Striking refuse workers in Leeds are getting more determined by the day as they enter their 11th week of all-out, indefinite action.
The strikers are fighting the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition council’s plan to attack their pay and conditions. They are getting ready for a possible escalation in their dispute.
Under the anti-union laws, the council may be able to sack them if they strike for more than 12 weeks.
Many doubt that the council would risk raising the stakes with such a serious attack—but they are preparing for it anyway. Strikers are discussing the idea of balloting the entire council workforce if bosses sack them.
Their willingness to spread the action reflects the strength of feeling among workers—and it is a strategy that the unions should pursue.
“Financially it’s been difficult but morale is good,” Nick, one of the strikers, told Socialist Worker.
“The council said it had made its final offer to us a few weeks ago but now it’s had to come to the table and talk. Somebody’s resolve has broken—and it’s not ours.”
The workers’ GMB and Unison unions have submitted an alternative proposal to the council. Workers expect to hear a response this week.
The strike is still enjoying a lot of public support. I watched as passing drivers handed out fivers and tenners to strikers from their car windows at a picket line just outside the city centre.
A nearby cafe is offering a discount for strikers and another regularly brings sandwiches down to the picket line.
Strikers are cheerful and confident. They dismiss council propaganda as increasingly desperate attempts to undermine public support for the action.
“We’ve won awards for the quality of our service and got an extra day’s holiday last year because of it,” said John.
“Now the council is badmouthing us. Why is it saying we need to increase our productivity if we’re winning awards?”
Workers’ anger at the council—and particularly its leader Richard Brett—is at boiling point. “I’ve worked here 30 years and it’s time we had a go back at the system,” said Andy. “The councillors haven’t got a clue about the job.
“Why doesn’t Brett put on some overalls and see how hard we work? If he thinks we can do a bin every 13 seconds why doesn’t he try it?”
“How much money is it costing the council to hire the scabs?” asked Martin, another striker. “It’s a complete waste of money. Scabs came to my street last week and took one bin bag off the top of the bin and left the rest.”
The council is pushing wage cuts in the name of the “single status” agreements that all local authorities are trying to implement. These harmonise pay and conditions of council jobs.
They were sold as particularly benefiting low paid women. But pickets argue that low paid workers should have their pay raised to match the rates of others—not the other way around.
They are quick to point out the hypocrisy of being asked to swallow cuts by those at the top.
“The councillors are trying to keep us down but they want to get more,” said Derek.
“MPs don’t even have to use their wages to pay bills. They get expenses—what do they spend their wages on?”
Nick agrees. “It’d be no different if we had a Labour-run council,” he said. “The expenses scandal all came from the government in the first place. Gordon Brown has said that this dispute is a local issue, but the council is following policy that his government brought in.”
The victory in Brighton (see box) has shown that people can beat “single status” cuts.
A victory for Leeds bin workers would boost workers across Britain. Every trade unionist should make it a priority to get behind them.
All names have been changed to protect strikers.
To donate to the strike fund go to » www.gmb.org.uk
Rush messages of support to email@example.com and