Southampton council workers have voted to reject the council’s latest offer in a long-running battle over attacks on pay and conditions. 53% of Unison members, 62.5% of construction union UCATT members and 83.4% of Unite members voted to reject the proposal. Unite regional organiser Ian Woodland spoke to Solidarity.
The ballot results reflect the very deep anger that’s still felt about the council’s proposals.
Our higher vote for rejection is probably a result of our stewards voting to recommend rejection of the deal [Unison did not put out a recommendation]. Unite stewards will meet on 23 November to discuss our next steps, and the next key staging post in the dispute as a whole will be a joint stewards’ meeting in early December which will formulate strategy for continuing the dispute.
The legal side of the campaign is continuing but no tribunal hearing is expected until Spring of next year. We’re also campaigning politically, and producing joint union newsletters to put our case which we’ll be delivering door-to-door to targeted areas within Southampton City Council boundaries.
The action short of strike is continuing but it has dropped off a bit recently. People are somewhat fatigued, and they’ve been readjusting to prepare for 30 November, which has cut across the local dispute to an extent. Finally, the bombshell of the council’s “commissioning” proposal — which is basically a green light for the wholesale privatisation of council services — has had an impact. That’s another phase in the battle and that issue will be receiving our stewards’ attention in the next period.
In terms of the next steps in the dispute, we’ll be led by our shop stewards. Gaining an impression of the feeling at workplace level will inform our strategy. People are a little anxious about being outside the protected period for participation in industrial action and are worried that people may start getting disciplined, but that’s not the main thought. People aren’t fearful of strike action but they want a discussion about the next steps. We certainly won’t stand in the way of anyone who wants to take further action.
There’s been some crossover between the rank-and-file bodies that’ve been coordinating the local dispute and the local coordination for 30 November. Representatives from the local dispute strike committee sit on a broader strike committee that’s been planning action for the day. There’ll be a local march and rally, which is one of several across Hampshire.
The most important lesson from our dispute is the absolute centrality of cross-union reps’ meetings, picket line meetings and other forums where the mass of workers taking part in the strike could have a say in how the dispute was run and discuss the way forward. We always made sure our picket lines were well-supported; many turned into what were effectively static protests, such as the picket outside the town depot in Northam on 6 October when we had 150 people out. We also had 80 out in the other depot at Shirley, where a lot of maintenance workers work. Selective action isn’t the be all and end all but it’s what suited us in our circumstances.
Disputes throw up a variety of tactics; there’s no limit to how creative workers can be when given the opportunity to take ownership over their own strikes.