m lost by privatising finance to ITNet, or rail privatisation for that matter!). What management are trying to push through is a general pre-agreement to a Single Status process which will seek to reduce the pay and conditions of all Council Workers to bring them in line with the Private Sector. Once workers' pay and conditions have been made more “reasonable”, the Council will be able to find bidders to privatise their sections under Best Value.
Organise against Capitalism
All of which makes a mockery of demands from the left that the government give Hackney back the millions stolen from it. We suspect that attacking workers and forcing through privatisation is a condition attached to the short-term financial rescue by the government. Hackney still has a media image of “loony left” chaos, and the assumption is that no one will care what happens here. For that reason it has been chosen as New Labour's laboratory for wholesale privatisation, aiming to reduce the Council to a collection of highly paid executives managing private contracts.
This is a political struggle, and although the unions have got the industrial side of the dispute right, they haven't adequately faced up to the political dimension. Local UNISON leaders demand government intervention as if this was not a significant part of the problem. They also seem to believe that the Council's prejudice towards private sector service management is irrational, rather than the ideological expression of economic imperatives.
In fact, the government investment necessary to provide decent Health, Education and local services would lead to significant economic growth. It would be unacceptable to financial institutions in the City of London – Britain's real rulers – if this growth did not fuel private profits. “The economy” needs investment in public services to generate private profits, and the government is determined that this will happen.
Workers have to tackle capitalism itself in order to improve our lot, both in terms of pay and conditions and in terms of public services. We can only do this by linking our struggle for control over the workplace with a struggle over control over our resources – housing, services and other assets the Council wants to sell of for private profit. We need to organise as tenants and residents as well as workers, and to break down the divide between our working lives and our local environment.
Beware any agreement UNISON claims as a victory for workers!
Anarcho-syndicalists seek to break down this division, institutionalised in the restriction of unions to economic issues which leaves wider social issues outside the workplace to political parties. Political parties, and alliances, can only substitute themselves for local working class people because they are not organised at the grassroots. The top-down structure of “tenant and resident participation” in Hackney has to be broken through proper organisation on the ground.
This needs to be built up almost from scratch, and workplace organisation, which is patchy, needs to be strengthened. Only then can we break down the division between political and economic organisation which leaves the working class at the mercy of capitalism. To some people this might seem unrealistic, but how realistic is it to expect electing a couple of socialists onto the Council to “put pressure” on the government, demanding “Give us the money, Gordon”, to change how Capitalism works?