Southampton's strikes demonstrate need for public services without destroying them

Peter Henley
Political editor, South of England
@BBCPeterHon Twitter

Image source, bbc
Image caption,
Rubbish collection in Southampton has been affected by the strikes

After a week on strike Southampton's binmen are back to work. Unionised workers are rotating the industrial action - now it's the turn of parking enforcement officers, next toll booth collectors on the Itchen Bridge will walk out.

Other staff are refusing to do overtime or use their own cars or mobile phones, so the council is having to find alternatives.

And whilst the binmen are having to pick up a double load, on top of bank holiday collections, their wallets won't be any lighter.

Other union members are making up the money of colleagues who are on strike, which is over pay and working time cuts, which the council says will save jobs in the long run.

Public opinion

The unions have to tread carefully. The joint Unite, Unison and GMB action was on a narrow vote - 51% of Unite members in favour and 56% of Unison - so they're taking it step-by-step.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Parking wardens in Southampton are on a seven-day strike

They're also working hard to keep the public on side, by turning out to clear bins at a tower block that had become a fire risk, for example.

And picking on parking for the second week is unlikely to upset public opinion. Not handing out parking fines has not yet led to chaos in the car parks, despite a warning from the Conservative council leader.

Royston Smith said: "Any suggestion that parking will be free in the city is not true and is extremely irresponsible. If, as a result of this strike action, the council loses income, even more pressure will be put on our finances. The council already has a £25m deficit to fill this year alone and this will only add to that burden."

Southampton City Council's parking income is around £100,000 a week. Councillor Smith pointed out that it costs an average £30,000 a year to employ a council worker and accused unions of betraying their own members, to which there was an angry reply.

Calls for arbitration

Unison's Andy Straker accused the council leader of behaving more erratically with each day of the dispute saying: "Cllr Smith needs to stop the self promotion tour and start concentrating on resolving this dispute.

"The people of Southampton want a leader of council who can run the city, not a self-publicist who only seems happy when he sees himself quoted in the local paper or on Conservative websites."

The unions' call for arbitration at ACAS has been answered by a promise of meetings next month. But Councillor Smith says there must be strings attached.

"We are happy to meet with the unions and will do via ACAS, however these negotiations will only be successful if the unions offer some credible alternatives.

"So far no alternative has been suggested. We are changing terms and conditions to protect jobs and services in the city. If there was another way of saving £25m this year, other than losing 400 more jobs, we would have taken it."

Southampton is being carefully watched around the country. It's the first place to see more than a day's industrial action over government cuts, and it looks as if both sides are playing it very carefully indeed, as they work out which way public opinion will fall.