Refuse workers at Leeds city council have entered their sixth week of all-out strike action – and they are vowing to stay out until Christmas, or even longer, if that’s what it takes.
The 600 workers, who empty the bins and clean the streets in the city, voted unanimously to stay out on strike at a mass meeting on Thursday of last week.
The workers walked out on 7 September against council plans to force a pay cut of up to £6,000 from an £18,000 wage onto them as part of a “single status” agreement.
Steve, one of the strikers, told Socialist Worker, “We’re not asking for a wage rise – we just don’t want a cut. We won’t go back until they agree not to cut our pay.”
Another striker added, “I stand to lose £5,700 – that’s a big drop.
“We didn’t take it lightly to go out on strike, but we all walked out together and we’ll walk back in together.”
Kim Kenworthy, who is married to a striker, said she was backing her husband “150 percent with this strike”.
She said, “If he stays out for weeks I am happy to work and provide for the family, because that’s what you have to do.”
The workers’ unions, Unison and the GMB, pledged another £50,000 to the strikers’ hardship fund at the meeting.
The strikers are getting £150 a week strike pay – £300 less than they usually earn. But that is not denting their resolve.
Unison steward Leon Kirkham says, “The strike is as solid today as it was on the first day. There’s 100 to 150 on the picket lines every day.”
Rubbish is now piled up high on the streets of Leeds. Some homes have not had any collections at all since the start of the strike.
The council’s attempt to use scab labour to break the strike has failed. Richard Brett, the Lib Dem leader of the Tory/Lib Dem run council, has been forced to tone down his anti-worker rhetoric and instead go into ongoing talks with the union.
Striker Steve said, “Support locally has been brilliant. People are angry about politicians.
“The councillors are taking £6,000 off us and meanwhile giving themselves that much extra in expenses. They’re under massive pressure now.”
Local people are demanding that the council settles the dispute before the pile-up of waste leads to an outbreak of rats and pests.
The strike is a key part of the battle for the future of public services.
“Smaller councils are watching Leeds to see if they get away with it,” says Leeds GMB organiser Desiree Risebury. “They would like to do the same.”
Single status legislation was supposed to bring about equal pay by women’s wages being “levelled up” and raised to the same level as men’s.
But across the country councils have tried to get away with instead “levelling down” and cutting wages.
The council has admitted that slashing a third off the workers’ wages is a first step to privatisation.
GMB general secretary Paul Kenny says the unions are “planning for a long dispute”.
There will be a benefit gig this Sunday, 18 October – “Refuse to be Beat”, with comedian Keith Allen.
Paul Kenny added, “Supporting the event is a way for people in Leeds to tell the Lib Dem/Tory administration that the proper way to introduce equal pay is to increase the wage of women workers up to that of the men.
“When the equal pay legislation was passed, it was always the intention to level up, not level down.
“We plan to produce a special Christmas card for sale to support the strikers and are making arrangements for further benefit events in the city nearer Christmas.”