On Thursday 23 January, around 1000 council and hospital workers converged in Southampton in protest of the City Council’s plans to significantly lower their standard of living through reductions in pay and conditions.
Hundreds of council workers represented by the UNITE union marched loudly and visibly from the lower end of the High Street to a meeting on Above Bar Street at around 12.30pm. Shortly after, hundreds of workers represented by the UNISON union greeted them from the opposite direction. After a short rally, the workers entered Above Bar Church for a joint UNITE-UNISON meeting.
The meeting was called to consider action in response to Southampton City Council’s proposals on 11 January 2011 to cut pay and conditions for the majority of council staff, including the lowest paid workers. In addition to a 1% wage cut across all pay bands, the proposals include the introduction of an “additional 5 days unpaid leave” (equating to an annual salary cut of 2.3%).
Most significantly, a proposed pay freeze for two years would (at current inflation levels) mean a sizeable real-term reduction of income. In short, accepting the council’s proposals would mean a reduction in the standard of living by “at least 10% in most cases” after 2 years.
Workers are angry that they are expected to significantly lower their living standards to pay for an economic crisis for which they are not responsible. Meanwhile, government-owned banks continue to pay bonuses of millions of pounds to already wealthy individuals in the financial sector, which significantly contributed to the economic crisis through reckless speculation and credit lending and led the then-Labour government to spend billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money to buy the banks’ private debts.
Mark Wood, UNITE Convenor for Southampton City Council, told the Wessex Scene that “Our members didn’t cause the deficit, therefore they shouldn’t have to pay the price for it.” According to Wood, the 600 members voted unanimously on a resolution to ballot for strike action if the Council attempted to sack en masse the workers who would not accept the dramatic pay cut.
Following the meeting, the protesters marched north to the Civic Centre (the Southampton City Council building) where a further rally was held outside. Another meeting of 200 UNITE members met in the evening at Eastpoint and also voted unanimously against accepting the Council’s proposals, according to the Union.
Meanwhile, Hampshire County Council announced this week a plan to axe 1,200 jobs by March in the latest round of cuts. On Friday 21 January, the Daily Echo reported that the Council has plans to “dismiss 5,000 lower-paid workers and re-employ them” on worse terms. It reported that “care assistants would lose on average six per cent of their £13,605 wage slip”.
The opposition to spending cuts locally is reflective of a wider movement. Dozens of anti-cuts organisations have emerged in various cities and regions to argue for an alternative to the cuts agenda of the Government.
The Tory-Liberal coalition has argued that immediate and severe reduction in public spending is necessary to address the government’s budget deficit. Critics of this policy point out that, in historical terms, the current deficit is smaller than previous deficits and that public spending cuts will further devastate the fragile economy, leading to social upheavals.
The consequences of this unprecedented economic gamble – the hundreds of thousands of redundancies and wage cuts, the closure of countless community and charity organisations, and severe reductions in education, healthcare and public service provisions – will surely be devastating for many millions of poor, working and lower-middle class people.
A national demonstration in London against public service cuts, called by the Trades Union Congress (the umbrella organisation of the trade union movement), is planned for Saturday 26 March.