In Birmingham, rubbish lies uncollected in streets and in homes at the end of the summer, creating a health risk, attracting rats and creating a fire hazard, reports James Wright. Long queues obstruct traffic at the refuse depots after the council asked residents to take waste to the depots. The council in an attempt to crush the strike and to deal with the health and fire risks have hired outside contractors, agency workers, to clear the streets of rubbish.
Strike action was called by one of the 4 unions representing the workforce, Unite, when it announced on June 22 that the refuse workers would strike from 10.45am to 3.37pm on June 30. This was followed by a series of two-hour stoppages starting at 6am on July 3, 11, 19 and 27
After negotiations broke down Unite announced an escalation of action in that from July 28th there would be 3 hour stoppages every day from 6am to 8am and from 1230pm to 130pm. There would also be a ban on overtime working and the workers will return to their depots during lunch and tea breaks.
The workers have been intimidated into silence by threats from the council of discipline or dismissal for anyone speaking out in public in support of the action.
Despite the council initially refusing to go to the arbitration service ACAS, a provisional deal was reached on August 16, between a Unite negotiating team led by Howard Beckett and the council team led by the Labour council leader John Clancy, using ACAS.
This deal entailed maintaining the leading hand (grade 3) posts that were at risk of redundancy and accepted the proposed move to 5 day working. Further talks were continuing on how to improve the refuse collection service. The union suspended further industrial action
The agreement was due to be accepted by the council Cabinet committee on August 24 but on that day council officials delivered a report stating that the deal could not go ahead. It claimed that the terms agreed would leave the council open to legal action by other council workers who were on employed on unequal terms and thus leave the council at risk of setting an illegal unbalanced budget.
A further council cabinet meeting was scheduled for September 1 to decide upon the deal, but this was cancelled by the chief executive Stella Manzie, and letters were sent out that day to make the leading hand posts redundant.
The industrial action was restarted by the union immediately.
Effectively John Clancy and the controlling Labour group have reneged on the agreed deal. Clancy even went as far as stating that no agreement was made, to the fury of the union. ACAS issued a statement contradicting this.
Unite are now suggesting that industrial action will continue at least until 2018. Unison are now balloting members to take strike action.
Why has Unite taken strike action?
To cut costs, the council is attacking the wages and working conditions of the workforce.
Negotiations between council and the 4 unions broke down (after 57 hours of talks and 24 different meetings) when the council decided to impose new terms and conditions upon the refuse workers. It wants to cut the workforce by 20%, removing 122 jobs.
The current bin lorries use a three person team, a driver (grade 4), a loader to empty the bins (grade 2), and a leading hand (grade 3) to act as look out for traffic and obstacles and to make sure the team are kept safe.
The council wishes to remove the role of the leading hand (113 jobs) and to reduce it to that of a loader, with the consequent reduction in the wages bill. The wage cut would amount to a loss of £3000 to £5000 a year for individuals which would make a huge difference to the lives of those workers.
The council want to move from a 4 day pattern of a 9 hour work day to a 5 day 7 and a half hour pattern adding an hour and a half to the working week and banning overtime. The council claim that they have offered alternative jobs for the redundant positions but it is open to question if these suit the abilities and wishes of the workers. Additionally the council say they will replace all agency workers by full time posts.
There are underlying reasons why the refuse workers are suspicious of the council’s plans.
Before 2014 rubbish was left in black bags and not in bins and was collected by 5 man teams on the bin lorries. Between 2014 and 2016 the bags were replaced by a number of bins for recycling and charges have been introduced for residents to take away green waste. With the mismanagement of these changes, there has been a significant increase of fly tipping and of workload.
Not only has the workforce been reduced but since 2008 the refuse workers have suffered two wages cuts. In 2011 and 2014 the unions successfully negotiated with the council improvements to the waste service without industrial action, but not this time.
Strike action is strongly supported by Unite members – 90% voted for the action. The useful explanation by one worker here.
The council’s position
There are two reasons for the council’s position –, national austerity policy and the mismanagement of changes in waste disposal. The council have been carrying out a modernisation programme of its waste services. The Labour controlled council, since 2012, initially claimed that the conflict with the workers was due to the cuts in national government grants. This is partially true. £650 million has been cut from the government grant to the council since 2010.
However, the council while verbally opposing cuts and blaming the Coalition and Tory governments for the cuts has done nothing to oppose them. Its consultation exercises just go through the motions; justifying cuts by asking residents on which services the cuts should fall rather than how to oppose them.
The council subsequently stated that the waste disposal service overspent its budget by £9.7 to £11.9 million during the financial year 2016-2017. This was primarily due to its use of 200 agency staff (which it now wishes to replace by full time jobs) and by the use of overtime.
This is linked to the move from using black bags to bins and placing charges on green waste resulting in an increase in fly tipping. Extra work has been required to deal with these changes.
With the projected increase in the number of Birmingham households by 50,000 from the current 354,000 in the next 20 years, the demands on the service can only get greater.
Local government cuts
This is a war on the middle and working classes by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. Both the previous Coalition government and the current Tory government cut the budgets of all of government departments. Local government has been hardest hit;
This has been used to deflect responsibility for lost or degraded services from Tory led central government to councils which are often controlled by other parties.
Austerity is a failed policy; capitalism failed in 2008; the financial system failed before and during the crisis. Ordinary people are paying for this failure.
Contrary to apparent common sense, a national budget is not the same as a household or company budget. If you cut national government spending you reduce the whole national economy.
National capital spending (on railways or houses, for example) creates employment and give people money to spend, which circulates, and the result is that you expand national economic activity. That is why the British economy has been performing so poorly since 2008. Millionaires and big corporations have benefited from austerity while everyone else suffers unnecessarily.
Left Unity led a protest In support of the refuse workers at midday, on Tuesday July 25, supported by others outside of the council house (Birmingham’s Town Hall). Black bag waste was deposited on the steps of the building, to dump the responsibility where it belongs. Taking advantage of the situation the Liberal Democrats imitated this action a week later.
Local left activists have supported the refuse workers’ picket lines. The strike committee are asking residents to lobby their councillors in support of the workers’ demands.
You can contact the strike committee on 0121 643 6221.