At first glance, 2021 might not seem like a year with much to celebrate for workers.
It began with a renewed global pandemic threatening jobs and pay in just about every sector of the British economy. And not only that, but with the government refusing to implement policies like liveable sick pay, workers ended up bearing a huge cost for public health measures.
As the year progressed, a cost of living crisis began to squeeze wages further. There were pay rises in some areas, but even these were often swallowed by sizeable increases in basic costs such as energy, food and rent. It could have been the case that 2o21 went down as a bad year for workers.
But amidst the challenging context, the year has seen many stories of growing industrial militancy—and a string of victories that have pushed back against the bosses’ offensive across the country. Here, we remember ten of the most prominent.
Brighton’s Bin Strike Wins a Raise for Low-Paid Council Workers Across the City
In the autumn, HGV drivers working at ‘Cityclean’, the refuse and recycling department of Brighton and Hove City Council, voted to strike in relation to an unresolved dispute over management changes to routes. The resulting 14-day strike led to pileups of uncollected rubbish across the city, with residents posting images on social media of overflowing bins and blocked pavements. The dispute was finally resolved on 20 October when the GMB approved a new agreement with the Green-led council that addressed the concerns over management of routes, as well as related pay issues.
The importance of this particular service, and the visible impact of it not being performed for 14 days, gave the GMB maximum leverage in the dispute. The Green council knew they couldn’t continue to have communal bins overflowing, and streets covered in rubbish. The resulting deal addressed historic issues of low pay, not just for the HGV drivers, but for all workers on the lowest pay grades—those not even subject to the dispute or members of the GMB.
This episode shows the collective power of workers who join trade unions, and that their power can be used to force pay rises for workers across other sectors. For those looking at the success of the 54 HGV drivers that went on strike, the lesson is simple—join a trade union!
Rolls Royce Workers Save the Future of Barnoldswick
As 2021 draws to a close, the long-running dispute at the birthplace of the jet engine appears to be finally over after workers secured a new deal resulting in a five-year no compulsory redundancy agreement being reached.
Back in November 2020, workers at Rolls Royce up in Barnoldswick, Lancashire were left with no choice other than that of industrial action after the company reneged on previous promises and announced it was shipping the majority of the work to Singapore and Spain.
After nine weeks of action, an agreement was reached with Unite, which was supposed to bring in new green technology and see a new training school built, with new work coming to site—but back in April it became clear to workers that Rolls Royce were failing to keep their promises again.
After failing to secure assurances from the company, further ballots were held, and with just seventeen people taking more action the plant was brought to its knees after just three weeks, forcing Rolls Royce back to the negotiating table.
A Unite source said: ‘This worker-led victory is a clear message to employers across the country: Unite will not sit back and let you take our jobs. The dispute at Barnoldswick is a demonstration of the effectiveness of targeted industrial action. The revised agreement brings to an end the dispute, secures the future for the site and will see new work now come to the site. We are proud that our members had the courage to make a stance and their bravery has given them, their families and their communities the result they deserve.’
Salford’s Care Workers Win a Historic Pay Rise
Earlier in December, Anchor Hanover—England’s largest provider of specialist residential and elderly care—announced a £19 million package to uplift its lowest paid care workers to the Real Living Wage of £9.90 an hour.
This will mean a pay increase for 70 carers in Salford, and 4,888 carers nationally—around 50 percent of Anchor’s workforce—in a sector where industrial organising has traditionally faced huge challenges.
This was following a campaign from Salford Unison and Salford City Council, who are pioneering a strategy of joint campaigning to increase workers’ rights, bargaining power, and union recognition across the city.
Deep organising within social care is notoriously difficult. Over a third of this largely female, disproportionately BAME workforce are on zero-hours contracts. In the case of homecare workers, this rises to one in two. Precarity of employment is used ruthlessly by private sector care providers to suppress collective organisation among workers, and continually drive down pay and standards.
Much of the casualisation and precarity in the sector has been caused by privatisation, breeding an environment of fear among workers facing hostile employment practices and expectations to work well beyond paid hours—often in physically unsafe conditions.
The context of privatisation has been real-terms budgetary pressures year on year, particularly since the link between funding and need in social care was scuppered by the Tory torpedoing of Gordon Brown’s proposed Inheritance Tax in the 2010 General Election.
Ever since, the Conservatives have promised regularly to provide a solution to the funding crisis in social care—but have still provided no clarity on what the offer is to be.
Achieving a victory of this scale in the private care sector is a huge victory for workers—and we believe provides a template for a new wave of industrial organising fit for the twenty-first century.
– Steven North, Branch Secretary of Salford City Unison and a member of Unison’s National Executive Committee, and Paul Dennett, Elected Salford City Mayor, the Greater Manchester portfolio lead on Planning and Infrastructure, Housing and Homelessness, and the Deputy Mayor of Greater Manchester, writing for Tribune in December
ScotRail Staff Win for Key Workers
Throughout 2021, RMT union in Scotland battled with employer Abellio ScotRail and won. Rail workers were referenced throughout the pandemic as key and essential, but when it came to recognition, the employer refused to recognise the loyalty shown by workers turning up for work every day during the pandemic, and taking the risk both to themselves and their families.
To compound this further, ScotRail decided to terminate a rest day working agreement. This was not only unfair—it meant key workers were being treated differently within the same workplace.
This followed nine months of no trains running on a Sunday. The contempt ScotRail and Transport Scotland (TS) showed was staggering.
But after almost eighteen months of stonewalling by ScotRail and TS, we targeted COP26. 30,000 delegates having to get taxis and buses during COP would have been met with worldwide embarrassment.
We therefore won a deal for the majority of ScotRail. We will be back round the table in four months’ time for 2022, and we will be demanding RPI for our members.
Our dispute proves what can be achieved if you are prepared to fight and win—but you need to be organised and prepared. This was what RMT embarked upon, and we successfully delivered for 3000 members in Scotland.
– Michael Hogg, RMT Regional Organiser for Scotland
Sage Care Home Strikers Beat Poverty Pay
I’ve been working at Sage, a Jewish elder care home in North London, for three years. During Covid, there weren’t enough staff for us to feel safe. We started to talk about our conditions—the conditions of how we were working, and how we were treated. With Covid, we felt like we were putting our lives at risk, and our wages were very low. We also didn’t have anything other than statutory sick pay—£96 a week, which you can’t live on. So in the first summer following Covid, we joined our union, United Voices of the World, and we started organising.
One year ago, in the winter of 2020, we had the first strike. Management didn’t listen to us at all. Then we had another strike in early 2021, and again, they didn’t listen to us. Management approached it by saying, ‘We’re family. We’re doing the best we can.’
But by then the pressure was growing, and after we struck, we won the London living wage of £10.85 [the London living wage has since risen to £11.05], and an improvement in our sick pay. It was a win, and people were happy, but the London living wage is what we should have had all this time. There’s still more to change—and now we have to continue fighting.
– Julia Gonzalez, a carer at Sage care home
Go North West Drivers Beat Fire and Rehire
Last year, Go North West announced Reset 2020, a plan to stem its alleged annual losses of £1.8 million at Queens Road Depot in north Manchester. As part of the plan, Go North West intended to tear up the existing work contracts of the company’s 485 drivers and re-employ them on worse terms. The proposed changes included rolling out ‘flexible working’, with a whole host of new rostering and holiday agreements introduced, and extending drivers’ working hours for no additional pay—terms which bus drivers simply could not accept.
Go North West attempted to sugarcoat the proposed terms by offering drivers a one-off payment of £5,000 in return for accepting terms. Unite exposed this odious sleight of hand by pointing out the changes would have resulted in a reduction to the overall wages of their members by an estimated £2,000 a year, meaning that within three years its members would have been worse off.
The drivers were set deadlines, sometimes of just a few days, to accept their new contracts or find a new job. In response to this act of industrial blackmail, 82% of the 485 drivers voted to go on strike in February. Lasting 85 days, the strike was one of the longest in the history of Unite and the longest in recent history for the entire passenger transport sector.
After considerable pressure, negotiations began again in April and last weekend Unite and Go North West reached a deal. The deal is a win for the drivers, not least because it contains a promise from both Go North West and Go Ahead Group (Go North West’s parent company) that they will not use fire and rehire in future—a historic victory in the context of its widespread imposition elsewhere. Drivers will also maintain control of rosters, and, crucially, they have secured pay rises, underlining the point that collective bargaining power is the most important determinant of pay.
Bexley Bin Workers Win Pay Parity
In Bexley, we worked for a company called Serco, and there were about eight or nine different pay structures there, so a lot of the strike was about pay parity. If you’re working with someone you know is on £8 an hour and you’re on £10 an hour, it’s not a good feeling.
When we went out to strike, there were about 70 of us. There were a lot of people who were scared to come out—scared for their jobs. The agency workers felt worried that if they went on strike with us they wouldn’t have any more work.
The strike got into its second week, and Serco still weren’t really talking. We finally got some meetings together, and put our argument across, but we just kept getting shut down. The meetings were anything from five to eight hours some days. And we had a protest outside the civic offices in Bexleyheath. We went leafleting round the neighbourhood and the town centre, too, to get the residents involved, and explain to them why we had to be on strike—which obviously we never wanted to be. Most of them were pretty understanding.
In the fourth week, Serco lost the contract, and we started to have meetings with the new contractors CountryStyle. After a few we managed to draft up a good agreement before they came in and took over. So everyone’s now on the same rate of pay, with the same terms and conditions. That was our biggest victory.
In total, it was seven weeks of strike action. It was a long time, but a lot of the guys were in very high spirits. And it was successful.
– Bexley bin worker
Royal Mail Workers Stand Strong for a Colleague
In October, workers at the Royal Mail office in Llanelli went on strike in solidarity with a colleague who was sacked. After CWU member Gary Evans was suspended from work, outrage emanated across the shop floor: his sacking was on grounds that, although they can’t be revealed due to ongoing proceedings at the time, were found to be disgraceful by practically the whole workforce.
Outrage from across the shop floor turned into action, and the local CWU branch—which Evans was a member of, and is a particularly good example of a tight, organised union branch—voted 98.6 percent for strike action. The workers held a one-day strike in Evan’s defence.
The picket, which was strongly attended, also received a video call from the union’s General Secretary, Dave Ward, who let Evans and the strikers know that the full weight of the national union was behind them. In the end, only the managers crossed the picket line, and resolve remained strong; after a second strike was set to take place in the following week, Evans was reinstated to work.
HGV Drivers Win Historic Pay Rises
I’m the lead Unite rep on the Wincanton contract for Morrisons, representing around 200 drivers at Northwich and around 600 around Northwich, Wakefield and Stockton. We had a record pay award for three sites, including twenty-four percent for the Stockton drivers, who have traditionally been treated like second-class citizens by Morrisons and Wincanton. Through the strength of unity across the three sites, we achieved parity pay for them.
There is no doubt that our drivers are very pleased that this is recognition for the hard work they do. Without all these drivers delivering into the supermarkets, nobody’s food would get there, and they certainly did feel completely undervalued by the employer. The fact that they are key workers and have been relied upon throughout the pandemic was never recognised by the employer in that sense, and this pay award goes some way to make them feel a whole lot better about the contribution they make.
The fact that we had to take a strike ballot with a 98% return demonstrated to the employer that we meant business, and that as a tri-site agreement, we were going to make sure that our drivers were recognised in the proper way.
This goes some way toward doing that. It really means a lot for the drivers I represent, and I think that it is the right thing at the right time where we have a shortage of drivers and an employer trying to keep the wage rates down as far as they can, in a race to the bottom. It was clear that the supermarket chains across the whole sector were trying to keep wages low, and hopefully this will in some way affect any other wage settlement claims within our sector.
We’re all very pleased with what’s happened, and we couldn’t have done it without the strength of Unite the union behind us.
– Trevor Roland, Unite lead rep
The Shrewsbury 24 Overcome Five Decades of Injustice
48 years ago, on 19 December 1973, three convicted pickets were ferried by prison van from Shrewsbury Crown Court to the nearby prison to begin their jail sentences. This year, on the anniversary of that awful day, I accompanied John McKinsie Jones back to the prison (now a visitor attraction), to reflect on the miscarriage of justice that led him to be given a nine-month sentence for alleged picketing offences.
John said that it was the worst day of his life, just six days before Christmas. His wife Rita was eight months pregnant at the time with their second child. The anguish of leaving her and their one-year-old daughter devastated him. He has never got over it.
John and other pickets worked with the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign over the past fifteen years to overturn their convictions. Although the Criminal Cases Review Commission rejected the pickets’ applications in 2017, John never gave up. He and seven of his fellow pickets were determined to obtain justice and, together with the Campaign, fought on. He and Rita came with me and other members of the Campaign to a deserted London on 3 February 2021 to sit in Court 4 of the Royal Courts of Justice for the appeal hearing.
At 10:30 AM on 23 March I was delighted to ring John to break the news that the Court of Appeal had quashed all the pickets’ convictions. John was overjoyed and said, ‘The living hell that the Shrewsbury pickets have been through for nearly fifty years should never have happened. It should not happen to anyone else who takes part in a strike.’
We have achieved justice because we never gave up. It has been a memorable victory for the whole labour and trade union movement.
– Eileen Turnbull, Researcher and Secretary of the Shrewsbury 24 Campaign