In a dispute which even sections of the mainstream press have described as “the UK’s Wisconsin”, local government workers in Southampton have been battering a cuts-happy Tory council with a programme of indefinite rolling strike action. Its creative strategies and levels of rank-and-file control over the dispute make it almost unique in recent UK labour movement history, an inspiring and significant departure from the usual one-day token efforts called from above by union leaderships.
Mike Tucker, the branch secretary of Southampton District Unison, spoke to Solidarity in advance of the next round of strikes.
We’re due to begin the next round of strike action on Tuesday 28 June. The sections involved are refuse collection, street cleaning, libraries, parking enforcement, toll collection and gas fitters in the housing and maintenance section.
We’ll be announcing other groups who’ll be involved later in the week. Those workers will all begin their strikes together.
We met the council on Thursday 16 June for extensive talks, but we didn’t actually speak to them directly; ACAS just went between us and the managers trying to arbitrate.
We offered to suspend the industrial action if the council agreed to lift the dismissal notices which are due to come into effect on 11 July. However, they only offered a four-week suspension which was conditional on unions withdrawing our collective employment tribunal claim against the council’s failure to consult on the redundancies. We rejected that offer.
The council want the talks to resume this week, which in itself is significant; they’re now willing to negotiate after a month of effectively refusing to talk to us. Having said that, they still seem more interested in using the dispute to make propaganda than actually settling the issues. During the talks they actually had a PR person with them issuing press statements while the talks were going on.
Both Unison and Unite have been doing lots of door-to-door leafletting to engage the public around the strike and explain the issues behind the dispute. The Tories have responded with their own leafletting campaign; they’ve also been leaving leaflets on the piles of rubbish that’ve built up around the city since the dispute.
There’s also been extensive coverage in the local press, with a lot of supportive letters. There are also hostile letters though, which seem to have been whipped up as part of a general Tory propaganda campaign against trade unions.
We’ve based this strike on the sections of the workforce where union organisation is strongest and where we could apply the most pressure to the council.
We knew from the beginning that token one-day strikes would not be productive.
To ensure the solidity of our strikes we’ve made sure everyone who goes on strike is getting considerable hardship pay. We’ve had financial support from the unions nationally but also from branch strike funds.
The effective sovereign body in the dispute is a joint Unison-Unite strike committee. It’s made up of branch officials and stewards and it meets weekly to take decision about the direction of the dispute and which sections will be called out next. No group of workers is called out without meetings involving reps and stewards from that section to make sure they’re on-board with the strategy. We’ve also been holding mass members’ meetings since November; there’ll be another one next week.
Strikes have been supplemented by public marches, rallies and demonstrations and we’re planning our own feeder march to support the PCS-NUT rally on 30 June.