Strikes in Devon and Cornwall: Workers respond to brutal pay cuts

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In Devon and Cornwall at the end of April, the Police Executive sent out letters to its civilian support staff - from cleaners, canteen workers, and telephone staff to people working in forensic labs - informing them that the new pay evaluation meant pay cuts of up to 28% for hundreds of workers. The response was immediate. Workers of all categories immediately walked off the job and held protest rallies. "Staff abandoned their posts in spontaneous protests in Plymouth, Launceston, Camborne and at the Middlemoor headquarters in Exeter.single mothers wept as they faced the prospect of a drop in their income of up to £10,500, many wondering how they would avoid losing their homes" ('this is Devon' website). The anger was widespread and very deep. As one worker interviewed by 'this is Devon' put it: "I have given 16 years to this force, working on the front desk, all over. I have had my head kicked in and yet I have stuck at it. I have a newborn baby and I am the only wage earner in the house. I don't know how we're going to cope, I don't know how I'm going to pay my mortgage, and I'm scared. I've never been treated so badly by an employer in my life". Some rank and file police officers also joined the rallies.

The main union involved, the GMB, was no doubt surprised by the scale of the workers' response, but lost no time in trying to get back in control by talking tough "It is disgusting how Devon and Cornwall Police have treated people." said GMB spokesman Gary Smith. "The decision to cut people's wages is short-sighted as it will end up costing the force even more. Long-standing experienced staff will leave. They will have to be replaced with new people and they will have to be trained.. Our message to staff is to stay and fight. We will not sit back and accept this".

Smith also announced that the mass meeting to be held on the Monday after the walkouts - where the union was to propose official industrial action - would be open to all police support staff, even non-union members. Allowing non-union members into the hallowed sanctuary of a union meeting goes against the grain of British trade unionism and is a sign of the pressure towards real unity coming from the workforce.

The Police Executive was even more staggered and backed down almost immediately; within days all the proposed pay cuts had been dropped. The police authorities broke new ground by blaming computers for the pay evaluation that had recommended such massive pay-cuts. A manager of the police communication system said "This evaluation was carried out by a computer which takes the job, looks at what's involved in it, then puts a price tag on it. We have been told that there are councils who have refused to use this system because it is useless" (ibid).

The workers were jubilant about the management climb-down, some calling it a victory for "people power" and for "democracy in motion".

No doubt this is a sector of workers with many illusions, working as they do in such close proximity to the police force (which is certainly not part of the working class, even if, in moments of class struggle, individual policemen may defect to the side of the workers). It also took place in a region of the country not generally associated with militant action. But in a way this increases the significance of their reaction. Faced with an open attack, anger and frustration that has been building up for a long time exploded to the surface, and workers were not afraid to defy the law, cast aside the union rule book and hit the streets. They gave the bosses a brief glimpse not of peoples' power, but of workers' power - the power of the working class to defend itself. And the bosses took heed, even if the attacks will certainly be repackaged in a less crude way in the near future.

This strike was a small expression of a much wider process going on inside the working class. Faced with the growing arrogance of capital, its demands for ever-greater sacrifices, the working class is beginning to shake off years of passivity and demonstrate its readiness to fight back.

Amos 29.4.05

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