Rich City of London challenged by its workers

by James Ivens, London Socialist Party

The richest local authority area in Europe was rocked by a workforce-wide pay strike on 25 May.

Members of general unions GMB and Unite are demanding a rise of 15% or £5,000, whichever is greater. Their employer is the City of London Corporation, governing body of the capital’s traditional finance district, the ‘Square Mile’.

Around 200 workers flooded the square outside the Guildhall, home to the City’s council chamber.

Pressing against the mirrored glass, they chanted “Pay up!” at the ‘common councillors’ and ‘aldermen’ processing into their meeting. One striker pulled cash from his wallet and waved it at the Lord Mayor of London in his ceremonial hat, shouting “This is what you want!”

GMB reps tell us it’s only their third strike in the history of the Corporation — an authority which predates both capitalism and parliament, and whose special privileges are still protected by the Magna Carta of 1215. It’s their first-ever strike directly on pay.

The Square Mile is home to the Bank of England, the insurance industry, and much of big finance. Wealthy businesses that profit from soaring inflation get votes in the City’s elections. Yet their politicians claim they can’t pay up to beat inflation!

The Corporation also owns or runs senior national courts, tourist attractions, schools, housing, the London Port Health Authority, its own independent police force, and 10,000 acres of forest and parkland, in and around Greater London.

GMB put on 13 picket lines — as far out as the Port of Tilbury, where vets downed tools. At the Barbican theatre and housing complex, workers got a worried-sounding enquiry about the strike from an expensive suit entering the elite corporate law multinational opposite.

Workers from West Ham Park, run by the City, told us that surrounding parks run by the local borough got much higher bonuses for working through Covid. Their own amounted to just a pound a day.

The City’s handful of Labour councillors reportedly spoke in favour of the pay claim at a previous council meeting, which is welcome. But on the strike day they announced they wouldn’t ‘cross the picket line’ to attend.

It’s not scabbing to take your elected seat and argue the workers’ case. This was an opportunity to be the voice of the strike outside, maximising pressure. Workers need political representatives that act in their interests.

Pay talks are expected in mid-June. If the City’s pay committee tries to stall, union members will want a programme of further strike action to keep the pressure on.

A striker told the Socialist: “It’s been a real learning experience for most of us who have never been out on strike before. The organisation and commitment within the branch has been amazing, along with the support given at regional and national levels. Lessons have been learnt. We left the Guildhall yard stronger and more united in our fight for fair pay.”