Never Cross a Picket Line by Zack Wilson
I found myself manning a picket line this week. Not a picket line outside a mine or crumbling mill, but outside one of the many office buildings of Sheffield City Council.
My comrades weren’t donkey jacketed steel workers, clustered round a burning brazier, seeking warmth under rain soaked flat caps. They were administration clerks and social workers. At other sites they were librarians and street cleaners, teaching assistants and care home workers, those of us who work in the unfashionable and generally poorly rewarded jobs in the public sector. ‘Municipal’ workers is probably the American term. In other words, the people who help to make the streets safer and cleaner, who look after children, care for the elderly, cut the grass in the park, provide counselling and guidance for the desperate or marginalised, who help to keep things running smoothly in the community. The people who you don’t notice until they’re not there.
Not violent, militant or dangerous extremists then, but decent working people whose reward for helping local councils in England and Wales make £1 billion of so called ‘efficiency savings’ last year is an offer of a 2.45% pay increase.
When you take into account the fact that the rate of inflation in the UK currently stands at 4.3% then you can see it’s a pathetically inadequate offer. When you also take into account that food prices are up 9%, energy bills 15% and petrol (gasoline) up 22% then you can see it’s not merely inadequate but actually insulting. The insult becomes unbearable when you realise that these workers are some of the lowest paid people in the United Kingdom, many earning under £15,000 per year.
Which is why picket lines sprang up all over the UK. From Belfast to Norwich, Newcastle-on-Tyne to Portsmouth, Unison members were making their voices heard.
Despite the high profile nature of the protest, I still sensed a reluctance to take part amongst colleagues in the days leading up to the strike. Colleagues seemed fearful to take a visible stand, to raise their heads, even when they were in favour of the unions’ argument. Intimidating emails were distributed by the bosses, highlighting the loss of income and pension rights, breaches of contract and the effect on colleagues. Misleading at best, and downright mendacious at worst, they did the trick with some workers. On the day of the strike itself, one manager was heard to tell a colleague that he’d made ‘a good decision not to strike’, a remark delivered with the kind of knowing nod that indicates career prospects could be affected. A kind of ‘positive intimidation’, if you will.
Yet many still made the decision to strike and some to picket and protest, realising that principles are not measured in pounds and pence and enough is enough.
There was a picket line at my place of work for the first time ever. A point was made, especially on the second day in the pissing rain. The consciences of colleagues who crossed the line were visibly pricked and excuses were fumbled for. It’ll make a difference for the next time. Maybe they didn’t expect us to show.
The majority of our group were, tellingly, women. A majority of workers affected by the strike are female and their wages are still not comparable with those of male colleagues.
Talk on the line touched on a variety of topics. All were pleased that we’d made a stand, and the presence of others seemed to harden resolve, to temper individual protest with a powerful alloy of collective outrage and pride in our action. There was talk of Sheffield’s radical past, of the anti-Thatcher protests of the terrible 1980’s when the heart of Britain’s industrial communities was ripped out in a vindictive series of ideologically monetarist policies that seemed designed to punish entire areas of the country for voting in a way that out megalomaniac Prime Minister of the time didn’t like. Memories are long in what used to be termed ‘The Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’-this was the cradle of the 1984 Miners’ Strike.
Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ project, of course, desperately tried to finish off the privatisation of society that Thatcher’s Conservatives had begun, and there was also a feeling that this strike is a protest to a Labour government now under Gordon Brown that has taken its core support in the old industrial heartlands for granted for far too long. ‘New Labour’, with its cadre of middle-class liberals and privately educated petty capitalists, has managed to alienate the people for whom the original Labour Party was created. The recent debacle over disbanding the 10% tax rate for the lowest paid workers was only another step along this road. The pay offer to low paid council workers worsens things considerably. There was a feeling amongst colleagues yesterday that Brown is victimising the lowest paid members of society in order to fund tax cuts for the middle-class property owning voters that New Labour now clutches to its desperate bosom.
Of course, those middle-class voters, bored with the Labour Party, are now going back to the Conservatives, leaving Brown with no one to vote for him. If he is to recapture the votes he and his predecessor have lost amongst working-class voters then he, and his lackeys in local government management, must listen to the kind of protest that this strike has delivered and realise that low paid workers are not merely drones who will allow themselves to be silently manipulated into the unfair pay and restructuring policies of a government and party that seems to have forgotten who it was, for what it stood and by whom it was founded.
Of course, the Conservative Party are no help at all. Eric Pickles, Tory shadow secretary for communities and local government, commented “…the only people that will suffer from these strikes are hardworking families who are themselves struggling to make ends meet.” Strangely, he ignores the fact that we strikers are, in fact, the same ‘hardworking families’ to whom he refers. He also sidesteps the issue that his party colleagues control 80% of local authorities who are stopping those ‘hardworking families’ from making ends meet by not offering fair pay. It probably doesn’t matter too much to him, he knows that not many trade unionists would vote for his lot anyway.
After the picket, we joined colleagues from other sites across the city on Devonshire Green in the centre of Sheffield and marched along Division Street to City Hall.Here, a rally took place, under the stern gazes of the ordinary soldiers cast as statues on the War Memorial, reminding us of the freedoms for which they gave their lives and health. Not only the freedom to protest as we were doing, but also the freedoms that remain central to the lives of working-class people everywhere. Freedom from want and poverty, from anxiety and poor health, freedom to be well educated at no cost, the freedom of a safe childhood and a dignified old age and the freedom to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage.
Unison members work hard to make sure these freedoms are effectively provided. Without us, our communities would not be the places they are and have no chance of becoming the places they aspire to be, places that are not perfect but are improving thanks to the hard work of Unison members. Hard work for which we should be fairly rewarded. A two day strike is a fair way to make this point.
What would be a fair reward? Well, a 6% pay offer would be a good way to start.
(You can find out more about our struggle here: http://www.unison.org.uk/)