Posts Tagged ‘coordinated strike action’

The London fire strike nobody’s talking about

Friday 5 November 2010

So the FBU have called off their Bonfire Night strike. But their dispute rumbles on, unresolved albeit with an improved offer from the London Fire Brigade. There could yet be another strike. And that could set the scene for major co-ordinated action.

As I report in Tribune today, another strike is looming at the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, the civil authority that directs the LFB’s policy. Unison and the GMB – who together represent 80 per cent of the authority’s 1,000 or so control centre and other support staff – are planning strike ballots:

Charles Adje, GMB branch secretary for LFEPA, said: “We will be co-ordinating the ballot [with Unison]. If the FBU wants to work with us, we are happy to work with them.” Unison branch secretary Tony Philips said: “If the FBU are in dispute, we’ll definitely have action with them.” Both unions have voted to strike in consultative ballots in the last two months.

LFEPA has decided to pay redundant staff a week’s pay per year served, instead of mutiplying the total sum by three as previously. The unions believe redundancy terms cannot be changed without new contracts. A spokesman for LFEPA said they had not been notified of any strike ballot and declined to comment on redundancy pay.

Even if the FBU doesn’t strike again, this would seem to be the biggest co-ordinated strike in the country since the coalition took power. In fact London is a veritable hotbed of public sector union agitation at the moment. Outside LFEPA, there isn’t a lot of actual, deliberate co-ordination going on, but watch this space.

Full story here.


How to protest: Bananaman or Brendan Barber?

Monday 13 September 2010

The TUC Congress in Manchester kicks off today with the unions united in their opposition to government cuts. True indeed, but not the whole truth. There is, quite understandably, a wide variety of opinion on how this is to be done.

Delegates will this morning endorse a motion supported by nine major unions calling on the TUC to “support and co-ordinate joint union industrial action, nationally and locally” in opposition to public sector cuts.

But what does that mean? Does it mean the TUC working in a back office role to actually timetable demonstrations and strikes? Asked by Tribune, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said he does similar things all the time: “We do co-ordinate action”. But there has not been a properly co-ordinated plan of industrial action by multiple unions since the revolt over public sector pensions in 2005. Since then, repeated TUC congresses have discussed joint action – with little result.

The RMT’s Bob Crow says he is very keen to take joint industrial action with other unions. Speaking to journalists yesterday, he said: “If people in the civil service or Royal Mail or police are taking action, my view is to link up together because otherwise we’ll be picked off one by one.” But he rejected the notion of forming formal alliances with unions to do this.

Mark Serwotka at the Public and Commercial Services Union is very keen on alliances, however: not only is his union signing a detailed formal agreement with Unison for joint working this week, but PCS has also written to other unions to offer alliances with them. Tony Woodley at Unite, they say, was “very positive”.

There’s another question. Should trade unionists engage in “civil disobedience”, resisting the government on the streets and perhaps risking arrest? Bob Crow thinks so he called for “a campaign of civil disobedience going on the streets defending ourselves. It could be anything from Bananaman going up No 10 to Spiderman going up Buckingham Palace”.

Brendan Barber is less keen. “I don’t find the idea attractive and I think it’s counter-productive,” he told John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning. The debate continues…

(from Tribune blog)

The truth about the TUC congress and days of action

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Meetings, meetings, meetings. Unions large and small are currently meeting, with each other and internally, to decide on what motions they’re going to back at this year’s TUC Congress in Manchester. There’s a raft of motions up for debate which call for varying degrees of campaigning and co-ordinated action to defend against public sector job, pay and pension cuts.

However, reports in today’s Times that there’s to be an autumn of strikes by angry unions strike me (no pun intended) as a little overblown. (The Times article is behind a paywall, but it’s been heavily borrowed from for this piece in the Daily Mail.)

It’s one thing to propose a motion to the TUC. It’s another to get that motion passed. It’s yet another – if it does pass – to do something substantial to put that motion into effect.

The “day of action” on October 20 called for in one of the motions – which led the Times to talk of an autumn of strikes – cannot be a strike, because you need to hold a ballot to call a strike. And because unions have to give lots of notice to bosses for strike ballots and their results, it’s safe to say that an autumn of strikes is now looking near-impossible. They would have to agree joint strike action at Congress (no motion calls for strike action as such), then plan strikes, give notice of ballots, hold ballots, get yes votes, give notice again… you get the idea.

And sometimes there are upsets. In September 2008, as I reported at the time, the Prison Officers’ Association pushed an amendment that would change a vote for “joint action” to “joint strike action”. It failed to go through, after the Unite delegates voted for the amendment by a show of hands, Dave Prentis in the chair called a card vote, and they then “lost” their voting cards. The POA general secretary said Prentis should “get new glasses”.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, the GMB, RMT and Unison have all put up motions against the cuts. Those motions will almost certainly be composited together into one in the next few days. How strong the motion is and how much support it’ll get remains to be seen. However, the FT is already reporting that the TUC’s general council is going for a day of protests in March next year, rather than October. The PCS union, which tends to take a hard line and favour joint action where possible – is pressing ahead with protests on October 20 and 23.

Another year, another TUC, another spate of motions calling for action. We’ve been here before (as I wrote two years ago). There hasn’t been solid joint industrial action in the UK in defence of jobs, pay or pensions for a few years. Of course this year is different – there are Tories in power and big cuts on their way – but wait and see.

Unison’s “depressing” analysis of the industrial battles ahead

Wednesday 14 July 2010

The coalition government’s cuts to public sector pay, jobs and trade union rights will weaken the union movement on all sides. It’s a sobering report for a trade unionist to read. And no doubt it was sobering for Keith Sonnet, Unison’s deputy general secretary, to write.

In the report – circulated to union officials last week but written after the general election, and now seen by Tribune – Sonnet pulls no punches, summing up the challenges it faces from outside as “a depressing story”.

“The freezing of pay* and attacks on pensions will be unacceptable and force unions into industrial action that will be difficult to sustain”, he writes. “Locally deals will be sought to trade pay against jobs, but nationally it is not possible to implement such deals with meaning. These actions will undermine the bargaining machinery.”

It sounds as though he expects there to be little public support for strikes in the coming months and years as people soak up the pain from public service cuts and tax rises – not to mention if unemployment goes up.

If the government does want to actively undermine union power – as Sonnet says they do – there are many fronts to attack on.

Currently, unions are able to negotiate on pay and conditions nationally across the public sector – on behalf of doctors, nurses, other NHS staff, teachers, council workers and so on. Not to mention Whitehall civil servants.

We already know that national pay bargaining is going to be cut back: the Tories mentioned scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board in their election manifesto; and this week’s NHS white paper promises that national bargaining in the NHS will end. Sonnet reckons they will go for local government pay too.

Or as he puts it: “The growth in public sector jobs over the last 12 years will be reversed. Employers will seek to restructure to reduce costs with increased resort to outsourcing and strategic partnerships. Natural wastage may not be enough and enforced redundancies will occur.

“The greater fragmentation and restructuring of the public sector, together with greater emphasis on localisation and personalisation will put pressure on some of the national bargaining machinery. First, over time it will cover less of the workforce and secondly there will be ideological opposition”.

But he seems to have heard noises that not all pay bargaining is being tossed on the bonfire: “However, for key groups like doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants the Government will want to retain some form of pay review body”.

Meanwhile unions can expect more pain. “Recent months has seen the issue of trade union facilities being raised in the media by Conservative spokespeople, drawing attention to the cost to employers… Changes to the public sector will be used to weaken trade union influence and power. Time off for trade union activities will be restricted and employers may start to stop providing DOCAS [deduction of contributions at source, i.e. union subscriptions paid by the employer and deducted from pay packets]”.

Depressing indeed for unions. If the report is correct, it sounds as though they won’t be able to win every battle over cuts to pay, pensions, jobs and union rights. When I put this to Unison, they drew my attention to the strategy outlined by general secretary Dave Prentis in his speech to the union’s conference this year: “We will not take our members down dead end alleys. We will not exhaust ourselves in the first few months. But we will organise. We will organise public meetings and street demonstrations, in towns and cities, up and down the country. We will build lasting community alliances, to defend our public services. We will use our national campaign funds to raise public awareness about the consequences of cuts”. How that works out remains to be seen.

* there’ll be no pay rises for anyone earning over £21,000 in the public sector this year or next year, as George Osborne announced in the Budget.

(from Tribune blog)

Wildcat strikes raise their head again

Monday 5 October 2009

Lindsey oil refinery protestShocking stuff just in from the GMB union: Workers on engineering construction sites have rejected the new pay and conditions offer put to them by their union shop stewards just a few weeks ago (which I wrote about below at the time).

This means that those 30,000 workers think they deserve a better deal from the employers – and are prepared to strike, officially or unofficially, to get it.

The union bosses though it was a good deal, and told me so. A pay rise scheduled to be above inflation, increased rights for union officials to instigate grievance proceedings, and a promise to pre-audit companies to make sure they were prepared to pay according to the national rate. “We’ve got what we want on auditing”, said GMB national secretary Phil Davies, one of the union negotiators. GMB and Unite shop stewards agreed.

Judging by the GMB press release put out this morning, part of which appears below, the workers aren’t happy at the lack of a promise to have an unemployed workers’ register to use to fill vacancies – the employers only promised them a working party to look at it, as I recall.

This news seems to confirm what I said in my last blogpost on the subject – it really does look as if the unions, and the workers, have employers over a barrel in this growing sector. More wildcat strikes perhaps. Be interesting if wind farm building sites come under the sector (I have asked Unite, but didn’t get a definite answer)…

The 30,000 engineering construction workforce have voted to reject the employers offer on pay and conditions in workplace individual ballots held over the past two weeks. The offer was in response to claims from the unions GMB and Unite… Workers on seven sites have already voted for industrial action in pursuit of the claim…

Phil Davies GMB National Secretary said “The members want more progress on the skills and unemployment registers and they want to copper-fasten the pre award audit to screen out employers who plan to undercut the agreed rates and terms and conditions.

“The employer’s offer of working parties on the registers is seen as jam tomorrow and the members no longer trust the employers to deliver.

“The members want the package to be completed now so that they can see what they are getting. The next step is to go back to the employers to see if they are up for further talks.”

The PCS tries to bring the TUC together, again

Wednesday 5 August 2009

A friend of mine recently e-mailed to ask me for information about the Public and Commercial Services Union, which with over 300,000 members is the fifth biggest in the UK. In my reply I said: “As the TUC congress approaches, you can expect [general secretary Mark] Serwotka to be at the forefront of demands for concerted action to fight the Treasury’s efficiency programme and pay restraint.”

Lo and behold, I was right. A motion to the TUC congress (too long to copy and paste here; have a look at motion p49 on the draft agenda if you’re interested) from the PCS is callng on unions, under the leadership of the TUC, to band together in support of “protection of public services and an end to privatisation; ending the systematic tax evasion by corporations and the current tax privileges of the wealthy; opposing wage cuts” and more.

I don’t think it will lead to anything much. At last year’s TUC there was a strong motion passed on co-ordinated strike action against low pay which came to nothing. The year before there was another motion passed on co-ordinated action (the word ‘strike’ did not appear). Again, nothing. The PCS is keen to link up with other unions; other unions less so.

This isn’t really about ideology. What’s being demanded here is not revolutionary socialism. It’s closer to Labour party policy circa 1994 when John Smith died and the age of New Labour was ushered in. As far as privatisation goes, Unison are with them on that one; but they’ve never shown any willingness to link up with the PCS over it. Rivalry and suspicion between unions is likely to be factor, as is fear among Unite, Unison and other Labour-affiliated unions of damaging a Labour government.

Don’t mess with the Prison Officers’ Association

Sunday 22 February 2009

Prison Officers Association general secretary Brian Caton

The Prison Officers’ Association’s rejection of the Ministry of Justice’s modernisation plans will worry Jack Straw. The POA and its general secretary Brian Caton are nothing if not militant. At last year’s TUC congress, a vote was held on holding coordinated strike action across unions. I wasn’t in the hall at the time, but I’m told that on a show of hands the ayes had it. But Unison general secretary Dave Prentis in the chair, no fan of general strikes, denied there was a clear result and called for a card vote, whereupon the Unite members suddenly ‘mislaid’ their cards and the vote was lost.

Caton’s response? Prentis should “get new glasses”. The POA also put forward a vote calling for an actual general strike, which didn’t get even that far.

So if the POA have rejected a pay-and-modernisation offer, it’s likely they’ll want to make trouble over it. The BBC and the Daily Mail jumped on the angle of fitness tests for officers, but in reality this is a much bigger argument over a) whether Straw’s carrot of a promised £50 million cash injection for extra pay in 2009-10 is worth the modernisation hoops that officers will have to jump through, and b) whether (as the POA says) the prison service is being cut to the bone anbd the plans will see staffing numbers fall and the best-trained staff going to the wall – even as the government wheels out its titan prisons.

Strike action by prison officers was made illegal last year. But in 2007, prison officers took unofficial strike action, and the recent nationwide wildcat strikes will no doubt have emboldened the union. Despite the sensitive role of prison officers, the POA’s militancy has traditionally meant it’s more likely to take a hard line with government that most other civil service unions. Put simply, if the POA’s members don’t take unofficial action (suitably disowned by their leadership, of course) I’ll be surprised.

The work is there… and it’ll stay there

Monday 2 February 2009

In my last post but one, I suggested that one reason for the wildcat strikes was that there is work to go round and money to be had – it’s just not being offered to British workers.

I’ve just had a look at the pay claim submitted last October to the National Joint Council for the Engineering Construction Industry, which represents employers and trade unions and which sets nationally binding pay and conditions for engineering and construction workers. This is what it says:

“The current economic climate, widely publicised as the credit crunch, has caused some economic and industry commentators to question whether the robust growth that the UK construction industry has enjoyed in recent years will continue.

“In considering this we should be mindful of a number of objective facts. For example, it is worth noting that whilst the total volume of construction output fell by 0.5% between the first and second quarter of 2008, new infrastructure output grew by 7% over the same period. In addition it is worth noting that the latest Construction Skills Network Report forecasts that the infrastructure sector will experience the largest growth through to 2012, averaging 5.8% each year from 2008 to 2012.


“Whilst it is true that no one is currently in a situation to predict the medium term effect that the current economic slowdown will have on the UK construction industry as a whole, there a number of infrastructure projects and policy decisions that will ensure long term growth in the engineering construction sector.

“Even the most casual observer of UK economic and political debate cannot fail to appreciate the increasing importance that the UK energy production industry will have going forward into the future. Progressive Governments will have tough choices to make as they seek to balance targets for reducing carbon emissions with providing a stable foundation for economic growth, whilst at the same time reducing energy price inflation.”

Further proof, then, that the jobs are not only there, but they’ll stay there. In the circumstances, this dispute could run into next year in some shape or form. If the government is minded to take action in support of B****** j*bs for B***** workers, it will probably require European legislation, which would take years to draft, agree and enact. And if not, expect more trouble ahead.

Wildcat strikes: quote of the week

Monday 2 February 2009

The following quote is from, a message board for construction workers with strong links to the action. I should point out that it does not seem to be representative of views on the website as a whole.

“This fight has never been against the Italian workers, but his total (Like the Pun TOTAL) disregard to our feelings has took it to another level… We did not take this to a racial level W***, you did, now get ready to reap what you sow.”

Read the full quote here.

More about the strikes when I have time…

What the wildcat strikes tell us

Friday 30 January 2009

To see Unite shop steward Kenny Ward, dressed in dayglo orange and Unite flag in hand, addressing crowds outside the Lindsay oil refinery this morning – and railing against greedy bankers* – was to see industrial action of the sort we thought we would not see again. Secondary strike action? From workers in companies other than the ones to blame? Oil workers striking in support of construction workers? Have we gone back to the 1970s?

I’m shocked. Did anyone expect to see workers at 17 heavy industrial sites across the UK walk out on unofficial strike action? The leadership of the big unions appears to have been taken by surprise; certainly these protests have not been coordinated from their headquarters. How they managed to co-ordinate the protests I’m not yet sure, but I’ll have to find out soon.

Logistics apart, that workers see the point in striking at all in these straightened times is somewhat remarkable. Shouldn’t they be grateful they have jobs at all, one might say. At the end of last year, after threats of national strike action from the National Union of Teachers and the PCS civil service union bit the dust, I was confidently predicting that there’d be no more strikes for the foreseeable future. Hell, I was predicting it last week.

In fact, it’s not too hard to see why workers have chosen to take action in support of ‘British jobs for British workers’. First of all, as that Unite flag indicates, these people are unionised; at the Ineos plant at Gragemouth in Scotland, where workers successfully went on strike last year over pensions, Unite represents 1500 people. In construction the main specialist union, UCATT, repreasents 125,000. Big construction projects are bound in terms of pay and conditions by a national agreement, and the big unions talk to each other both informally and through a national council. That may explain the co-ordinated action today.

Then there’s the fact that, unlike, say, car workers asking for a pay rise, these people have a lot to play for. Recently I spoke to Tom Hardacre, Unite’s national officer for construction, for a Tribune article on just this very issue: UK workers being denied construction jobs on projects run by foreign contractors. He said: “We are complaining that people can’t get work where there is work. At this moment in time, in engineering and construction there’s quite a lot of work, but they’ve been denied that through the importation of non-UK labour.”

Recession or no recession, construction is not dead. Power stations are being built – and just last week,the Government announced the shortlist for a Severn tidal energy scheme. There are jobs to go round, and if (as has happened several times) companies say flatly “British workers need not apply”, British workers get angry – but this is intelligent anger, anger with a purpose. I’m inclined to think the workers are going to win concessions.

Ian King of The Times has an interesting take on the dispute, in which he blames Gordon Brown (I couldn’t possibly comment…)

*Update, 10:36 Friday: Actually, it was “greedy employers”. Sorry, my mistake.