Barry Biddulph reports on Sheffield council’s planned cuts
Even before Clegg and Cameron give the detail of their savage cuts in their ironically named ‘spending review’, the Lib Dems’ favourite council Sheffield has put itself in the vanguard of austerity by announcing its intention to unilaterally terminate the contracts of over 8,000 council workers.
The gloves are well and truly off. Up to 40% of the council budget will be slashed in the next three years. Spending is to be reduced by £219 million, 15% going in the first year, starting in April. Front line services will disappear or diminish drastically.
Only education will escape these cuts, for legal reasons. In a co-ordinated attack, the private company Veolia, which has been hired by the council to deal with refuse collection, has already declared it will end present contracts with job losses.
We expect further cuts by Sheffield Homes, the nominally independent housing service. Sheffield Homes is supposed to be a private company: yet it has only one share holder, the council itself. Council cuts to the budget of Sheffield Homes will result in job losses and changes in terms and conditions.
There is already a jobs freeze as staff leave, which has aggravated local unemployment. The ability to provide front line services will be badly dented if management are allowed to get their own way.
So far the Unison, GMB and Unite union leaderships have failed to organise union members to effectively oppose changes in terms and conditions, such as 20% wage cuts for some staff. Council leaders are so confident they can impose the cuts in terms and conditions that they have not provided any assurances that all staff will be re-engaged. Job losses are almost certain. The local union leaders have been treated with contempt.
The instinctive response of the regional officers (the only union members who really count in local union decision making) is to ask to meet the council bosses, instead of organising mass meetings of union members. It is reported that officials have already begun bargaining with members’ terms and conditions. At risk are annual increments for lower paid staff and sick pay for the first three days off.
Union rhetoric has promised there will be no hesitation to call for a strike ballot. But ‘hesitation’ is a mild description for the delays in strike ballots, even when the union structure has reached that point.
Union members should call for mass meetings now to discuss and prepare for the action needed. We should not wait for decisions from above or restrict our action to the requirements of the anti-trade union laws. Council workers should act outside the unions, and link up with service users.
We need a campaign to transform local services as we wish, not the bosses’ way. We should not just defend services but shape them in line with working-class need.