Pandemic gives unions new purpose amid rise in workplace disputes in Sheffield

From delivery drivers to lecturers, workplace disputes are popping up all over Sheffield - and show the unions are back, an expert claims.

By David Walsh
Monday, 17th January 2022, 6:22 am

After decades in the doldrums the pandemic has seen them turn a corner, according to Martin Mayer, Secretary of Sheffield TUC.

Membership plunged from 13 million in the 1970s to six million today, following Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws, he said.

WHY IS UNION MEMBERSHIP REBOUNDING?

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A courier drivers' boycott of McDonald's in Sheffield has caused embarrassment for employers Stuart Delivery.

But they are ‘rebounding’ after health and safety measures due to the need for Covid safety became a huge issue.

Fewer workers caught the virus at unionised workplaces proving their value, he said.

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It came after 10 years of austerity which saw blue collar workers’ pay fall - and the rise of ‘insecure’ zero-hours contracts and self-employed workers in the ‘gig economy’.

After decades in the doldrums, unions have turned a corner due to the pandemic, according to Martin Mayer, Secretary of Sheffield TUC.

But in the pandemic they were suddenly lauded as key workers and expected to solider on.

For some, it was the last straw and sparked a desire to be properly rewarded - and fight for it if necessary, Mr Mayer said.

He added: “I think that the unions have started to turn a corner. Thousands are joining and publicity from successful disputes reminds people of the need for them. In the pandemic there have been a lot of positive stories.”

HOW HAVE UNIONS HELPED WORKERS IN THE PANDEMIC?

Stagecoach staff in the Unite union are expected to agree a pay offer after strikes which decimated services at the city’s second biggest bus company before and after Christmas.

Key among them is the furlough scheme which was due to the TUC persuading a reluctant chancellor, he added. It paid the wages of millions forced to stop working for months.

Unionised workplaces have occupational sick pay schemes that pay out from day one, compared to statutory sick pay which pays after three days - a key factor in sick staff continuing to work and spreading Covid, it is claimed.

Strikes are a last resort and nine out of 10 disputes end without them, Mr Mayer said.

But in some ways the ‘peaceful withdrawal of labour’ was the only power the unions had.

Lecturers protest over pay and pensions in Barker's Pool.

He added: “Employers need to know that if they don’t make a reasonable offer they could have a strike on their hands.

“Sensible ones know that if they pay as well as they can, staff will be loyal and hard working and there will be low staff turnover.”

Many unions have a ‘strike fund’ - Unite’s is more than £30m - which can cover about 90 per cent of the wages of the lowest paid, he added.

But despite that, over the last 10 years they had been ‘timid’, with demands just above inflation which, following negotiations, were often beaten down.

But all that could be changing. Here is a round-up of some of the union activity in Sheffield.

Bin men and women in the GMB union staged a short strike in November which saw Veolia swiftly cave in.

STAGECOACH staff in the Unite union have agreed a pay offer after strikes which decimated services at the city’s second biggest bus company before and after Christmas.

An ‘indefinite’ strike was suspended mid-week and members voted last week to accept a 10.7 per cent pay increase.

From May, drivers in Sheffield will see their hourly rate rise from £10.50 to £11.60.

Over 560 Stagecoach staff were protesting at what they branded a ‘poverty pay rise’ from the firm.

The new offer came after talks between Unite and Stagecoach mediated by conciliation service ACAS.

That dispute could be ending as another could be just starting. Staff at First, the largest bus company in Sheffield, last week rejected a pay offer.

FAST FOOD DELIVERY DRIVERS are boycotting McDonald’s in a row over what they say is a big reduction in pay.

Their dispute, which started in December, is with their ‘employers’ Stuart Delivery.

But it has cost McDonald’s and the Just Eat ordering platform thousands - and caused major embarrassment for Stuart which prefers not to be in the public eye.

The company has been criticised for not recognising, or talking, to unions.

Couriers have been flocking to the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) which has co-ordinated high-profile strike action.

Meanwhile, several Sheffield restaurants have written letters of support calling for them to be paid fairly, more than 850 people have signed a petition and the strike has spread to cities across the UK.

LECTURERS in the University and College Union at both Sheffield universities are expected to go on strike again soon over pay and pensions, following a three-day strike in December.

A decision is expected this week.

The union says it has been ‘misled’ over the size of pension cuts and is calling for a £2,500 pay rise for all staff, claiming wages have fallen 20 per cent in real terms since 2009.

BIN MEN AND WOMEN in the GMB union staged a short strike in November which saw Veolia swiftly cave in.

The strike would have affected more than 200,000 homes in Sheffield over Christmas and the New Year.

Refuse collectors voted to accept a two-year deal which will see a three per cent increase for year one – backdated to May - a one-off payment of £250 for each employee, and a further 3.5 per cent increase for year two.

Lee Parkinson, GMB organiser, said members had risked their own health and safety during the pandemic and they stood together in solidarity to achieve ‘pay justice’.

He added: “They risked their own health and safety during the pandemic to keep operating a service on behalf of Veolia, and it is only right that this year’s pay deal goes some way to reflect their efforts over the last 18 months.”

In April, hundreds of staff at Sheffield STUDENTS’ UNION won a ‘significant’ victory on zero hours and sick pay.

Covid-19 prompted their union, Unite, to step up demands for management to introduce sick pay for casual staff in line with full-time staff and to end poor and ‘precarious’ employment practices.

At the time, Unite representative, Lois McCallum, said: “I had never belonged to a union but together we have ensured that precarious workers now have secure employment and more rights."

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