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10 November 2014

Search site for keywords: Greenwich - Unite - Library - Strike - Pay - Libraries - Privatisation

Greenwich library workers, October 2014

Greenwich library workers, October 2014   (Click to enlarge)

Greenwich library: How Unite beat the employers

By a Greenwich library worker

Unite members working in libraries in Greenwich have won a stunning victory. The campaign has secured an agreement from the employer to fill vacant posts with permanent staff, to reduce casual, zero hour contracts and to abide by national collective bargaining. This victory was won because the workers were prepared to do what it takes to win, by taking strike action.

Greenwich libraries transferred to Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) in April 2012 after a long fight against privatisation. Unite members took three days of strike action after a fantastic campaign with huge public support. The community made clear that they opposed the transfer 100%. A public consultation exercise conducted by the council returned a clear mandate for the union campaign - everybody who responded opposed the transfer.

However, in a staggering display of arrogance, the council ignored its own consultation exercise and pressed ahead with the reorganisation. The strike action did not stop the transfer, and GLL, a so called social enterprise, threatened legal action against the union's strike campaign. Unite members then made the decision to secure the best possible protection for pay and conditions. While the strike did not stop the transfer, the strike did secure a TUPE-plus agreement. This secured protection beyond that provided by the law.
But a lesson was also learned: to make strike action more effective the next time around.

Working for GLL

The first year under GLL saw changes in the structure - more management posts, more zero hour contracts and with no recruitment to permanent frontline posts. By the end of 2013 Unite was constantly raising staffing issues with management. People were working regular extra hours, casuals were increasingly not just used for emergencies or plugging gaps.

The service from the outside looked good. Some libraries had new furniture, bright shiny posters with the new corporate slogan "Better" and more events; but without the staff. In the meantime staff morale soon dropped to an all-time low.

Staff were having difficulty taking leave, having to swap days with colleagues if they wanted leave, because of low staffing levels - yet management denied a problem existed.

Early in 2014 the union discovered an internal email stating that GLL would not abide by pay agreements for TUPE staff (those that transferred from the council). This followed the Parkwood legal case, whereby via this particularly shabby piece of legislation, employers are denying pay rises to staff who have transferred to a new employer in the event that the old employer gives a pay rise to remaining employees.

So for example, if you transfer out of local government when your service is privatised, the TUPE protection does not extend to giving you a pay rise if local government workers win a pay rise. Instead, if you want any chance of a pay rise, you end up forced to give up your TUPE protection in order to transfer to a contract with your new employer where other conditions (weekend working, enhancements, leave, sick pay) are likely to be worse.

Employers don't have to adopt Parkwood - but many are. This was the final straw for Unite members. Unite put in a pay claim to mirror the local government claim which was ignored. Library workers joined local government workers on strike on 10th July. This was followed by a mass meeting of Unite members where demands were decided and a decision made to strike if the employer did not agree to our pay and staffing demands. The employer's response was to deny that any vacancies existed and further it would not commit to national pay bargaining.

Strike ballot

Unite members were balloted and on a good turnout returned a near unanimous vote for strike action and action short of a strike. The first day of strike action was on 14th July with a work to rule beginning on 15th July. Out of 12 libraries, the employer was only able to open two and these were staffed by managers and non-library scabs. Public support was fantastic, especially on the zero hour contract issue.

A further meeting with the employer took place where they again denied vacancies existed and in fact announced frontline staffing cuts.
The campaign then announced two further strike days in response - 29th and 30th October. At this point, GLL finally admitted that staffing vacancies existed, but that they preferred to staff these with zero hour contract staff. The strength of the campaign led to GLL realising that it would only be able to open one library - so solid was the strike, as was the support of the Unite branch.
GLL then asked for a further meeting and made an offer:

The strike went ahead on the 29th, but with a mass meeting on the picket line so that the offer could be voted on. The offer achieved 99% of the demands and as a result members voted to accept and to return to work the day after.

This was a very brave campaign by this group of staff, many of whom had faced bullying and intimidation. But the campaign and the victory displayed the power of strong union organisation.

The action by the union has created permanent jobs for staff currently on zero hour contracts. The strike was solid and achieved a fantastic victory. This was the first strike aimed specifically at GLL - a strong shop stewards committee, supported by a branch led by Socialist Party members has shown how zero hour contracts can be resisted, jobs can be fought for and the employers can be forced to retreat.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 10 November 2014 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.

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Article dated 10 November 2014

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