Late in March, around 400 workers employed by Norse backed plans to begin a ballot for industrial action, with nearly 90% support in consultative ballots.
Owned by Norwich City Council, Norse is part of the largest commercial Local Authority Trading Company in the UK.
These workers, represented by both Unison and Unite, deliver environmental services as part of a contract with Norwich City Council: maintaining public parks; waste collection; and other such services.
The workers’ employment contracts were due to be transferred from Norse to Norwich City Services Ltd (NCSL) – a new company owned by Norwich City Council – at the end of March.
The council’s agreement with NCSL is worth £6.3 million per year.
This was scandalously framed by the city council as “bringing services back in-house”. But in reality, this is another arms-length private company. And according to representatives from Unison and Unite, the workers’ new contracts “fall well short” of standards originally agreed by the unions in the lead up to the transfer.
Clashes and cuts
A spokesperson from Norwich City Council said that they were “surprised with the unions' stance”; and they stressed that the financial situation for all councils is “perilous” in the present period.
They aren’t wrong: local councils across the country are veering dangerously close to total bankruptcy, following over a decade of austerity cuts.
This is part of a growing national picture of clashes between local councils and their staff. Last summer, workers at Tower Hamlets council went on strike over the use of a similar ‘fire and rehire’ tactic. This was used to put workers on significantly worse contracts, as the council attempted to cut costs.
This ongoing dispute in Norwich, like the scandal in Tower Hamlets, has been created as a result of the right-wing Labour-led local council dutifully carrying out cuts on behalf of the Tory government in Westminster.
So far, Norwich City Council’s response to the threat of industrial action has been to write letters to these workers, pleading with them not to vote ‘Yes’ in their upcoming ballot. The letter sent to union members included subheadings nauseatingly titled “we kept our promise” and “working together”.
The fact is that the only “working together” in this situation is between the Tory government and their spineless servants in the Labour right wing.
For over a decade, right-wing Labour councillors have held their hands up and said “what else can we do?”, all while administering brutal austerity.
Local councils can plead and proclaim their powerlessness against Tory cuts as much as they like. But these words won’t put food on the table for their workers.
They are only powerless because they refuse to organise a militant fightback. And this submissiveness, in turn, flows from their acceptance of the brutal logic of the capitalist system – an inherently crisis-ridden system, which demands cuts in order to preserve the profits of the super-rich.
Break the law, not the poor
Instead of accepting this capitalist logic and bowing to the diktats of the Tory government, local councils – along with the trade unions – should organise a mass campaign against all the austerity and attacks being imposed on them.
What is required is a bold struggle by the organised working class, refusing to accept these cuts, and calling for all services to be brought under democratic public control.
This means fully reversing all outsourcing and privatisation, with services and staff genuinely brought in-house. And it means organising resistance – through strikes and mass protests – if the Tories attempt to send in the commissioners, as they have done in Liverpool.
As Labour councillor George Lansbury stated during the Poplar rates rebellion 100 years ago: It is better to break the law, than break the poor.
Unsurprisingly, this idea does not enter into the minds of the Labour right wing, who have no perspective of sticking their heads above the parapet and opposing the Tory government.
By acting as the handmaidens of austerity, Labour councils risk losing support across the country, similarly to what was seen along the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 general election.
These seats were presumed to be safe Labour seats. But a decade of cuts has left voters disgusted at their local MPs and councils. Implementing a ‘Tory-lite’ policy doesn’t win any favours amongst working-class communities.
What workers – at Norwich City Council, and across the whole country – need is a fighting leadership: one that is willing to stand up to cuts, instead of seeking the path of least resistance.
The economic fallout from the pandemic will mean further attacks on pay and jobs. This means even more clashes between right-wing-controlled Labour councils and workers in the trade unions. Eventually, the straw will break the camel's back, and workers everywhere will say ‘enough is enough’.
This situation, in turn, requires the transformation of the trade unions into fighting organisations.
Paul Holmes – a grassroots candidate, running on a clear socialist programme – came a close second in the general secretary election, only losing out because of a split in the left vote. And building on this success, the campaign of the left slate for the NEC is looking strong.
Similarly in Unite – the other trade union involved in this Norwich dispute, and the second largest union in Britain, after Unison – left-wing candidate Howard Beckett is running a bold campaign to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary.
Need for socialism
The Labour Party right wing is in for a rude awakening. They will likely be punished in the upcoming May elections. Starmer’s former assurances of ‘electability’ will ring hollow.
The task ahead is to clear the right-wingers out of the Labour Party, and replace careerist Labour MPs and councillors with genuine class fighters, who will defend the interests of working-class communities and mobilise against austerity.
The only real solution to both Tory cuts and scandalous ‘fire and rehire’ attacks is to build a militant leadership in the trade unions and the Labour Party – one that will not bend the knee to the demands of capitalism, but that will rally workers and youth in the fight for a clear socialist alternative.