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Unions strike gold: York Uni’s lowest paid get a raise after industrial action

[My latest news article for Nouse, the UoY campus newspaper]

The University of York has increased the pay of its lowest-paid staff, in a move welcomed by unions on campus.

Management said they made the move as they were “concerned” to protect the worst-off at the university.

It comes at a time of national negotiations over a below-inflation pay offer of 1% by HE bosses’ group the University and College Employers’ Association, in what appears to be an initial strike victory by Unison and Unison who took co-ordinated action alongside lecturers’ union UCU on the 31st October.

In a statement, the university said: “We have decided that, regardless of the outcome of the [UCEA] pay settlement nationally, we will ensure that no employee of the university is paid less than £14,719 per annum (pro-rated according to the number of hours worked).”

The figure equates to £7.65 an hour for a 37 hour working week – the new non-London Living Wage – in a move that affects the first two salary points of Grade 1 staff. The rise will also be backdated to August 1 2013.

UNISON regional organiser Steve Torrance said: “This is a positive step from a university in the Russell Group of universities.

“While we welcome moves from any employer towards implementing the living wage for the lowest paid, all of our members need a fair pay rise of more than 1% after five years of real terms pay cuts.

“We echo York University management’s call for all parties to return to the negotiating table to resolve the current dispute.

“However, negotiations are like dancing and it takes two to tango. So my message to UCEA is strictly come dancing!”

With an £8.7m trading surplus, unions are convinced that the university has the money to afford an at- or above-inflation pay rise for all staff who have seen a 13% real-terms pay cut over the past few years.

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Rail union court win a victory for all trade unionists – season of strikes ahead

In a breakthrough for workers in all sectors (scarcely reported except by Tribune), the railway unions Aslef and RMT have won a massive victory in the High Court over strike ballots. London Midland and Serco took them to court over ballots that were overwhelmingly in favour of strike action, but contained a handful of minor technical discrepancies. After the unions appealed, the High Court ruled that the companies were merely intent on setting draconian ‘traps or hurdles’ for workers.

‘For the first time, the Court of Appeal recognises the right to strike in the context of Britain’s obligations under international law’. This is a pretty impressive breakthrough for the millions of trade unionists in the UK and all those who are fighting the coalition’s austerity – viz. attacks on jobs, services and pay & pension conditions.

Hutton’s report on pensions released yesterday, which the government has preempted, gives yet more weight behind the need for organised action. Most public sector employees are left to live on less than £5,000 a year. Hardly ‘gold-plated’. But the government’s plans are set at making people work longer for less – as clear a justification for industrial action as any.

Lecturers will be out on strike this Thursday against real-term pay cuts, and 2,000 teachers in Tower Hamlets have voted for strike action for the same reason shortly after the March 26 TUC demonstration. There is a real mood among students now to support these teachers and lecturers, unlike in previous years where strikes were seen as merely a day-off for young people.

Sofa Protest and ‘Clicktivism’ – A New Unity?

Clicktivism used to be a derisory term. That seems to be falling out of fashion.The attacks on Disability Living Allowance and other provisions for disabled people are being made with the implicit acknowledgement that these are the least likely people to take to the streets. And perhaps there is an element of truth in that. But social media has brought with it huge advances for ‘sofa protest’, and many who can’t make the demonstration on the 26th of March demonstration in London will be participating in the ‘virtual march’ of the ‘Armchair Army‘ on the same day. The objective is solidarity, and bombarding the media with public anger. If it gains support, the massive protest will have running parallel to it a constant flurry of angry citizens phoning in to radio stations, writing to newspapers and MPs, blogging, tweeting and staging all kinds of stationary dissent.

But before that, this Sunday, an ingenious idea will take shape. ‘National They Don’t Speak for Us Day‘ will see hundreds of callers phoning in to their radio stations and asking that they play ‘No Surprises’ by Radiohead. Why? It contains the line ‘they don’t speak for us’. Obviously the callers will explain that the government is pushing through the breakup of the NHS – without a mandate. Draconian cuts – without a mandate. And 22 members of the cabinet are millionaires. Representative democracy is only representative by name.

In fact, Facebook and Twitter, for many, has become a vital tool in the fight-back. But even by email – that arcane medium! the organisation 38 Degrees has had huge success, gathering over half a million signatures for its forest anti-sell off campaign and getting ads in national newspapers. Unite Against Fascism recently raised thousands in just a few days through a simple online campaign. Action is now online, alongside some of the largest and most vibrant demonstrations Britain has seen for years.

Hold your MP to account. Use They Work For You to see how they vote. Use Write to Them to express your disgust with what they’re doing.

Organise an action against tax dodging on the UK Uncut website in minutes. You can even vote on what 38 Degrees pick as their next campaign. This is no longer your average top-down organisational structure.

This Sunday the 13th, become a sofa-activist, if you’re not already, and (if you live in Cornwall) call Atlantic FM, BBC Cornwall, Pirate FM, demanding they play ‘No Surprises’. And if you can’t come to the demonstration on the 26th, make sure you bombard our (incredibly pluralistic, eh hem) national media demanding the government u-turn, fast. I’m generally the first one to encourage vociferous street protest – but an era of unity between the march and the mouse-click has arrived. It would be almost as dumb as this government is to ignore either.

The national movement made local – updates for action in Cornwall

There are a few events taking place over the next coming of months which might not be worth missing. The recent Supporting People demonstration outside County Hall showed that more and more are willing to actively oppose the cuts – but there’s a lot more on its way.

Firstly, the increasing activity on the anti-cuts front in Cornwall. With the NHS consultation touring the area – and apparently hoping no one turns up – a perfect opportunity is offered for those who oppose the insidious privatisation of health-care. People will be out on the streets leafletting all over the county before March 26th to encourage as many as possible to come to the huge March for the Alternative in London this month. If you can help with leafletting, send Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance an email at canticall@gmx.co.uk

UK Uncut has been off the radar in Cornwall recently, but the next day of action (whenever that is) should see some interesting actions in Truro, or potentially spreading to Penzance, Camborne, Redruth. Who knows. A library in Bodmin was occupied recently in opposition to library funding cuts, so there are people in most towns willing to put on some form of light-hearted dissent. There will be more intense rebellion in other quarters of the coalition of resistance.

The student movement, for a start. Since 15,000 people took to the streets on January 29th, the movement has become more localised and has manifested itself in a revived occupation season. Glasgow was occupied, and then several others followed suit. I’m sure, with the momentum, Falmouth University compatriots will be willing to enter that exciting status – ‘occupation’ – at some point again. This time, perhaps a lecture theatre would be better than a large cafeteria. Still, tents are better than no tents.

Slightly less radical but no less important is the half-day seminar on the Equality Act at the Eden Project on the 10th May, hosted by Equality South West. Something to look out for no doubt. Also: Take Part Cornwall (where have all these groups come from?) are organising a community citizenship session on the 9th of March on how to campaign effectively and ‘get your voice heard’. There probably won’t be direct action workshops  – but the free lunch looks tempting. Anyway. Back to the important stuff.

Two pieces of new today alone show that there is more than student fees to fight though. Cornwall Council are shutting down recycling facilities at all Sainsbury’s supermarkets in Cornwall, and scrapping £200k of funding for recycling schemes. Instead, private companies will be ‘contracted’ to offer limited facilities in out-of-town areas. Progress? I’m sure this will go a long way to reducing Britain’s waste problem. So with the Unitary Council opting out of green initiatives like this, central government meanwhile are being shunned by South Western Ambulance Service, which is becoming a foundation trust. It will be given more ‘financial flexibility’, but exactly what that means is unclear. Flexibility to lay of more staff or cut wages, perhaps. Or, like the council, to pull in even more private contractors to our vital public services.

And the prospect of a double-dip recession looks ever more likely.

By the way:

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance is undergoing big changes, with plans to launch into a mass, democratic body over the next few weeks. Trade unions are being linked up with as well as local community groups. Updates will be on the Canticall site as soon as possible.

The People Speak: the banks caused the recession

A new poll asking what people think caused the recession in 2008 has shown most now believe it was banks which caused the crisis. The result is a blow to the Tories who have been trying to hammer in the (false) idea that Labour caused the recession through investing too much in public services.

The poll (shown here) shows that over half of Lib Dems (55%), half of other party voters and over 40% of those who didn’t vote accept it was speculative actions in the City and lack of banking regulation which led to the crisis. Before the recession, the deficit stood at around 2% – an incredibly low figure. The £1.4trn bailout made this grow significantly, but prevented full-scale economic collapse.

Another recent poll has shown a marginal shift to the left among Brits, with a significant jump to the left from women. Those defining themselves as left of centre now outweight those defining themselves as right of centre. Still, there’s a long way to go. As the government launches full-scale class war, perhaps we’ll see a more marked shift.

These two findings mean Osbourne is stepping into dangerous waters when refusing to condemn the egregious bank bonuses being dished out over the next few months. Moreover, with profits of £1bn a day, the levy on the banks of a mere £.1.15bn in 2011 is an insult to people losing their jobs and being made to pay for a financial crisis they didn’t cause.

Suggestion: bring on the next phase of UK Uncut action against the banks. We own 84% of RBS. ‘Their’ profits belong to the British taxpayer. Let’s get it back.

Activists storm council in Truro against scrapping of EMA

Around 40 students and activists marched over two miles to County Hall in Truro today to protest against the government’s scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance. The demonstrators marched with placards saying ‘Don’t Con-Dem Us to Unemployment’, chanting ‘education for the masses, not just for the ruling classes’. The march was met with huge support from members of the public.Upon arriving at County Hall, the main Cornwall Council building, the protesters continued chanting and many members of staff and councilors offered their support. The cold weather and exam period had meant many could not attend but the atmosphere was incredibly positive.

Most dramatically though was when six protesters got into the main council meeting and began putting up anti-cuts posters and shouting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’, before being removed. The short occupation shifted the debate from the trivial topic of an adult products store in the city to the more important matter of education and funding for deprived students.

Max Stephens, a college student and activist, said ‘The fight-back has started and we invite people in Cornwall to join us in solidarity in future actions.’ Lisa Camps, another main organiser, echoed this – ‘We won’t let our voices be drowned out amid the government’s vehemently anti-student rhetoric.’

Another Truro College student said ‘The EMA helps thousands of students from low-income backgrounds in Cornwall and across the country continue with higher education, and despite the turnout the demonstration today was an important part of the overall campaign against the cuts in the county.’

The protest was organised as part of Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance after several large protests in the city against cuts to education, and represented part of the resistance campaign. There will be more demonstrations as socialists, workers and students plan their next moves for the local fight-back.

Demonstrations like these are bringing various left-wing groups and community organisations together in the county – today saw comrades from the Socialist Party of Great Britain, SWP, Labour, anarcho-syndicalists and even Lib Dem councilors uniting.

The Twitter generation takes to the streets – UK Uncut ‘Pay Day’ in Truro a big success

Truro was put on the political map on Saturday, with over 20 activists from all over Cornwall shutting down tax-dodging stores in the city as part of the UK Uncut ‘Pay Day’. Demonstrations took place in over 50 towns and cities across the country, with Truro’s protest listed among the most successful in newspapers – from the Observer to Socialist Worker.

Meeting at 11, campaigners marched from Lemon Quay to Topshop chanting ‘Philip Green, pay your tax’, referring to the notorious tax-dodger who is advising the government on ‘austerity’ measures. The police, in stark contrast to the Met in London, were friendly and enabled the peaceful but effective protest to go ahead without intimidation or violence.

The group immediately filled Topshop, leafleting customers and shutting down the whole store for some time. After occupying both floors, we eventually agreed to leave, but maintained a similar level of disruption outside. Though the aim was to pressure Philip Green, a large part of the day of action was about informing the public, so hundreds of leaflets were given out and many interesting conversations took place with shoppers. The level of public support was encouraging, with a number of people thanking and congratulating the demonstrators.

To add to the festive mood the 20 or so activists sang Christmas carols – but with a twist, ‘O tidings of Greedy Billionaires’ one of the more popular anthems of the day. The ‘Big Society Revenue and Customs Entertainment Division’ gave Christmas shoppers a mixture of serious political sentiment and seasonal cheer.

Over the course of the day many other Arcadia-owned stores were closed, with BHS, Evans, Burton and Dorothy Perkins temporarily shutting down as students, trade unionists and other local groups picketing the retail outlets.

The security in all the stores was double or even triple the usual amount. But through quick discussion and fast paced decision-making and mobilisation, we were able to achieve a lot with limited resources, something that is becoming a theme across the country with extremely localised and grassroots campaigns springing up under the UK Uncut banner via Facebook and Twitter.

Towards the end of the day we returned to Burton, which had previously been picketed but not completely closed. Going in one at a time, we were able to fill the store with anti-tax dodging activists and then blockade it from within. With protesters both inside and outside, it became increasingly embarrassing for the often aggressive security to continue keeping the store open.

Surprisingly, the Evans occupation was arguably the most successful, with just five protesters mingling inside the store, and then upon the blow of a whistle blockading the entrance. Posters were put up while a large crowd gathered outside. After around half an hour of singing, chanting and occupying, we were ‘escorted’ out by private security.

Despite the freezing temperatures, actions like these took place all over Britain aimed at forcing Phillip Green to pay the £285m of tax he owes us, for Vodafone to pay back the £5-6bn they recently dodged, and for other companies such as Boots (who avoid £84m a year) to end the corrupt practice of tax-avoidance which takes place while ordinary people struggle to buy food for their families.

There will be more UK Uncut actions in the coming months, and more demonstrations in Truro to come. Democracy is being put into action, and the lack of top-down leadership seems, at least for the time being, a huge benefit to the anti-cuts cause.