Southampton: Britain's Wisconsin?

Public sector workers in Southampton are reaching the end of a week of strike action, organised in response to swingeing cuts and job losses being implemented by the Conservative-led local council.

Submitted by Django on July 15, 2011

This week's strike comes after over two months of action on the part of local council employees, and involves Unite and Unison, two of Britain's largest unions.

The stoppage has involved workers from across the public sector in the city, including binmen, port health inspectors, parking wardens, bridge toll collectors, street sweepers, library workers and social care supervisors, and has formed part of an unusual strategy of targeted strike action in key areas likely to cause the most disruption. Rubbish collections, for instance, have been subject to seven weeks of strikes. Such tactics are being pointed to by union activists as a model for similar action against cuts at other local authorities.

Massive cuts

The cuts which are being implemented in Southampton are amongst the most brutal in the country, but many fear it is a glimpse into what the future holds for public sector workers up and down the country.

The immediate trigger for the strike action was the council's announcement that all staff earning over £17,500 would suffer a 5.4% pay cut, and that 250 jobs would be axed immediately. By way of reference, according to the Office of National Statistics, the median salary in the UK in 2010 was £25,543.

Both unions rejected this 'offer'. In response, the council announced that it would sack the entire workforce. Anyone who refused to line up and sign the new contracts could join the dole queue instead. The council claimed the move was in the staff's best interests as they could avoid further sackings as a result.

Nonetheless, a leaked internal document has forecast a further 1,200 job losses – a quarter of the workforce - over the coming years, meaning that those who accept the council's “deal” could well end up losing their jobs anyway, despite the council's claims. Royston Smith, conservative council leader, has claimed to have “no idea” where this official document came from, but it's official status does not appear to be in question.

However, the action is widely perceived not just to be about the jobs and working condition of council workers. The cuts in Southampton will devastate the social fabric of the city. Amongst other things, the cuts mean that millions of pounds have been axed from the budget for disabled adults, charity funding has been taken away, pensioners' daycare centres are closing and meals on wheels schemes for the elderly have been cut. Tenants in social housing are having their rents hiked.

Despite the unpleasant effects of the strike, such as rubbish festering in the summer sun, strikers resport continued support. In an interview with Red Pepper, union officials claim the public, who will suffer the effects of the cuts in coming years, remain on side:

'People are still generally supportive,' says Mike Tucker. 'They know we live in the city too, we all have to deal with it. Once the strike ends it will be difficult and unpleasant for the workers to clear.

'They want nothing more than to be back at work, but they’re in a position where they don’t feel they have any choice. Some workers are in a position where, with inflation, they could be losing 15 per cent of their income in one year.'

Mr Blue

Much like rightwingers attacking public workers' living standards across the pond, Tory council leader Royston Smith has tried to position himself as a strong leader facing down selfish unions, and to ratchet up support amongst rightwingers. Sources at Tory HQ have gone on the record to call him a “hero”.

Much like mop-headed millionaire Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, he has called for minimum thresholds for strike ballots, requiring a turnout of at least 50% to strike. This would make Britain's strike laws even more restrictive, despite them being some of the toughest in Europe, and would make it even more difficult for workers to strike by counting incomplete ballots as 'no' votes. Although Britain is a signatory to several treaties recognising to right to strike as a fundamental human and democratic right, no other rights are to be subject to similar draconian restrictions.

Unsurprisingly, he does not want similar rules to apply to the election of councillors, Mayors or MPs. This would mean, for instance, that Boris Johnson's election would be void, as it was based on a turnout of less than 50%. Or Smith's own, given that he was initially elected on a turnout of 28.5%, and has only been elected on a turnout greater than half once, thanks to the vote coinciding with the AV referendum.

If we see a campaign of resistance to the cuts get off the ground which is willing to take effective action, we can expect voices such as Smith's to become more prominent in demanding a new legal crackdown on strikes and protests.

Where next?

In the face of unemployment, most of Southampton council's workforce have signed the new contracts under protest. Amongst those who haven't there is the prospect of lockouts.

However, a whole number of issues remain for groups of workers who have been subject to divide-and-rule tactics. A range of other disputes remain to be fought over, and it is important to note that the issue is not just over contracts but over a brutal and ideological national program of cuts, ostensibly the result of a financial crisis whose costs are being passed onto those with no hand in causing it. The fight is over the immediate and long-term futures of the overwhelming majority of the population.

The strategy of targeted strikes has been effective in drawing a number of concessions from the council, but the organisation and militancy was not there to organise an effective boycott of the new contracts. This may well mean other councils trying this tactic. Such moves can only be prevented by effective further action, espectially when the inevitable next cuts are proposed, to show that declaring war on the council's workforce in this manner will have dire consequences.