NORSE WORKERS POISED TO STRIKE

By Sean Meleady

Around 400 workers, previously employed by (Conservative-run) Norfolk County Council-owned company Norse, are threatening strike action due to a dispute about pay and conditions. Environmental service workers, responsible for street-cleaning and park maintenance, are due to transfer from Norse to an arms-lengths company run by Labour-controlled Norwich City Council.

However, UNISON and Unite, the trade unions who represent these workers, are concerned that they will not receive parity, in terms of pay, conditions and pensions, with existing City Council employees. These unions argue that, despite the fact that they supported the transfer of the contract from Norse (Norwich Norse Environmental) to Norwich City Services Limited (NCSL), negotiations about the ‘road map’ for ‘harmonisation’ of pay and conditions, which have been on-going since 2018, have not been honoured. Since the City Council announced their intention to transfer the four Norse employment contracts in–house, unions expressed concerns regarding the costs of the transfer in relation to compensation and pensions.

In a statement posted to Facebook, Unite pointed to the fact that, initially, ‘The council had agreed to commit to harmonisation of terms and conditions [between Norse and NCC workers].’ Claiming that, ‘The current rate of pay of our members is around 6.5% below that of their colleges directly employed by NCC,’ they argued that the final offer, of a mere 2% pay increase of 20p per hour, ‘Falls well below, what is required to bring these workers in to line with NCC workers.’ Moreover, whilst workers directly employed by NCC receive up to 32 days holiday and six months’ full sick pay, the offer to NCSL workers included just one day’s leave for some workers and only one month’s sick pay. 

As a result of their concerns, around 170 of the affected workers have voted in indicative strike ballots, after being informed by the council that harmonisation is impossible due to financial constraints. Unite members voted 85% in favour on an 89% turnout. Remarkably, UNISON members voted ‘yes’ unanimously on a 100% turnout. Results of an ongoing full ballot will be published following its conclusion on May 4.

On 1 April, the city’s environmental services returned ‘in house’ under the banner of NCSL, having transferred from Norse. Under this arrangement, NCSL will deliver these services for six years, with an option to extend them for another five, in a deal worth £6.3 million annually

Norwich City Council has claimed that all councils are facing difficult financial situations, with City Hall having to find £7 million of savings by the middle of the next financial year, due to the impact of Covid-19. They also point to the fact that they have offered a pay increase, increased holiday and pension entitlement. A council spokesperson insisted ‘further improvements over time’ would be achieved ‘in partnership’ with unions.

An excerpt from Alan Waters’ letter to NCSL workers, attempting to dissuade them from strike action

Alan Waters, Labour leader of Norwich City Council, wrote to the NCSL workers, asking them to accept the terms and conditions on offer and not to take strike action. In the letter, Waters claims that the workers will receive an average 2% pay rise, better sick pay and more holidays, as well as better pensions, maternity and adoption pay. 

Waters’ argument hinges on the fact that the NCSL workers will receive better terms and conditions than they did at Norse. However, this completely misses the point of the dispute and the argument of the unions, who demand the NCSL workers receive the same conditions as existing City Council employees. Waters also argues that this deal is better than many other public sector workers such as nurses receive. This of course ignores the fact that nurses earn substantially more than environmental services workers. At the same time, this makes the City Council’s commitment to the real Living Wage look like empty virtue-signalling. 

Norfolk County UNISON Branch Secretary, Jonathan Dunning, described it as a ‘sad day for Norwich Labour Party’

Norfolk County UNISON Branch Secretary, Jonathan Dunning, described it as a ‘sad day for Norwich Labour Party that this letter has been sent,’ adding, ‘If you become an employer you should accept the right of unions to recommend strike action and not seek to undermine the collective solidarity on which the labour movement was built.’ 

Dunning, who received a warm response from protestors when speaking about the dispute on the steps of City Hall, as part of a speech against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, also argued that the unions have been disappointed by the discrepancy between what was promised during negotiations and the reality offered: 

‘The unions and our members were told before the transfer by the Labour leader & his officers that the eventual goal was to have the Norwich Norse contracts in-house, and the only reason they couldn’t do it from day one was the cost of the pensions. The unions discussed the need to harmonise pay, terms & conditions with City Council colleagues and received positive feedback. Our pay claim reflected the fact that this harmonisation would be a phased basis. We have instead received an offer that falls far short of what we believe to be pre-transfer commitments.

‘We have also been confronted with the reality that NCSL has been set up on a neo-Thatcherite model and not to the socialist (even New Labour) standards we would expect from a Labour-led Council. Both Unite & UNISON and the members they represent think this is a betrayal of some of the lowest paid workers.’

It must be said, this is not a one-off incident, as Norwich City Council have previously used outsourcing.

It must be said, this is not a one-off incident, as Norwich City Council have previously used outsourcing. In 2010, six months after signing a contract with outsourcing company Connaught, it collapsed. City councillors had transferred a number of services to the failing company, including a £17.5 million contract for repairs to council housing, as well as as asbestos removal, and general management. There were major issues from the start, such as workers not being paid and missed appointments. NCC had to draw up a ‘repair plan’ and give temporary work to Connaught staff who had been made redundant, while having to reassure residents that essential services would be maintained. 

Some Norwich Labour activists label the Green Party, their main opposition on the City Council, ‘Tories with bicycles’, yet Norwich Green Party has made their support for the NCSL workers clear, while little has been heard from Labour. In a statement, Green Councillor for Nelson Ward, Paul Neale, criticised Labour’s ‘shocking double standards’ and ‘lack of leadership’ on the matter.

No doubt if the Greens, Tories or Lib Dems were treating workers in this way, Labour would condemn it

David Kent, Secretary of Norwich and District Trades Council, also condemned the stance of the City Council, writing:

‘We are deeply disappointed that this dispute has resulted in the need for the Trade Unions to hold an Industrial Action ballot in order to obtain a resolution. We are particularly disappointed that the workers and their trade unions have needed to consider taking Industrial Action against a company which is wholly-owned by Labour-controlled Norwich City Council.’

No doubt if the Greens, Tories or Lib Dems were treating workers in this way, Labour would condemn it, but it appears they don’t apply the same standards to themselves. Do Norwich City Council and Norwich Labour genuinely care about the plight of low paid workers, the very people they are meant to represent? Or perhaps Labour’s political opponents are right and the party is now dominated by the middle class, who have little interest in trade unions? What is for sure is that the workers who clean the city’s streets and parks deserve better treatment from a Labour-led council.

Featured Image: CC BY 2.0, Evelyn Simak


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