By Cat Butler / Jobs / 0 Comments

I was just a child when I first heard the words ‘picket’ and ‘flying picket’. Hushed by my parents whilst they tuned in to watch the 6 o’clock news, I remember being fairly shocked by the stark images of police clashing with miners. The same pictures played out on our TV screens in 1984, but by that time, I had a clearer understanding of industrial action and the power of trade unions. In 1983, there was even a song in the charts by a band called ‘The Flying Pickets’. These were tumultuous times in Britain and the vocabulary of striking and protest had even permeated pop culture.

Fast forward to 2018 where I’ve spent the last 19 years working in Higher Education and the last few years as a proud member of the University and College Union (UCU). Unions made a lot of sense to our grandparents and I think they are making a bit of a comeback. In unsettling times, the first advantage of union membership is to make sure that changes in employment are negotiated, rather than imposed.

I now find myself standing on a picket line for the first time in my life, defending my right to a fair pension because the Employers, Universities UK (UUK), want to end guaranteed pension benefits for all those who belong to the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). They say that our final pension should depend on how ‘investments’ perform and not on our contributions. UCU says that this is wrong and that it’s risking their members’ future. Universities UK also say that there’s a massive deficit of more than £6bn in the scheme – but there is no deficit. They based their valuations on a situation where every university goes bust. In reality, university income more than pays for its outgoings.

As such, UCU called for action and its members voted in overwhelming numbers for both strike action and action short of a strike. UCU called for action because of the Employers’ failure to reach an agreement with them to protect our pensions. UCU would prefer to have negotiated a solution by now rather than having to take industrial action but the Employers current proposal to end the guaranteed USS pension would mean an average loss of around £10,000 a year in retirement for all its members, potentially leaving many facing serious poverty in their old age.

As such, UCU believes that only sustained, disruptive action will bring the Employers back to the table and in fact, at the time of writing, they’ve met with UCU, supported by arbitration service ACAS, for the last two days in a bid to seek resolution.

Action commenced on Thursday 22nd February and will conclude on Friday 16th March. Strike action means not doing any work at for the whole of the days including teaching, administration, meetings, emails relating to work, marking, research or conferences.

Each morning on the picket line, in the fight to demand a fair pension upon retirement, I stand alongside colleagues who are academics, IT specialists, librarians, mental health support workers, hourly paid lecturers, graduate teaching assistants and students. We work hard to provide a quality higher education for our students – developing knowledge, solving problems and supporting them through their studies and through hard times. We are also parents, care givers, neighbours, and community members and of course, the university is a significant economic motor for the region. However, the future of universities is under sustained attack. Students are struggling with tuition fees and debt and now we, the university employees, are being attacked with cuts we don’t deserve. We witness cuts in funding, cuts in real terms in wages and increased workloads whilst the pay and benefits of top university management have skyrocketed.

And so we picket, we strike, we march and we protest, and we use the most powerful tool at our disposal – collective labour. Without us, everything stops. At my workplace, we’ve had an an excellent turnout of strikers, we are admirably supported by our students, many of whom have brought homemade banners to the picket lines, rallies and marches each day. The mood is celebratory, upbeat and musical including drums, whistles, bagpipes saucepans and spoons, but it is also determined. On picket lines, we’ve had people stopping to talk to us and the camaraderie is uplifting. Strikers on the picket line are also united that this action is about much more than a pension scheme – it’s about the commercialisation of Higher Education . We know that we are not alone. Thousands of university staff nationally are united and gaining a deeper understanding of our real power and political choices at the next general election.

As Billy Bragg sang

‘There is power in a factory, power in the land

Power in the hands of a worker

But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand

There is power in a union.’

By Councillor Alan Baldock / JobsWelfare / 0 Comments

Tonight, we make choices that affect lives, not based on need BUT based on the consequences of a failed Conservative-austerity Government’s choices.  I am speaking about a government that’s consistently failed to fund local authorities to deliver the services that our residents and our communities need.

Tonight, we face the contradiction of a traditionally “low tax” party – the Conservative Party – underfunding on a national level, yet raising taxes sharply here; this large CCC rise combined with the huge tax hikes by the Conservative KCC administration this week will hurt the poorest yet again. There are people who will find these rises unaffordable. There are people who will have to choose between feeding their children and falling into arrears. It is a sad day when so many people have to make that choice.

Tonight, Canterbury City Council’s Labour Group will propose three amendments. Each of our amendments looks to the future; and each amendment is modest in value, but ambitious in expectation.

I have highlighted the chronic housing need blighting our district many times. It does not, I repeat DOES NOT, have to be this way. In 2015 Cllr Neil Baker, in launching his new working group on housing offered the answer – he said “options explored over the next six months will include the delivery of hundreds of Council houses to the City and towns.” We remind Cllr Baker Junior that we are still waiting — and so indeed are 2700 families on the waiting list.

This Council’s own report ‘Housing Strategy 2016 – 2020’ could not be clearer on this crisis and its causes. This district harbors a low-wage / high-rent society. This economic contradiction is one that threatens to rip the heart and soul from our communities. Paying a typical rent of well over £200 per week to a private landlord will always be unaffordable for a single mum or a couple on minimum wage. It is also unaffordable to someone in insecure employment, as much of our workforce is. It’s a crisis that’s forced local families and children into temporary accommodation miles from their schools and their support networks. It’s a crisis that puts families in unaffordable and appalling private accommodations. There are children, right now, living in dilapidated, leaking, damp and mold riddled EKH homes.

Yes, that’s in OUR Council Houses. There are hundreds of children and vulnerable people in that state despite £500K of unspent repairs budget reported in this budget. Why are the council underspending on repairs I ask you? You cannot feign ignorance of how appalling some of these properties are? So where is the political leadership here putting proper change into action. We share those family’s tears – their feeling of hopelessness as they remain unable to afford to rent a decent home of their own or give their children hope, stability and the promise of health, because remember this well: THIS COUNCIL PUTS CHILDREN IN UNHEALTHY HOMES.

Last year this Council bought some houses. It also built a few, sold some under Right to Buy and bought some back at around market rate – demonstrating the capitalist’s dream – But thankfully we can look forward to that changing under the Labour Government coming at the next General Election. Despite all the promises & all the rhetoric, we still have 700 fewer Council houses than we did in 2012. This Council does not have a long-term plan to build the large number of new Council Houses needed – or truly affordable homes to rent.  Our first budget amendment will seek to correct that and create momentum for change by facilitating a Strategic Plan. This is designed to supplement the Housing Strategy 2016 – 2020 and not to re-write it. The detail of a complex strategic plan is not for a ‘Budget Amendment’ speech.

But we, the Labour Group, and hopefully yourselves will see this investment delivering a well-researched report set free to explore diverse funding options and partnerships.  It should consider:

  • Earmarking Council land and other sites to build Council houses.
    • To Explore Self-Help Housing Co-operatives.
    • Community Land Trusts
    • The Rural Exemption Scheme — interestingly we now know there has been just one in this district; you may have been confused by the Leader’s misleading Tweet on 4th January which suggested there were many more.
    • Maximize prudent borrowing through the Local Housing Company to build affordable rent properties.
    • And continue to budget for purchase as well

The strategic plan must of course set out an affordable, sustainable financial framework that will be able to fund a building program incrementally over a ten-year period. 2020 will see the lifting of the Government’s rent reduction policy; there is improved headroom for borrowing in the Housing Revenue Account of around £20M, still low interest rates and a likely increases in 106 payments and other incomes.  Factor in the differential between buying existing and building new homes, which a Savills report puts at deliverable around £140K.

We are not vague about this amendment’s ambition – this council needs a ten-year plan to build at least 100 NEW Council controlled houses every year, available at social rent.  This is a target that can be met if not exceeded.  It is time now to imagine an end to this housing crisis within a generation.

Our next amendment recognizes the priceless contribution residents make to their communities and the wider district.  Not only do they work hard but invariably come up with ideas that make the changes work in practice — It is that we seek to support with this amendment. In response to the Council’s motion on reducing single use plastics on Jan 4th, Labour is calling for us to put our money where our mouth is on eliminating single-use plastics and unnecessary packaging and encouraging community initiatives that have that goal.

‘Plastic Free Whitstable’ is one such group and no doubt there are, or soon will be, others.  So apart from leading be example in our own activities, we propose that £5000 in additional funding per Area Members Panel should be made available to support such community initiatives – specifically to galvanize sustainable alternatives to our addiction to single-use plastics like drinks-cups, water-bottles, straws and packaging.   We suggest the one-off funding of £20K should come from underspends, setting aside money that would have been used to reduce debt for a more immediate need to begin to tackle plastic pollution.

Labour’s final amendment again has the environment at its heart, this time it is linked to electric vehicles.  We, unlike many other Councils, have at least put a toe in the water with a modest investment of £10K next year in the “On Street Residential Chargepoint Scheme” – we suggest a further £10K is added to that sum, from general fund underspends doubling our investment.  The 75% grant funding available would allow this Council to invest in total up to £80K in on street charging. Cities far more ‘electric vehicle-ready’ than ours such as Milton Keynes, have seen a growth in electric vehicles driven by the convenience of more street charging points rather than “proven need” sites.  The urban streets of our compact towns and City open up the perfect opportunities.