The significance of the Birmingham bin workers’ strike

On November 24 2017, a resolution was reached to the Birmingham bin strike. Meeting at ACAS, Unite the union, representing the affected workers, agreed terms to end the strike with the council leadership, writes James Wright.

The reasons why…

The overt reason for the dispute was the attempt by the council to reduce the cost of waste disposal after an overspend of nearly £9 million in the service’s budget in 2016-17. The council attempted to lower the costs through a reorganisation. Once the annual budget was agreed in late February 2017, the union was involved in many negotiating meetings and accepted many of the proposed changes. But neither the Unite union nor the workers they represent could accept the proposal to degrade the roles of 113 staff and consequent savage reduction in their wages. (See here for a more detailed report of how the strike started)

A history lesson….

In August, it seemed like the dispute was about to be settled. On August 15, council leader John Clancy and the Unite union, with Howard Beckett, the Unite assistant general secretary, representing the 113 bin workers threatened with redundancy, made a deal at ACAS. This was ratified by a meeting of the Labour-controlled council cabinet.

But away from public scrutiny, senior council officers, in particular, the acting (since February 2017) chief executive of the council, Stella Manzie, insisted that the deal could not go ahead. They claimed that allowing the deal to go through for 113 male workers on a grade 3 position would leave the council open to equal pay claims by other female staff on the same grade. The council was previously hit by a massive bill for this same mistake. But many doubt the credibility of this pretext, as the workers in question were already on grade 3.

The council then publicly stated that a deal had not been made. The cabinet accepted the advice of the officers and reneged on the deal they had previously agreed. Behind the scenes, a struggle between the two dominant factions within the Birmingham Labour party was resuming. The factions were those of the leader John Clancy and of the previous leader, Albert Bore. (Bore stood down in October 2015 and was replaced by Clancy who he had defeated in previous leadership challenges). A media war broke out over explaining why the deal could not go ahead or who was responsible for its collapse. It was claimed that the council leader was acting without the authority of the Labour group and had not consulted council officers. Then the council leader himself publicly stated that the deal at ACAS was only a draft one. (This is contradicted by emails that came out via Skawkbox which prove a deal had been reached. Clancy had written to the bin depot managers that an agreement had been made contradicting the statement made to the media.

In the council chamber, the opposition Tory party and the smaller Liberal Democrats blamed the Labour Party’s mismanagement of the waste services since they took over in 2012. They attacked both the council leader and the striking bin workers. Their accusations were in line with the criticism of the 2014 Kerslake review. Due to the daily disruption to life in the city and the risks of uncollected waste, heated debate informed and uninformed took place on TV, radio, the press and social media over responsibility for the dispute. One example that illustrated the ferocity of opinion over the strike was provided by a volunteer group of Muslims, called the Bearded Broz, in the city centre, in Small Heath, who set up their own waste collection for their own and neighbouring streets where waste had lain uncollected for a number of weeks in the middle of the summer. This group were denounced as strike breakers by those who supported the strike but lauded by those who opposed the strike.

By August 31, the position of the council hardened. It issued redundancy notices to the bin workers. The next day, the union restarted the strike action. They also threatened the council with legal action if the redundancy notices were not withdrawn within a week, based on the agreement at ACAS that the employed had reneged on.

Opinions in both the city and the local Labour Party were polarizing and hardening. On September 8, the city’s 9 Labour MP’s sent a letter to BCC condemning the failure to reach an agreement. As the contradictions in Clancy’s position became public i.e. his denial of a deal followed by proof that there had been one, he was forced to resign on September 11. He had lost the confidence of the Labour councillors. The majority in the city blamed the council for the collapse of the deal. Polling showed that 37% blamed the council, 18% the union and 47% blamed both sides. Meanwhile on September 12, at TUC Congress, Howard Beckett blamed acting chief executive Stella Manzie for using the excuse of equal pay to oppose the agreement which was not part of the Birmingham City Council legal claim and called for her to resign. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell also at Congress issued a statement supporting the strike.

On September 15, the city’s 9 Labour MPs met with the new interim council leader Ian Ward lobbying for the ACAS agreement. Ward had been Albert Bore’s deputy. John Clancy stood for more council spending with the council raising funds based on its assets and not just spending the funds on prestige city centre projects. Albert Bore stood for a more restrictive financial position.

Supporters of the bin workers within the Labour Party and the unions were starting to raise the issue in some of the wards. . Only a minority of Labour councillors have publicly expressed any support for Corbyn  The councillor responsible for waste, Lisa Trickett, saw her own ward of Moseley and Kings Heath pass a motion supporting the bin workers in the face of her opposition on September 14. There has been an influx of new members in some wards at least. Left activists and the unions in the city came together and created a support committee for the bin workers, which involved all groups apart from the Communist Party.

By this time the mandate from the initial ballot had expired. On September 18, the Unite bin workers voted to extend the strike after for a further 12 weeks with a 92 % vote in favour on a 72% turnout.

On September 20, the Unite union won an injunction in the courts to block the redundancy notices until a further hearing as to whether reneging on the ACAS agreement was a breach of contract. Separately the union stated that the intimidation that the workers had suffered was contrary to Labour Party rules on how Labour councils should behave. As a result of winning the injunction, the union suspended strike action until the court case was resolved. The council continued to take a very aggressive position in the dispute. On September 28, they sent a letter to the affected workers stating that the period of the legal action would be included in their notice period if the council won in the courts.

Ian Ward was elected as the new leader of the Labour group on September 28. In the first public softening of the council’s position, he stated on November 8 that he wanted to resolve the dispute before the court case to avoid costs. On November 24, a new agreement was announced at ACAS, a slightly amended version of the earlier agreement to be implemented in February 2018.

The terms were as follows:

  • The 109 workers retain grade 3 status.
  • The ‘leading hand’ title is abolished and replaced by a new ‘Waste Reduction and Collection’ role (WRCO), retaining safety responsibilities as well as communication with residents.
  • Each refuse wagon will have a team of driver, at least one loader and a WRCO, vital for the safe operation of the crew and the public.
  • Guaranteed protection against redundancies and any role changes for at least 12 months from implementation.
  • Any future changes to waste collection services will be agreed by a joint ‘Service Improvement Board’ to be established jointly between BCC and the unions.
  • All disputes and industrial actions will be withdrawn as soon as the agreement has been signed by both parties.
  • The ongoing High Court proceedings will be terminated as soon as the agreement is finalised and binding.
  • Union’s legal costs to be paid.

This was a face saving agreement for the council as it is almost identical to the agreement reached in August. The only change was in the legal redefinition of the previous grade 3 role of the leading hand into the ‘new’ role of ‘Waste Reduction and Collection’ role (WRCO).

The position of the Tory government

The Trojan Horse affair (in which allegations were made that hardline Islamists were gaining undue influence in some of the city’s schools – find link to article) had been used by the coalition government to set up a review of the City Council led by Kerslake, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He reported in December 2014 and was strongly critical of the council’s performance. The council accepted most of the recommendations and their implementation is being monitored by a government created improvement panel. One of the recommendations of the report was to privatise and reorganise the refuse collection service with a projected saving of £14 million. There is a threat that if sufficient improvements aren’t made the council will be taken over.

In February 2017, the chief executive Mark Rogers finally resigned, after publicly criticising the scale of the cuts required and their impact on council services. It was suspected, based on her previous history that Stella Manzie was brought in to drive through those recommendations which had not yet been implemented. This would explain the aggressive and confrontational approach she took.

The outcome of the dispute

Council officers estimate that the strike costs £6.6 million – money it could ill afford given its budget has been squeezed by central government for the past 7 years. This was to bring in outside contractors to add to and replace the work performed by the strikers; diverting staff and paying overtime to cover for the strikers; to pay extra landfill tax from dumping waste into landfill sites from cancelling the recycling collections during the strike; to pay for legal advice and the lost income from recycling paper. The environment has been damaged from using the landfill sites instead of recycling and from the increase in fly tipping; reaching 30,000 incidents recorded. On December 7, it was announced that the acting chief executive Stella Manzie had not applied for the permanent position.

The Unite union attributed their success in avoiding redundancies as due to the high level of organisation provided by convenor, Richard Beddows, and the city-wide union reps, as well as the determined unity shown by the strikers. The tactics of short, intermittent action of three one-hour stoppages each day involving a return back to depots on each stoppage, proved effective in creating maximum disruption. This minimised the loss in pay and retained the bin wagons under the control of the striking workers. The bin workers received donations and letters of support from trade unionists and socialists from as far and wide as Mexico, Hong Kong and South Africa, along with picket line visits and donations from local union branches and left activist’s street stalls.

This particular dispute has been resolved but further disputes will arise from austerity. Birmingham City council have already announced that it proposes to reduce its budget – and therefore services – by £111 million a year for the next 4 years. The council describes this in anaesthetised terms of ‘making savings’. Based on past years timetable this will be decided at the beginning of March 2018.

Interpreting the dispute

There were and are a number of deeper currents behind this dispute.

Both the Birmingham Labour Party and the wider West Midlands region have long been in the control of the right of the party. The bureaucrats have had a grip on the party for a long time. Some constituency parties have been suspended for long periods by the national party – indeed for so long that many can’t remember when they weren’t, as implicitly criticised by the Chakrabarti review.

Nor are local trade unions free from problems. Until he was sacked in June 2017, Gerrard Coyne was the powerful regional secretary of Unite. He stood against McCluskey for General Secretary on a platform of opposition to the union’s support for Corbyn. Howard Beckett is one of McCluskey’s key allies within the union.

There is suspicion that at least part of what has been going on is the playing out of conflicts within the Labour Party over how far the Corbyn movement is able to change the policies and personnel of the Labour party. The strong position adopted by the assistant general secretary, Beckett, who was brought in to lead for the union after the strike had proved to have solid support from the workers, would indicate that Unite saw this as an important battle to be won against the opposition of the local Labour Party controlled by opponents of Corbyn. Beckett, from the collapse of the initial deal until the new settlement was reached was vociferous in his denunciation of the dishonesty of the Labour led council in backing away from the August deal.

The settlement would not have been possible without the solidarity and courage of the bin workers in persisting with their strike from July through until September in the face of determined and threatening tactics from the council. The bin workers are fortunate in having the leverage that comes from the fact that their strikes seriously disrupt the life of the city. Most workers do not have the same leverage.

The Tory government was threatening to take control of the council if it could be shown to have failed to follow Kerslake’s recommendations. This is an example of it blaming local government – and especially Labour local authorities – for austerity.

This dispute is just one example of the struggle between those who want to prolong austerity or to create new policies which oppose or at minimum to soften its impact at the level of local government and nationally. The policies behind these different approaches are formed by and opposed by the political factions involved and reflect wider public debate that justifies or condemns austerity and debates the role of government itself in running essential services.

 

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