SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 225 February 2019

Story of a strike victory

A year ago, 20 low-paid workers in the northeast of England took on a huge multinational and won. Key was their determination, their democratic and decisive strike meetings, and local, national and international workers’ solidarity. MICK WHALE tells the story of this significant strike.

The victory of the Unison strikers at the FCC waste recycling plant at Wilmington, Hull, is one of the most significant of recent years for many reasons. Unlike many recent industrial battles, this was an offensive strike to improve terms and conditions rather than to defend existing ones. It was coordinated across the industrial and political planes at local, national and international levels, and it is important to record what happened for two main reasons. First, to celebrate a victory and, second, to give hope to workers everywhere that they can also win, even when the odds are stacked against them.

The strike proper started on the freezing morning of 1 March 2018, the coldest day on record. In many ways, however, the prelude came years earlier when Russ Bowering, Unison shop steward at the Wilmington plant, had been victimised on trumped up health and safety breaches. It was clear that FCC was an anti-union company and would do all in its power to stop the union gaining ground.

Russ was sacked and the union waged a high-profile campaign to reinstate him, supported by all of his colleagues. The workers’ willingness to take action in support of Russ is testament to their solidarity and support for the union, which Russ had built up over the years. He was reinstated and this laid the foundations for the recent dispute.

In late 2017, the union began to respond to the members’ request for a sick-pay scheme. Previously, Hull city council carried out waste recycling using its own employees but, under Tory privatisation laws, the workers had been transferred to numerous private companies. Then, FCC Environment, a subsidiary of Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas, based in Barcelona, got the contract. Some employees kept the original local government terms and conditions, under Transfer of Understanding (Protection of Employment) regulations. Those joining after TUPE rules no longer applied had no automatic right to a sick-pay scheme.

Unison attempted to negotiate but was met with a stonewall refusal to discuss the issue. FCC, with a turnover of nearly £500 million in 2017, had posted record profits of more than £40 million in the first quarter of 2018. Most of FCC’s white-collar workers benefited from a sick-pay scheme from day one of employment. The recycling workers were incensed at the inequality of this situation.

One of the main drivers for the workers’ action was seeing one of their workmates struck down with cancer. He was forced to return to work while undergoing chemotherapy. With no sick pay, his home was at risk. During his time off, the workers had a regular whip round to try and support him. The mounting anger, however, led to a demand for a ballot for industrial action. This was conducted in accordance with the anti-trade union legislation but returned an overwhelming majority in favour of a strike. There was an agreement to go out for a week, initially, but to escalate if necessary.

The first strike day was on the coldest of mornings but the solidarity from the strikers and supporters from the trades council (the TUC on a local level), coupled with a brazier, kept the cold out and morale high. It is important to recognise the positive role of regional Unison full-time officials and local Unison branch officers, including on the picket line.

The district trades council mobilised from the start and, together with the shop stewards and Unison full-timers, began to organise wider support. This included solidarity messages and finance. At a trades council meeting prior to the strike, Tony Graham, GMB shop steward for the Hull city council bin workers, made it clear that no GMB member would cross the picket line. At mass meetings he explained the cause of the strike and galvanised the solidarity of every bin worker in the Hull depot not to cross the picket line.

Colin Crisp, GMB secretary in the neighbouring East Riding local authority, repeated this principled stance. During the course of the strike, around 2,500 bin wagons had to be emptied at disposal centres many miles away. This created a massive backlog and a nightmare for both Hull and East Riding councils. On one bank holiday, a bin wagon did turn up at the picket line, to the anger and dismay of the picketers – until driver and crew donated their overtime pay to the strike fund! Solidarity from GMB and Unite union members was a key part of the victory.

City of culture, city of struggle

In 2017, Hull had been designated the UK’s ‘city of culture’. In 2018, it became a city of struggle. Hull College announced 400 redundancies with a 60% cut to art and culture spending. The University and College Union at Hull University organised a lively picket line in defence of their members’ pensions, and the Rail Maritime and Transport union continued its battle for safety to keep guards on trains.

Hull trades council supported all of these disputes and, when FCC workers came out, organised a march and rally to coordinate the strikes. Emma Hardy, newly-elected Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle, spoke in support, as did local trade union leaders. Linking the different disputes demonstrated that, although workers faced different challenges in different jobs, there was a common enemy: the bosses and their capitalist system. The disputes kept in touch with each other and this helped to prevent any sense of isolation.

The first week’s strike was completely solid but FCC did not budge. The strikers met to discuss the next step – an important feature was their regular meetings. Not all were convinced that the dispute could be won. Some were understandably worried about the money they were losing, and whether it would be possible to raise money to support them – many were struggling on minimum wage rates.

However, after an open discussion in which those with doubts were encouraged to speak, a unanimous vote agreed to escalate the strike to two weeks’ action. Russ Bowering, who was in receipt of sick pay through TUPE and had nothing personally to gain from the dispute, was important in convincing some of those with doubts to carry on.

The two-week strike from 29 March was solid again. Messages of support and financial donations started to come in. The NEU/NUT teachers’ union, largely through the work of Damian Walenta, secretary of East Riding NUT, organised a collection of £700 at its national conference. The NEU from Hull and the East Riding also made two large donations, as did other union branches, including Unite. The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) was instrumental in making the dispute known nationally to a key layer of union activists. Another development was the support from workers in other smaller FCC sites in the local area, who joined them on the picket line.

The trades council organised a music festival and rally on the picket line on the middle Saturday of the strike, 7 April. Local trade union activist band, the Hillbilly Troupe, led by Lloyd Dobbs and Hull legend Mick McGarry, played a morale-lifting and moving set of union songs. They were followed by Joe Solo, arguably the most important protest singer in the UK, who combines the folk traditions of Woody Guthrie with the punk anger of Joe Strummer. Inspired by the strike, Joe wrote a song about it, raising hundreds of pounds through downloads.

Not only did Emma Hardy regularly attend the picket line and keep in touch – unfortunately, unusual steps for a Hull Labour MP – she spoke on behalf of the strikers in parliament. Hardy organised a meeting of Labour MPs in whose constituencies FCC has contracts. They agreed to put pressure on local authorities to end these contracts. This news hit FCC’s share prices. It also sent a clear message to management that it was not just dealing with some local dispute somewhere in the north of England.

A class struggle

Not all of the FCC strikers were Labour supporters. One admitted that he voted Tory. A combination of merciless banter, together with his experience on the picket line, has changed him into a socialist. Two of the strikers had been on the initial ‘Football Lads’ demonstration, the initiative of far-right Islamophobic groups. But when Aneesa Akbar, a local Corbyn-supporting activist, attended the picket line, they soon saw through the lies of the far-right. One of them even canvassed for Aneesa, the first Asian councillor elected in Hull, demonstrating the shallow hold that the far-right currently has on workers and – if the labour and trade union movement offers a clear alternative and supports workers in struggle – how it can be marginalised.

Daily political discussions took place on the picket line. Workers began to see their strike as part of a bigger class struggle against the powerful and wealthy. The Hull branch of the Socialist Party produced a local bulletin which, together with The Socialist newspaper, was eagerly read by the pickets. As well as financial and moral support, Socialist Party members engaged in discussions ranging from sport to the tactics of the strike itself.

The daily grind of work suppresses workers’ natural talents. The picket line partly released some of these, with pickets writing a song about their experiences, something none of them would have considered ordinarily. Although there were tough times, another important feature was the growing respect, solidarity and even love the strikers had for each other. Petty arguments and disagreements from the past were forgotten as unity was forged.

As FCC is a multinational company, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) organised solidarity for the strike in the Spanish state. Members of the Sindicato de Estudiantes, together with trade unionists and Izquierda Revolucionara, organised protests outside FCC offices in Barcelona and Madrid, and publicised the dispute throughout the union movement. The messages of support were a huge morale booster, greeted with cheers by the pickets. A small local dispute now had an international dimension.

Had the dispute continued, plans were in place to organise protests in every country where FCC has contracts, an intercontinental day of protest. International solidarity is important. Just as the bosses organise internationally through pacts like the European Union, so should the workers. A coordinated trade union movement across countries and continents could stop the race to the bottom, the exploitation of foreign workers from low-wage economies, and form the basis of an international fight-back to change society. Janet and Keith Gibson, Socialist Party activists, passed on the thanks of the strikers to the CWI at its meeting in Barcelona last summer.

Difficult decisions

On returning to work in mid-April, the strikers found that two of them had been suspended for so-called health and safety breaches. The similarity with what happened to Russ Bowering years earlier was not lost on them. If anything, however, this victimisation made their resolve stronger. Many felt that the suspensions were also aimed at allowing the company to bring in replacements to try and keep the site running.

Optimism that a victory might be in sight began to grow when Hull city council officers organised a meeting with local FCC representatives and union reps. Although nothing concrete came out of it, it was the first sign that the strike was having an impact on the company.

In line with the agreed strategy, a further two-week strike started on 1 May. More solidarity and support came in. One of the most inspiring moments was when construction workers in dispute over health and safety on a nearby site held a rally addressed by Unison full-time organiser, Joe Gibbins, and Tony Smith, a prominent FCC strike leader. Having heard the speeches, the construction workers marched to join the Wilmington strikers a few hundred yards away.

Keith Gibson was one of the leaders of the construction workers. He had already organised cash collections for the FCC strikers on the building site and, together with Janet Gibson, frequently joined the picket line. The solidarity forged between the two groups of workers was to go beyond the May Day rally.

The end of the two-week strike was difficult. While the resolve was strong, some of the strikers understandably began to doubt that a victory could be achieved. It was agreed to reconvene to discuss the way forward. FCC still refused to negotiate directly with Unison but had called in the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service to mediate.

To the surprise of the union negotiating team, the FCC side put a sick-pay scheme on the table, although it fell short of the strikers’ demands. While managers can start sick pay after three days off, the manual workers’ scheme only kicked in after seven. Some of the workers were also concerned with the discretionary element in the FCC scheme. Nonetheless, a passionate meeting of the strikers agreed to suspend the industrial action and monitor the way sick pay was implemented.

Lessons from victory

Once again a democratic meeting of the strikers had considered the arguments for and against suspending the action. A decisive point was looking at the big picture. At the start of the dispute, the workforce had no sick-pay scheme. Five weeks of action had forced the company to concede one. Not only would the Wilmington strikers get it, more than 2,000 other FCC employees in Britain would as well. With the option to strike again if FCC did not honour the deal, the meeting agreed to return to work. The feeling of solidarity and victory was clear. The decision to return to work was completely vindicated in the autumn when FCC was forced to incorporate sick pay into all of its employee’s contracts.

This dispute is full of lessons. First, it shows that with the correct strategy and tactics, and a bold leadership, groups of workers can win. The FCC dispute had the Unison full-time officers and local branch fully behind it. The trades council ensured that wider support was organised from the local labour movement. People from Hull got to know about the dispute and regularly turned up on the picket line with donations, solidarity and sausage rolls.

Hull Unison branch ensured that branches around the country sent donations and messages of support. The National Shop Stewards Network helped take the dispute into the wider union movement. Donations from other labour movement bodies ensured that every striker got their basic pay while on strike. FCC, a gigantic multi-national company, was given no respite thanks to the CWI. At every level the small band of Wilmington strikers found that other workers supported them. Workers’ solidarity is not just a phrase for May Day. When it is applied properly it shows that nothing can stop the organised working class.

The TUC leadership is so defeatist that it believes that the best hope for workers’ rights is the EU not trade unions. The Wilmington strikers achieved more in five weeks of struggle than 45 years membership of the EU, which has done nothing about sick pay for the FCC workers. Finally, the strike would not have happened without the determination and solidarity of the strikers themselves. In taking their action and winning, the FCC strikers have inspired and will continue to inspire workers everywhere.

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