Monday, 24 August 2009

BHT workers strike to defend pay, jobs and public services

[By Lee Vernon, Brighton Thursday branch]

Local charity workers in Brighton held their first strike action in the face of devastating attacks by management on their pay and working conditions. Over fifty workers manned a vibrant and visual picket line demanding fair pay, an immediate halt on dismissals and for an open and transparent negotiation process.

The Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), a registered charity that works for the council to provide advocacy and support to those most vulnerable in society, was up until recently an employer of choice - its employees happy to work there, even proud. This all changed when, after the usual “consultation” process, they were presented with new contracts with increased hours, less sick pay, less maternity leave and, on top of all this, between a £4,000-£6,000 pay cut! Management's reaction to date had been one of refusing to negotiate with the union or anyone else. Even more disgustingly, whilst they were demanding cuts to front line staff, their own salaries were apparently going up to fit into the new pay structure.

Anyone who refused to sign the new contract would be laid off within four weeks of it coming in leaving the workers little choice but to ballot for strike action which they came out overwhelmingly in favour of. The chief executive, Andy Winters, ironically an ex-councillor who had been thrown out of the Labour Party for refusing to pay the Poll Tax and is still a member of Unison, even sent an email around the day before condemning the strike claiming they were "only hurting their clients". This only strengthened the worker's resolve against the out of touch management as it was them who clearly worked above and beyond their paid hours for their clients rather than the money.

On the picket lines many workers highlighted that this was all part of a growing trend happening in the voluntary sector to make charities “more competitive”. This will be seen more and more as public spending is slashed and council budgets reduced. Charities will be forced to drive down costs.

However, these cuts were not a direct result of the recession. As one worker pointed out, they were discussing these attacks last year but held back until a more opportune moment to push through the changes. Even more worrying was that they were increasingly being told that the charity had to focus on making money! This is just another example of the race to the bottom mentality of bosses, who believe they can make the biggest savings by squeezing their workforce to breaking point. But all this will achieve in the long run is a massive decline in service provision as qualified workers are driven away with the remaining workforce overstretched and beaten down. As with any important public service, it is vital we fight these cuts by any means necessary. This is a fight against the long term devastation of our services.

Already the workers are making links with the local refuse collectors who are also in dispute and fighting against similar cuts to pay and conditions. Other Unison branches within the council have pledged their full support and are likely to be facing the same attacks soon and are all preparing for further action. Workers know that if this new contract stands many will be forced to leave as they simply can't afford to live off this massively reduced salary. Plus, they know that there's nothing to stop even greater cuts six months down the line. They are not deterred by threats from management and will continue the fight if they refuse to negotiate.