Join together, get active, win

Tim Roberts draws inspiration from our workers in Norwich and Bedfordshire in his blog this week

UNISON activists protest outside the Halls in Norwich

Earlier this week I was preparing to support UNISON members employed by Norwich City Services Ltd (NCSL) as they started six days of strike action.

Despite doing vital work in for the city council, such as cleaning streets, emptying public bins, keeping the city’s parks and digging graves, they were very poorly paid – barely more than the minimum wage.

They had been outsourced to a private company but in 2018 Norwich City Council announced its intention to terminate the contract and directly employ the workers.

This was welcome news but the council changed its mind and decided to create a separate arms-length company to employ the workers. Despite being owned entirely by Norwich City Council, NCSL would not be classed as part of the council and therefore workers would not be legally entitled to the same pay, pension, sick pay and annual leave as directly employed local government workers.

UNISON opposes privatisation of local government services. We know the public gets a better service when services are delivered directly by councils who invest all their money in the service rather than looking at ways to cut-corners and skim more more money off for their shareholders.

We also know that services are more responsive to the changing needs of the people that use them when they are under direct, democratic control of the council, rather than when they are run to the requirements of a contract written several years previously.

Even in the case of these wholly owned subsidiary companies, workers are not guaranteed fair pay or terms and conditions.

When Norwich City Council set up NCSL, our members were assured that that the aim was to harmonise their pay and terms and conditions with directly employed staff. Unfortunately, earlier this year the Council started to row back on this, saying it would be unaffordable.

We all believe that the Conservative government should significantly increase funding to local councils. However, it can’t be fair that the lowest-paid workers have to bear the burden of austerity until this happens.

UNISON members at NCSL – along with colleagues in our sister union Unite – decided to fight for a better deal. They voted 85% in favour of industrial action and were due to walk out on Wednesday.

A man speaks through a megaphone

Norfolk County branch secretary Jonathan Dunning addresses protesters

ACAS facilitated intensive talks between the unions and the employer. The strength and fortitude of our members and their negotiators was such that the outcome resulted in some significant improvements – on pay, sick pay, annual leave and pension provision. It’s clear that NCSL only offered this because its unionised workforce stood together, demanded to be treated better and were clear they would strike if they weren’t listened to.

This is not the only success UNISON Eastern members are enjoying. We’re just finalising the details of a great victory for outsourced NHS facilities workers in Bedfordshire.

These workers were on the frontline of the pandemic – many of them actually contracted Covid – but were paid far less than colleagues directly employed by the NHS.

They decided to fight for better treatment. A number of them became UNISON stewards. They recruited colleagues into the union and started putting pressure on the NHS trust.

It’s great to see different groups of workers in our region getting active in their union and successfully fighting for fairer workplaces. I’m sure there will be many more examples in the months ahead.