As councillors exchanged political blows inside City Hall over this year’s budget, trade unions gathered outside the building to protest the proposed cuts to services and union support.
The budget proposed by the Labour administration, and voted on today (Tuesday, February 15) attempts to balance the budget by cutting £19.5mn from services across the council.
Areas set to see cuts include 30-minute free parking, South Bristol Rehab Centre, and the museum and library services. The City Council itself is planning significant staff redundancies.
Around 40 people from unions including Unison, Unite, GMB and Equity gathered outside City Hall from 1pm before the full council meeting where the budget and its amendments would be voted on.
The main target of the unions anger is the proposal for a major cut to trade union facility time, funding which allows trade union reps to take time off work to perform union duties. Currently budgeted at £195,000, the new budget allocates only £50,000.
Speaking outside City Hall, Roger Thomas from Bristol Trades Union Council (TUC) said the cut to facility time is ‘an indication of a growing trend amongst Labour authorities to actually become less and less responsive to their trade unions.’
He said that the cut will reduce the possibility for meaningful negotiation and discussion between the council and its union representatives.
Speaking about the general cuts proposed by the council, Roger said he would like to see greater resistance from the council to cuts dictated from Westminster and argued that council’s have the potential to drive that resistance.
‘Does it have to be like this? No it doesn’t. Councillors have a choice. It’s a political issue over whether you decide to make cuts at the council or whether you decide to stand and fight,’ he said.
In 2017, Marvin Rees called on core city leaders to protest austerity from Westminster after pressure from anti-austerity campaigners like People’s Assembly Against Austerity. At the time, Rees said he wanted to ‘harness’ the energy of anti-austerity campaigns to target the government.
Roger would like to see a return of this kind of resistance from the council and mayor, saying that there is a ‘latent support’ in the city for the council to stand against cuts.
Tom Baldwin, chair of the Unite Community Branch for Bristol and Gloucester echoed this, arguing that Labour councils across the country could band together to resist government cuts to central funding.
Tom, who is standing in the upcoming Southmead by-election as a representative of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, also said that resisting cuts would mean working through the electoral system and mobilising the public to protest and even strike.
As to what this would look like in practise, Tom pointed to previous campaigns to save libraries after funding cuts, and to the current campaign by ACORN, the community union, to reopen public toilets in Bristol closed by previous rounds of cuts.
On the need for greater agitation to resist cuts, Tom said: How were these services won in the first place? It wasn’t the benevolence of the City Council or anyone else, it was campaigning that’s won the services we’ve got.’
Opposition parties have all introduced amendments to the proposed budget which will be voted on this afternoon.
The Green Party propose using ‘abnormally high’ council reserves and borrowing, as well as cutting the budgets of the mayor’s office and the council PR, to reopen public toilets, and protect disabled parking spaces and union facility time
The Lib Dems propose to increase borrowing by £1.4mn to fund school places for SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) children, and invest in parks, and walking and cycling infrastructure.
The Conservatives, like the Greens, propose to cut funding from the mayor’s office to make bulky waste collections cheaper, restore library budgets, reopen public toilets and plant more trees.
Finally, the Knowle West Community Party wish to budget £280,000 to save and refurbish Jubilee Pool.