In an inspiring act of solidarity between full time and agency staff, about 140 workers for Salford council’s cleansing department – refuse workers, recycling teams and road sweepers – struck for the day on Wednesday of last week.
The workers, members of the new Unite union, voted for a strike, an overtime ban and a work to rule against the casualisation of the workforce.
In 2001 Salford city bosses added a few agency workers to the city’s refuse and street cleaning services. They said it was to cover “holidays and sickness”.
On the picket line on Wednesday morning (see picture, page 6), one agency worker told Socialist Worker, “I’m supposed to be covering for someone off sick. He must be very ill – I’ve been covering for six years!”
The union says that more than 100 agency workers are regularly used, and that 52 of them have been working for more than 12 months.
Agency workers in the refuse service earn £5.35 an hour compared to £7.92 for council staff.
Mick Cashman, senior organiser for Unite, said, “All we are asking for is that the council honours our agreements on pay and conditions and ends the casualisation of our jobs.
Until recently agency workers had to turn up in the morning and queue to find out if there was work for them that day.
Now they are phoned at home. The job security of agency workers is nil. “You can be sacked just because your face doesn’t fit,” said one.
For agency workers, bank holidays are “normal working days” – but then agency workers don’t get holiday pay. They don’t get sick pay either.
Recently, a 16-year old lad had both his legs broken when he fell under a refuse lorry’s wheels.
Some agency workers said they are told to provide their own waterproofs and safety boots – normally the employers’ responsibility.
What produced this situation? A worker explained, “It’s all part of Tony Blair’s legacy. He boasts we have the most flexible workforce in Europe. That’s us – underpaid, undertrained, with no rights.”
Salford is a Labour controlled council. A quick visit to its website shows that 30 of its councillors shared £900,000 in expenses last year.
The local MP is arch Blairite Hazel Blears.
The council’s cleaning and refuse workers – full-time and agency alike – are determined to kill casualisation before it spreads further. The strike is only the first step in a determined campaign.
Around 70 strikers held a confident meeting on Monday to plan further action. Representatives of the GMB and Unison council unions also attended. A Unison member spoke from the floor about why he refused to cross the picket line.