CUT MY PAY – NO WAY! – 800,000 council workers strike

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A section of the strike rally at Hey Hill, Norwich
A section of the strike rally at Hey Hill, Norwich

Picket lines were out across the country on Wednesday morning as 800,000 UNISON and Unite council worker members began the first day of a two-day strike against a three-year pay-cutting wage offer.

Over 50 public sector workers descended upon Enfield Civic Centre yesterday morning for a lively picket.

Paul Bishop, UNISON branch secretary at Enfield council, said: ‘Just 2,800 staff have been asked to take strike action across Enfield, closing schools, recycling teams, day centres, the main library in Enfield, Thomas Hardy House, is closed and all the central services and social workers are out.

‘We are out again tomorrow and we are very much hoping that this demonstration of people’s despair at the spiralling cost of living will encourage the employers to come back to the negotiating table and coming up with a reasonable offer that is in line with the cost of inflation.

‘We will be considering further action in September if they won’t come back to talk to us.

‘Enfield council has a reserve of £75 million, so they have got the money to pay.

‘The trade unions must work together across the public sector.

‘No one wants to disrupt services but workers have no alternative.

‘We believe the public services are best delivered by public servants, not the private sector!’

UNISON shop steward Pauline Lorimer, from Chace Community School, said: ‘I work and live in the borough and my children were born at Chase Farm Hospital.

‘My worry is how will old people and very young people and pregnant women get to Barnet, if Chase Farm Hospital closes.

‘The decision to close Chase Farm is just about money and power.

‘I have taken a whole bunch of leaflets for the march to save Chase Farm to give out at my school.

‘I’m on strike today because I would like to see how anyone would like to survive on a teaching assistant’s salary, and we don’t even get paid in our holidays.

‘They are offering us a pay cut, not a pay rise.’

Carmen Szpytko, a UNISON member, was on the picket line outside Hornsey School for Girls.

She said that ‘losing two day’s pay is worth it’, adding that ‘everyone should be out, there should be joint action.’

All the pickets were united in calling for joint action by all the public sector unions in order to make an impact.

At Montem Primary School, in Hornsey, UNISON rep Tony Soteriades said on the picket line: ‘This is the fifth year running that they’re offering a pay cut.

‘We can’t have separate factions, we have to unite collectively and have collective action and stand firm for the duration.

‘We want the government to start to begin to be just.

‘There has never been a struggle without sacrifice,’ he added.

‘We’re in the position where we’re able to fight, due to prior sacrifices, and we have the benefit and we owe it to ourselves and the next generation to continue the struggle.

‘We are already the lowest-paid workers.’

There were picket lines at Hounslow Civic Centre in west London as well as at the Direct Works Department.

At the Civic Centre, UNISON member Irene Pogozala, from housing, said: ‘There’s a lot going on in the council as you know.

‘ “Performance indicators’’ are trying to make the service better with less staff, which in a nutshell is an impossibility.

‘People are being made redundant.

‘I am one of the frontline staff and we are having more pressure and are not able to do the job as well as we should.

‘It has a knock-on effect, from the service providers to the tenants and homeless people, and that’s just my sector, but it’s the same everywhere, refuse collection, schools, etc.’

UNISON members Julie Elgar, a nursery nurse, and Wendy Bemmer, a special needs support worker, joined the Civic Centre picket line from Marlborough Primary School.

They said: ‘We’ve both got families and our basic costs have gone through the roof in the last 12 months.

‘We are low-paid workers doing vital work.

‘We are there to look after children, the most vulnerable members of society.

‘It would be nice to see all service providers taking action together.

‘We are all in the same struggle and it would definitely make more impact.’

Iain Raymond, Hounslow joint UNISON branch secretary, said: ‘Hounslow Council is supporting the national employers’ restriction to 2.5%.

‘We are going to have to force this through prolonged industrial action.

‘We’ve got to step it up. Our low-paid members can’t afford any more pay cuts.’

Fellow joint secretary, Harj Dhaliwal, said: ‘We’ve got more than 2,000 members and are very pleased with the turnout.

‘People can’t accept this three-year pay cut on the back of ten years of below-inflation pay rises.’

At the direct works, Mark Bent said: ‘We’re 100 per cent.

‘There’s no refuse being picked up, no highway maintenance, no street lighting, no drainage, no transport operations.

‘Not one vehicle has left this depot this morning,’ said Unite member Richard Chute on the picket line at Bagley’s Lane depot in Fulham.

Unite Branch Secretary Ian Burgess told News Line: ‘The pay offer of 2.45% is unacceptable, especially when the executives in our borough are awarding themselves 8% rises.

‘Unite member and a driver for education services, Cyrillia Charles, said: ‘A 2.45% increase is a pay cut. We want a decent rise.

‘I have to drive to the Frank Barnes special school for the deaf in Camden and that is facing closure to make way for an academy. It’s totally wrong.’

Unite member Roy French said: ‘Some of our members are having to do two jobs to beat inflation.’

George Wright, assistant branch secretary UNISON, social services, Southwark, said outside Peckham Town Hall: ‘Ten years of below-inflation pay increases have led low-paid workers in UNISON to stand up and fight for a decent wage, in view of the rampant inflation.

‘If Gordon Brown really wants to make poverty history, they could start by paying us properly.

‘This below-inflation wage offer is central government policy.’

Referring to remarks by UNISON leader Dave Prentis on the news, he said: ‘It is no use passing the buck to local councils, saying they are Tory.

‘The Labour Party believe they can control inflation through controlling public sector pay, which is a massive denial of the economic crisis that is raging under capitalism.’

Simon Cole, Branch Chair Crawley Unison, told News Line: ‘We are striking today because we have been offered 2.45% which is absolutely ludicrous; it is laughable and is a pay cut.

‘The inflation figures have come out at just under 4%, so the government have acknowledged that you’ve got to earn some ridiculous amount of money just to keep up with inflation.

‘The government have come back with 2.4% so we’ve decided enough is enough and we are going to strike.

‘We know our strike is going to cause disruption but we are trying to support those members in Unison who are low-paid women workers, part-time workers who are struggling on a very, very low wage.

‘We are not asking for millions (of pounds) or a 100%, we just want a fair wage for a fair day’s work and that’s not what we are getting.

‘If they don’t come back with an increased offer then we will come out again and have longer strikes. Our branch will support that.’

Claire Carpenter, a support worker at Broadfield East infant school, joined the picket in solidarity with town hall staff.

She told News Line: ‘We are working on a reduced staff in our school today because a number of us have come out on strike.

‘I am striking both days because the strike is important. So many people are on minimum wage in this country, many of whom are women.

‘I believe in the power of the unions, and I think it gives us one big voice rather than lots of little voices. We must stand up for each other.

‘If every member of the unions came out and supported a general strike I would support it.’

Tony, a Production Controller, on the Cambridge Council Yard picket line said: ‘All we want is fair wages, we haven’t agreed to the three-year pay deal.

‘When you look at government figures, when they put the food in the basket, we find it’s a lot more than they say.

‘The last three years we’ve been paid under the rate of inflation.

‘Many GMB members have refused to cross our picket.

‘If you try to buy a home now, it’s like. . . what the hell’s happening?!’

Liz Brenon, Cambridge Unison branch secretary said: ‘By anyone’s measure of inflation, we’re getting a pay cut.

‘Inflation is by any measure around 20%.

‘The government could be rewarding council workers, but their priorities is in big business.

‘There’s money for war but no money for public services.

‘We’ve got young members who are using 20% of their wages just to travel to work.

‘I don’t quite know how we’re going to run the public services in the future.’

At 1 pm a rally was held outside the Guild Hall in Cambridge attended by Unison council workers, Unison Cambridge health branch workers, and reps from the PCS, NUT, and UCU.

UCU Rep Jill Eastland said: ‘The government is spending money on war in the middle east and 75 billion pounds on a new Trident missile system but says that we in the public sector are causing inflation.

‘The gap between the rich and the poor is widening globally and here in britain.

‘We should not feel guilty about demanding more money to beat inflation that is caused by war.’

Cambridge UNISON branch secretary Liz Brenon said: ‘We’ve had enormous support from our GMB colleagues by them not crossing our picket lines.’

PCS rep Ian Albert said: ‘Tens of thousands of our members will take action over the next few days and join public sector colleagues across the country in a week of action over pay.

‘These include the driving standard agency, the valuation office agency, the home office, the land registry, and the maritime and coast guard agency. Coast guards have only been offered 1%!’

NUT rep John Devine added: ‘We are the biggest teachers union in Europe and we have a problem that we are the only teachers union campaigning against this 2.45%.

‘The other teacher union leaderships are supporting it. We need to co-ordinate a public sector alliance in Cambridgeshire to fight against this.’

On the picket line in Norwich, Unison Rep, library worker Melissa Brown said ‘I feel like we’re undervalued right now, and if we don’t get a pay rise it’s probably going to get worse.

‘It’s been going on for ten years now that we’ve been getting low pay rises.’

Fellow library worker and UNISON member Hannah Woodhall added: ‘It’s proving the point that we are undervalued.

‘I love the job I do and it’s not that I’m asking for anything other than a realistic indication of what we do.

‘It’s a shame we have to do this but we’re just asking for a fair increase in our wages.

‘We want something that tallies with the fact that everything is going up.’

About MPs pay and expenses, she said: ‘It makes me sick! I would be understanding if everyone was on the same level but I think it is silly to say that Gordon Brown is taking a holiday in Southwold this year.

‘He is holidaying in Britain because that is what we all should be doing but a holiday in Southwold costs as much as it does to go abroad.

‘I think if he is looking at his carbon emissions and that sort of thing I would be interested to see how he gets there.

‘I just think that if it is reflected across the board, if everyone was taking this low pay cost of living award, then that’s fair enough but I just think it flies in the face of what we are earning and what they are earning.’

Young library worker Stephen Bridgen said of the pay offer: ‘It’s just ludicrous for what we do and for how much money we get paid now it is low anyway.

‘It’s just a disguised pay cut as a pay rise it’s ridiculous and I don’t know if they think we are stupid but they are giving us a pay cut for what we are doing now and everything is going up ridiculously so it’s just crazy how can we accept it.

‘We’ve done it for ten years and hopefully this time they will take it into consideration and actually give us a pay rise.

‘So much is based on efficiency and cutting out expenses of staff.

‘Why are we saving all this money and you hear about management and senior management getting their 10% or their massive bonuses and we are at the bottom getting nothing again and again and again.

‘We are going to keep going until we get fairness we are just asking for what everyone else is getting.’

Norfolk County Council Unison Branch Secretary Jonathan Dunning told News Line: ‘The government introduced a review by a chap called Gershon which was looking at effectively continual saving year on year from local authority expenditure and Gershon did this review saying there is lots of money to save and local government workers have obviously been in the middle of that.

‘We are not convinced that the money is there to save but local authorities have been obliged to deliver those savings and have a green light from government so with that kind of pressure I guess that is what Dave Prentis is referring to.

2.45% is not only a wage cut in real terms but is an insult to all public sector workers covered by the negotiations.

‘One of the problems is energy costs, costs of living generally going up is affecting everybody the same amount in terms of actual expenditure.

‘When you are talking about percentage pay increases 2.45% may be quite a lot of money to somebody on a big salary but to somebody on a low salary it is a pittance.

‘Our view of wages across the market is that local government workers are slipping and certainly in local government our low paid people get paid less than in other public sector areas like health and police.

‘The strike has gone well as far as we can tell, the schools have shut, libraries have shut, museums have shut.

‘We have made the decision that services that deliver life and death care for people in the community, those posts have been exempted from the strike at this stage as clearly we don’t want to put people’s health and welfare at risk even though it would be the employer’s responsibility ultimately.

‘But we’re not playing games with people’s lives, all we want is for the employer to make a fair offer and come back to the negotiating table.

‘If they don’t I anticipate further industrial action, possibly a toughening up of the approach of unions across the country.

Annette Meaney, a UNISON steward at Alperton school in Brent, said: ‘We had 30 people on our picket line at Alperton school.

‘they had to close the lower site because so many of us went out on strike.

‘I absolutely agree with a general strike.

‘Alperton NUT and NASUWT collected over £500 to cover our lost wages.

‘We are under-paid and our dispute is with the government, not the school.’

Several striking workers taking part in a 5,000-strong central London demonstration on Wednesday, the first day of the strike, spoke to News Line.

Brian Read, a Unite (TGWU) member in the street cleaning department from Thurrock Council in Essex, said: ‘My money is only £850 per month, that’s all I take home, and I’m just about barely living.

‘A lot of workers are out on strike in Thurrock today.’

Paul Travers, Unite full-time officer for Thurrock Council, said union members were angry.

‘They’ve just undergone “single status’’ and now they’ve made a pay offer which is a cut in pay.

‘All the time they are expected to pull their belts in, yet deliver better and better services.’

Christopher Merchant, Unite (TGWU) convenor on Thurrock Council, said: ‘I think all the public sector unions should strike.

‘Because of single status, the majority of us will not get a pay rise and have not had a pay rise for some years.

‘At Thurrock, 165 staff will not get any pay award, even one that is below inflation, because of the shoddy hand we were dealt under the single status agreement.’

Anneth Davy, a UNISON member from Barnet, said: ‘It is a lot to say, yes, go on strike.

‘I’m a single parent and will lose two days’ pay, but when you consider the increases in the cost of living day to day, it’s a struggle.

‘Each member going out on strike feels strongly about what they’re doing and other members of the union will also benefit.

‘So for the first time I decided to go out on the picket line, because I do feel strongly that these jobs are created because they need to be done: teaching assistants, refuse collectors, all the catering workers – low-paid workers, who need to be paid a decent wage in order to afford a living.’

She added: ‘As the old song goes, you notice if the cleaner hasn’t been in, but we don’t notice it when the chief officer’s not in – and half the time we don’t even know who they are!’

Cliffe Obaseki, health and safety and equalities officer for Islington UNISON, said: ‘I think definitely the strike action has to be spread.

‘Look at the MPs, they’re now saying they want to have a 7% increase.

‘The question is what have they done to justify that.

‘As we are living in a democratic society, where’s the logic behind it when the majority are under-paid.’

Dean Ryan, a youth worker and Islington UNISON shop steward, said: ‘I think the unions have got to stay strong.

‘I think for too long the unions have allowed New Labour to get away with murder and I think it’s time we started a serious fightback, not only over pay but to defend public services.

‘There’s plenty of money in British society, it’s the fifth wealthiest country in the world, but that money’s completely unevenly distributed.’

Kat De Weerd, a UNISON member from Stamford Hill Primary School in Haringey, said: ‘I’m a learning mentor and I’m not very happy with the pay rise of only 2.45%, which is why I’ve come out on strike today.

‘It’s ridiculous, with an inflation rate of 4.3%.

‘My school has been closed by the strike. We all have the same feeling, we are angry we are not getting a pay rise.

‘We were sent quite threatening letters telling us we shouldn’t strike and how our pensions would be affected, but I don’t feel intimidated, it just makes me angry because we have a right to strike and we’re not striking for no reason.’

Bola George, chair of Brent Council UNISON, said: ‘We’re gutted really because of the pay. We want equal pay.

‘The fact is people are getting fatter while we’re getting slimmer and we’re getting fed up with it really.

‘Equality is what we’re fighting for.

‘What we want is a socialist government, that would be a dream come true.’

UNISON member Joanna Bish, an environmental department worker at Lambeth Council, said: ‘I’m here today to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters.

‘We have to fight. It’s been over 10 years and we can’t go on living on the money they expect us to live on, with mortgages going up, food going up, and fuel bills.

‘We’re also looking at a recession. We have to let the government know we’re not going to stand for it any more.

‘We want to make them listen, to give people better housing, better jobs, better education.’

Andrew Eke, a UNISON member in the housing department in Southwark, said: ‘We are out today to make sure we get justice and we are able to cater for our families. I don’t want my family out on the street.

‘If we can’t pay the taxes, what happens to the government. We are watching.’

Tom Davis, Ealing National Union of Teachers president, said: ‘The UNISON action today is very similar to the action we took three months ago.

‘Public sector pay is being pegged at a time of high inflation and we can’t survive in London.

‘We’re in solidarity with all public sector unions taking action against the government’s pay freeze.’