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Bromley library workers protesting outside GLL tennis centre in Islington, supported by the NSSN and members of the Socialist Party, 21st August 2019, photo Isai Priya
Library workers in Bromley, south London have won a huge victory after eight months of continuous, indefinite strike action which began on 6 June 2019.
The settlement includes new posts, no compulsory redundancies and backdated pay awards for those who had been underpaid. The final strike meeting on 30 January agreed that a return to work would take place on 3 February.
The strike originally began in protest at the failure of Greenwich Leisure Limited to fill vacant posts. This was leading to huge strains on the service. Unite the Union also knew that a restructure was coming - this was why the posts were not being filled.
Rather than wait for the restructure to be imposed, the union took the bold step of calling for an indefinite strike before the employer formally made its proposals. This gave the union a huge advantage.
A restructure in the workplace, including where job cuts are imposed, can be a very quick process. The unions have legal time limits attached to industrial action ballots. By the time strike action can begin, an employer will often 'persuade' workers to take voluntary redundancy - with one arm held behind their back.
Bosses have no problem telling workers that unless they take a voluntary redundancy settlement with a small enhancement, then they will face compulsory redundancy with a smaller severance package.
Unsurprisingly, workers often feel they have no choice but to take the offer. Time after time this will either scupper a campaign or be used as an excuse by some union leaders not to take action.
For these reasons, the early strike notice in this campaign meant that the employers did not have this option. Instead of being isolated and vulnerable to threats, workers were out on strike and anything that the employer had to say needed to go via the union.
Just as the union predicted, half way through the strike the employers proposed a new structure slashing over 30 jobs. The strike and the campaign that had been built in support of the workers allowed the union to negotiate from a position of strength.
In addition to the strike action, the union campaigned to hit Greenwich Leisure where it hurt - its brand image. This had a huge impact. Press reports over the last few weeks have stated that membership in the company's leisure centres has dropped drastically.
Even before the current strike, Unite had warned at the time that the contract was given to Greenwich Leisure in 2017 that the company was in financial trouble, unable to compete against budget gyms. The Tories in control of Bromley council chose to ignore the warnings from the union.
This campaign reiterates the position of Unite - that so-called social enterprise organisations are not a soft option when it comes to privatisation. When it comes to the treatment of workers there is no difference. This is why the campaign exposing the brand was so effective - zero-hour contracts, staff cuts, poor health and safety standards and highly paid senior managers carrying out the cuts for the Tories.
There are huge lessons to be learnt and several related subjects which will require articles of their own. For now, we should rightly celebrate this excellent victory and pay tribute to strike leader Kathy Smith and the magnificent Bromley Library strikers.
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Article dated 5 February 2020
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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