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Wardens at the crossroads

When is a dispute not a dispute? When is a dispute bordering on a rout? The Borough of Camden in London privatised and outsourced its traffic wardens in the 2000s. The contract is now with outsourcing specialist NSL Ltd. Unison trade union membership is around 80 per cent of the workforce. Most of these members were recruited to the union by regional organising staff after the outsourcing, not by the local branch, and union recognition was achieved without dispute. 

The vast majority are workers originally from Africa, with ethnic and tribal differences. Union recruitment and organisation as workers has largely overcome these divisions. The workers are low paid (£8.09 an hour) and work extensive overtime to make up their wages. In February Camden Unison branch lodged a 30 per cent pay claim to try to establish parity with other NSL contracts in differing boroughs. 

Strikes occurred in July and August, with an overtime ban in place since late August. In negotiations NSL offered a 3 per cent rise in year one, 4 per cent in year two and 3 per cent in year three. And this when local government workers are now in their third year of zero pay increases. This offer was rejected by the branch and then withdrawn by NSL, coming back with an offer of the London Living Wage of £8.30 without further negotiation. 

The London Living Wage is announced annually in November, and employer subscribers to it are expected to up the new rate within six months. By rejecting the three-year offer the branch has now chained its members to an even lower hourly rate determined by people associated with Boris Johnson’s Mayoral office. Further it has to be noted that promises made by the branch to the workforce bore no resemblance to reality, or managing member expectations or even allowing the embryo collective bargaining structures to start functioning. Many of these members have no understanding or experience of trade unionism.

Chronic low pay, especially where dependent on excessive overtime, has previously been resolved industrially, for example in the history of textiles and sweatshop employment. The key is to break dependency on excessive overtime and incrementally drive up the hourly rate. That depends on the workers themselves refusing the overtime rate and not being undercut by fellow workers who will work the excessive hours. This is even more difficult due to the employment of extensive migrant labour desperate for work and divisions played upon both by the company and differing ethnic groups among the workforce.

So where is the dispute going? The company can probably absorb the fines imposed by Camden Council for not meeting key performance targets, the result of reduced overtime. The request by the branch for a union-wide financial appeal implies the dispute is going nowhere and that those who believe “the longer the dispute without resolution the better” are in charge (or that unsustainable promises have been made of full take-home strike pay). 

To appeal to other NSL workers on differing contracts to help develop an all-London strategy for dealing with NSL is to lock the door after the horse has bolted. Asking Unison to research NSL accounts, contracts and management salaries is again a tokenistic gesture. And a real sign that the branch has no exit strategy is the plea to Unison’s Labour Link structures to approach Camden Labour group to resolve the dispute politically. 

Much is being made of the fact that most of these members are black and on low hourly rates. But why wasn’t that addressed when they were direct employees of the Council theoretically a more sympathetic employer? 

Nothing contributes more to demoralisation than a badly planned, deliberately misleading and directionless dispute. London has seen a similar disastrous dispute in recent years in Barnet among Freemantle workers employed in care homes. Led down the garden path, they were abandoned once the strike strategy failed and the company refused to negotiate. The NSL Unison members are going to have to do some hard thinking and discussion especially about those who have treated them like cannon fodder.

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