Refuse workers in Leeds have humiliated their council bosses—and shown that militant action can get results.
Around 600 refuse workers had been out on all-out, indefinite strike since 7 September against plans to ram through huge cuts that would have slashed their pay by up to a third.
On Monday, after 11 weeks of all-out action, they voted by 79 percent to accept a new offer from the council.
“This is a victory for the unions,” John Manson, a GMB union steward, told Socialist Worker. “It shows we still have power.”
The GMB and Unison members were striking against attacks which the council justified in the name of “single status”—the national agreements intended to harmonise pay rates.
Bosses have tried to use single status time and time again to push down workers’ pay and conditions—rather than raising up those on the lowest pay. But the fight in Leeds shows that they can be beaten.
“Taking a 33 percent pay cut was unthinkable, but we have now reduced it to virtually nothing,” continued John. “Some people will actually see an increase in their wages. And the council has said that privatisation is completely off the table.”
John Eddleston, another GMB steward in Leeds, has worked for the council for 31 years. “This is a big achievement,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Compared to the situation on 7 September, we’re a million miles away. We’ve become stronger during this strike. The leader of the council said he wouldn’t talk to us while we were on strike. But we made him.”
The council wanted to impose a swathe of attacks on workers in addition to the pay cuts.
They included changes to shift patterns that would introduce compulsory weekend working, productivity targets and the threat of privatisation.
The fact that they were trying to do so without agreement with the unions caused bitter anger among workers.
The deal represents a defeat for the council, but still includes shift changes for one group of around 90 Streetscene cleaning workers who currently work a five-day week.
These would mean they would work weekends and bank holidays as part of their regular shifts and for no extra money.
Some have second jobs because their pay is so low. Others have family commitments and childcare at weekends. If they are forced to change their shift patterns it will cause them serious problems.
A further 22 workers face pay cuts, albeit smaller ones than the council originally wanted them to swallow.
Some voted to reject the offer. Stephen Proctor is a senior steward in Leeds Unison who voted no. “We came out saying we didn’t want anyone to lose a penny and that we wouldn’t go back with anyone losing a penny,” he told Socialist Worker.
“If one person loses, then it’s not a victory.”
But despite the problems with the deal, strikers do recognise the significance of what they have achieved.
Stephen continued, “The council hasn’t done what it wanted to do. I stood to lose £5,700 when this started and now I’m not.
“I think we’ve been a test case for other councils. People have been fantastic—dropping us flasks of tea at the picket lines, bringing us food and giving money.
“A group of workers from the Lindsey Oil Refinery came to our mass meeting on Monday and handed over £1,500 for us. They said our struggle had been brilliant.”
Another added, “Only a minority of workers will see a pay reduction—a maximum of £500. Before it could have been thousands of pounds.
“We’ve won this battle but the war isn’t over.”
Union reps are determined to fight to minimise the impact of the shift changes, for example by arguing that people who have religious beliefs that prevent them from working on certain days should not be forced to.
Workers and their union reps will now enter negotiations with bosses over revising their collection routes and on developing productivity targets.
The strikers’ militancy and determination won widespread solidarity from other groups of workers and forced the dispute onto the national agenda. The deal should set a benchmark for other councils in Britain.
“We’ll march back to work on Wednesday with our heads held high,” says John Eddleston. “The council thought it could do things without listening to the union. It can’t.”