Dozens of Camden UNISON members on the NSL parking enforcement contract rounded off their third consecutive day of strike action with a march along the pavement between Holborn tube and Euston mainline stations on Saturday afternoon (11 August). Fifty strikers and supporters, chanting ‘Low Pay, No Way’ and ‘NSL: No Slave Labour’, carried placards and UNISON flags along the route that ran parallel to the Olympic lane that has operated from the Kingsway through Upper Woburn Place during the course of the Games.
Most of the marchers had already carried out picket duty outside their respective bases during the course of the morning. All told they also distributed more than 2,000 leaflets to motorists and pedestrians explaining the background to what has become an increasingly bitter dispute with the borough’s parking contractor. The second round of strike action came after the company responded to a strongly supported walkout on 11 and 12 July with what was effectively a worse pay offer. Prior to the first strike NSL management had tabled a proposed three-year deal involving rises on the basic hourly rate of 4%, 3% and 3%. To many of us in local government such an offer might well appear attractive midst the third year of an absolute pay freeze, but then 10% of £8.09 is only 81 pence. After that strike a further negotiating meeting took place on 25 July. There UNISON stewards moderated their original demands, which would have simply resulted in parity with their co-workers on the Waltham Forest contract, also operated by NSL.
Five days later the company came back with a proposal of a 2.6% rise this year, as opposed to the previous 4% and a pledge for future pay increases to rise in step with the London Living Wage, pegged since May of last year at £8.30 an hour. The response of the workforce to the offer, which the branch made sure was swiftly circulated to members, was a unanimous ‘NO’ with 121 members voting in a paper ballot over the space of less than 48 hours between 30 July and 1 August.
NSL has repeatedly claimed that it cannot afford to make an improved offer due to severe financial constraints and yet the same company continues to pursue and win contracts where the hourly rate is substantially higher than in Camden. The most recent example is Barnet, where a previously in-house service transferred to NSL on 01 May this year. The typical hourly rate for the dozens who transferred under the TUPE regulations is £12, while several other NSL deals feature higher rates than Camden despite the size and duration of the local contract.
With five days of strike action in the space of just under a month, the NSL workers have already mounted the boldest and most determined fight seen from any section of the branch’s membership in the past 15 or more years. The level of participation in strike-related activities has been exceptionally high by any British union’s recent standards, with more than a quarter of the 160 (+) members joining Saturday’s march and half of members taking part in picketing on one or more of the three days. The dispute is also assuming wider national significance with the left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell addressing Thursday afternoon’s lunch-time rally alongside UNISON NEC member Jon Rogers. Messages of support have poured in from other UNISON branches, not only across Greater London but from as far afield as Falkirk in Scotland, Bolton (Greater Manchester) and the south coast cities of Portsmouth and Southampton.
At a mass meeting on Friday afternoon at the Clarence Way Tenants’ Hall, members voted unanimously in favour of staging a further four-day strike at the earliest opportunity, while also supporting other forms of industrial action, short of an all-out strike. There can be no doubt that these workers really have had enough of a tight-fisted employer and an often highly aggressive local management style. They have shown themselves willing to make real material sacrifices to pursue a higher objective and they really do warrant the support of every committed trade unionist in UNISON and the labour movement more generally.
As you may already know Camden’s Labour controlled council has moved in the past month to adopt the London Living Wage as the benchmark for most future outsourced contracts, but the adult social care sector is exempt from this position and the policy will not be applied to existing contracts such as the one awarded to NSL in 2009 for a six-year period. In short, whatever the current paper policy of the Council’s Labour group nothing will improve for most if any of the workers generating profits for private contractors for at least another three years, unless the Council decides to intervene to resolve a dispute, which is undoubtedly costing our apparently cash-strapped authority tens of thousands a day in revenue. During the first two days of strike action, the Council’s contract compliance officers were instructed to monitor picket lines, armed with cameras and notepads. While it appears that a subsequent order resulted in the destruction of the photos that were shot and the second round of strikes did not witness a repetition of this exercise, what transpired must raise serious doubts about the Council’s claim to be a neutral bystander in the dispute.
Over the coming days and weeks the branch leadership urges members to donate generously to workplace collections to alleviate hardship among our fellow branch members on the NSL contract and also for those who live in the borough to write to the Leader of the Council, Cllr Sarah Hayward, c/o Room 125, Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, London WC1H 9JE (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) putting the NSL workers’ case and calling for action to ensure that NSL workers receive a substantial pay increase that compensates for years of erosion in their real pay in one of Europe’s most expensive cities.