De-recognition threat

Southwark Labour council is threatening to de-recognise Unison, the main union representing council workers, for opposing cuts in pay and conditions. The chief personnel officer has even written to Unison national officials demanding the disbandment of the Southwark No1 branch. This illustrates that de-recognition is not a narrow anti-Tory issue, as the Socialist Workers Party in particular had claimed when faced with the same threat in Brent.

Barry Biddulph, a leading Southwark branch official, has been instructed to cease all his union activity or face dismissal. Barry has even been told he will be disciplined if he uses unpaid leave for union work. Absurdly he has been charged with inciting strike action and making statements in public critical of the council.

The council’s message to Unison stewards and officials is crude and simple: conform to management policy or you will be dealt with. The message for Unison members is ‘Stay out of union activity or face the consequences’. Despite these new Labour union-bashing tactics, the branch is still seeking strike action to defend pay and conditions.

Council workers in Southwark have experienced what life will be like for trade unionists if Tony Blair’s Labour Party wins the next general election. The council has removed some sections of its workforce from nationally agreed terms and conditions. It has informed the branch it intends to remove all council workers from the benefits of trade union gains or agreements in the past.

In housing workers have lost the entitlement to full pay for the first three days of sickness. They will now receive a mere £10.50 per day statutory sick pay. The annual pay award has been taken away. Only if management considers it has made enough profit will any pay award be made. The bluntly named ‘chief officer’s delegated powers committee’ says it intends to freeze all long-service increments and reduce staff conditions below national terms and conditions by abolishing local agreements. These are at present mostly above the national level. For example, maternity leave has been slashed from 63 to 40 weeks.

The council’s attacks on Unison members have been encouraged by the lack of action and interest by national Unison officials. Despite being over one million strong, Unison is seen by many members as a paper tiger.

In housing the national union prevented an official ballot for strike action taking place. This inaction was in spite of the clear majorities for strike action in unofficial branch ballots. But when housing workers faced the sack if they refused to sign new contracts with cuts in terms and conditions, they did not have the confidence to take unofficial strike action without the support of the national union. The issue of de-recognition has highlighted the spinelessness of the national leaders and undermined collective action.

The opposition to de-recognition in Brent placed a one-sided stress on putting pressure on the officials. But the best way to apply pressure is to create a rank and file movement in Unison on a united front basis that will take action, independently of the officials if necessary. The SWP’s sectarianism is a barrier to transforming Unison from a national publicity machine into a real fighting force.

The South London branch of the Socialist Labour Party has recruited a local Labour councillor, Ian Driver, and a number of council workers who have left the Labour Party due to the anti-working class policies of the Labour council. But whether the SLP becomes a genuine workers’ alternative to the Labour council remains to be seen. It all depends on the intervention of revolutionaries.

Terry Hill