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The Strike (1) – Coventry Council Closes Down

Edward Campbell | 21.05.2005 11:09 | Birmingham | London

In Coventry's biggest industrial action for years and longest running industrial dispute, workers successfully, but reluctantly, withdrew their labour.

[Sorry for reposting, but here's an edited & spell checked version of previous article. Do hide others. Ed]

It is the workers who provide Coventry Council with its services, and, on Thursday June 19, in the cities biggest industrial action for years and longest running industrial dispute, they successfully, but reluctantly, withdrew their labour.

The T&G and Unison - whose members overwhelmingly balloted to strike after senior council officials unilaterally imposed a “single status” pay package - confidently organised action with the first of three one-day strikes. A 48-hour strike will in effect run on Tuesday and Wednesday.

GMB/Apex member’s decision fell short of this. They only joined the ongoing work-to-rule which followed on from the strike - a decision, which resulted in the loss of members who immediately joined Unison. The larger two Unions, having listened to their members and impressed workers with their strategy, and have seen recruitment rise shapely.

The dispute is significant to local government workers around the country, and has have national implications, although, as yet, the Unions only have official messages of support from Worcester to Stafford, and right across the midlands region. Dave Griffiths, long-time Militant, and, now, Socialist Party organiser, amongst others encouraged the unions to take substantial and well-organised strike action.

He told me that it should get official national recognition now and Unison’s leadership should come to Coventry to show support; although he added that he knows one of them is already willing to come immediately with the full support of the national union behind him. He went on to say that this dispute, if won, will have strategic importance in halting similar wage cutting packages around the country.

I hope to get their views in a subsequent piece, not being able to get hold of the local leadership on strike day so the can confirm that they agree. However, the strike being the success that it was, the union strategy could be model on how other industrial disputes could proceed on similar issues around Britain. The Unions appear to be breaking out of the straight jacket that this New Labour government has put on them since coming to power in 1996.

The strategy in Coventry includes taking substantial industrial action to make senior council officials withdraw the imposition of new employment contracts due to take effect from June 1 and to get them to return to negotiations. This has required the support of workers who have to make big sacrifices not least by losing pay while striking, and the unprecedented co-operation of trade unions – summed in by many in the word: solidarity.

Because of the large size and scope of the pay cuts and the tactics of the City Council, the solidarity, support and willingness to make sacrifices has manifested itself. “Enough really is enough now,” commented Harold Hamlet a former of Coventry CAMRA picketing outside the Shakespeare pub. He added, “One of the bin-men said he’s going to invest the 7 grand they want rob from him in the picket lines. Bloody sound investment if you ask me. ”

The strike had a widespread effect across the city during a day in which the weather alternated between spring showers and summer sun, but the mood of workers and supporters remained steady: sober, resolute and determined – solid!

The withdrawal of labour and effective picketing from early morning was very successful. It halted refuse and finance collection; closed down many schools; postponed burials, closed libraries, and shut down other non-emergency services. Street cleaners, grave diggers, housing officers, branch library managers, and bin men who withdrew their labour stand to lose up to £5,000, putting some of them on as low as £12,000 per year.

However, it was a reluctant step by workers, not least because Coventry people will suffer loss of services, but they also lose wages when striking. But the city Councils decisions were seen as grossly unfair by many, so it was a strike for justice and fairness, and striking was the only means left open to them.

Sohan Singh, Secretary of Coventry Unison, expressed the feelings of many when he spoke at the sun-drenched mid-day rally outside the Council house. “We apologize to [the people of] Coventry, because we have to take action with a heavy heart”, he admitted - reflecting the feelings of long-suffering, hard working council staff whose good will has achieved first class services and a strong community in Coventry.

This goodwill could be wiped out for good by senior officer’s decision to go ahead with the cuts. The council working community, their supporters and representatives, gathered on the green lawn new this – but also new they had support from the people of Coventry too.

However, the powerful feeling of solidarity between unions, workers and supporters was tangible and inspiring. John Swift, Secretary of Coventry Trades Union Council, with a lifetimes work in Coventry industry behind him, gave his support in a statement of a few but very potent words: “ Reject this wrong idea of single status!.” He went on to declare, “Unity Is Strength,” the watchwords of Coventry Trade Unions Council, which is the arm of the trade union movement which reaches out into the community, and in which he has recently replaced Sohan Singh as secretary.

At least 2,000 individuals will lose - each having their own story of how their lives will be made more difficult, and how pride in working for the council will be lost – a sad end to many carers. And, apparently, even more will lose in the long term if the reduced ceiling on new pay scales is considered, as well as the loss of weekend overtime and shift allowances.

Socialist Party Cllr. Dave Nellist (former Labour MP and supporter for Coventry SE and Militant supporter) pointed out the injustice being meted out to the low paid, including many women, such as the cleaners who stand to have their hourly rate reduced. He added “66 workers are promised a £5,000 rise to be paid for by 62 whose wages will be correspondingly.”

This was what his fellow Socialist Party Councillor, Karen McKay, called: “Robbing Peter to pay Paul”, in the Council debate a few months ago, in which a Conservative Party majority sheepishly voted through this pay cutting package crafted by Chief executive, Stella Manzie. Someone shouted “Hey, Machete Manzie, how’s it going?” to jeers, as she, head down, slipped into the old council house, just as the rally was ending.

Dave added that more money was needed for a fair deal, citing the huge sums pumped into to the NHS for a similar type of pay restructuring as part of the “Agenda for Change. ” After a few more words the rally was brought to a close. However, the day wasn’t about speeches, although they were short, mostly inspiring and pointed, apart from Labour Cllr. Mutton who was booed and heckled, although he and his members are now firmly behind the action.

It was really a day about the workers and the power of their solidarity and strength in unity. They made who made their way back to picket lines, after the rally, which had been effectively manned city-wide since the early morning.

Pickets had persuaded many non-union members not to work. Nicholas John, a library assistant at the Arena Park Library in the recently opened Tosco’s owned shopping mall, and a newly recruited Unison steward, told me all the libraries were closed after a successfully organised picket, despite them having a significant number of non union members. It was the sacrifice and determination of ordinary workers, including these well-organised library staff, that really made the day work so well in their cause; this was apparent from talking with several of them.

I spoke to Christine Mc Closkey, who was a gainer yet fully supported her colleagues who stranded to lose between £3,000 - £8,000. She related how the Union had been there for her when she needed them. From experience, she doubted whether the City Council would listen and return to the negotiating table, even after two further days of strike planned for next week. However, she was prepared to go further, and did not appear to be contemplating defeat.

She like many others workers feel instead of dealing with unequal pay, this package did the opposite. It was unfair, and mostly imposed cuts, but the gainers would support their colleagues, friends, and the hard-working families who could take a huge cut in their standard of living and loser their mortgaged homes in some cases.

More industrial action is planned with strikes on Tuesday and Wednesday of next week. This escalation to a 24-hour strike seems to have already had an effect. John Bolton, Director of Social Services, said:” I think there is a growing recognition that the vast majority of staff wants to sort this out. ... We are still having negotiations.”

In the Coventry Evening Telegraph on the following day, Richard Harty, Unison corporate negotiator - and a Coventry Bishop Ullathorne School pupil when Margaret Thatcher started her onslaught against Trade Unions – added: “The truth is there have been no meetings [with any unions] at all. They've been cancelled by management.” This gave backbone to Unison’s earlier terse filleted statement claiming that Bolton was talking “absolute codswallop.”

Although, Harold Hamlet, who had been talking to Harty about wider geo-political implications, commented “Codswallop from management was progress … Better than [expletive deleted]!” And he tried to drag Harty off to the Whitefrairs for Union of Workers Free Beer Campaign meeting, but Richard went ahead with his interview for Central television instead – dealing with the media is sometimes more important than what is being discussed in the pub.

Unions and workers are organising an on going work to rule, which Carole Vale, Manager of Bell-Green Library said will be more difficult to do than going on strike, because library users will suffer.

Goodwill in some services, like libraries, can cover the greater part of a days work, where staff often go to great trouble and beyond what is required to provide help and service. Work to rule will also hit management targets, which is how they measure their success in often-meaningless figures. But management responsible for delivering good services will be worried, manly about their promotion and bonus prospects.

Union officials and workers hope to force a change of mind by city Council by the industrial action - so they return to negotiations. Many have been shocked by the employer’s tactics since “Single Status’ - fair pay for women and low paid workers - doesn’t not have to be implemented until 2007, and that there is nothing fair about what has been unilaterally decided. It has been described as “Immoral”.

It turns out to be the biggest show of action in years, in the City’s longest industrial dispute, backed by Unions again showing the power entrusted in them by their members. It would be intelligent if such a show of solidarity and support made top council officials think again.

This means Stella Manzie must lift the June 1 deadline and return to the negotiating table to address the losers concerns, or face the united action of Coventry workers. It appears that it would be folly not to, after such a show of strength and the potential for even more prolonged and crippling action.

She will realise that some of her victims could lose their homes; there will be no more family holidays for some; the quality of life of many will fall; and the moral and goodwill of the council’s workers will evaporate, and consequently the quality of services will be decimated.

Local campaigner Harold Hamlet later commented on what Stella should do, as I bought him a beer in the Green Room “It’s an obvious no -brainier, really. Init?”

Edward Campbell (second draft – 21/5/05)

Edward Campbell