Refuse lorry drivers in Barking and Dagenham in east London are fighting council plans to cut their pay by £1,000 a year.
Workers walked out for three days last week from Wednesday to Friday, and plan two more strike days for the 7 and 8 April.
The strikers also have serious concerns about not having enough time to carry out safety checks on their lorries. Two recent high profile crashes in Glasgow and Bath involving bin lorries left a total of ten people dead. They highlight the importance of maintaining safety checks.
The refuse workers are required to carry out “pre start” checks on their vehicles every morning. They say this should take around half an hour. But they are being given as little as 15 minutes.
“There’s no way you can check it in 15 minutes—it’s undermining the health and safety of people on the street,” said James.
“We’re expected to check everything in that time—from every button to the tire pressure,” explained Damian. “But we weren’t even given the tools to check the pressure, so you’ve got to do it by hand.”
Jacob said, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kick the tyre.”
Joseph added, “In the mornings it’s dark and there aren’t any lights. I’ve had to use the torch on my phone.”
The council said it “fully recognises the importance of the safety check”.
But Damian said, “It takes at least nine minutes to fill in the log books alone. I’ve been on the job 20 years—I know it, they don’t.”
While workloads are going up, pay and conditions are going down. Damian said, “We’re bending over backwards to do our jobs. How many bins do we have to collect from in a run—1,500?”
“That’s about a 10-mile walk along with the truck,” added a striker. “We’d only get half done if management had us follow their rules.”
“We shouldn’t have to work like this these days,” said Declan. This is the same story for refuse and recycling workers across Britain. Workers in Sheffield walked out on indefinite strike last November over pay, terms and conditions, and allegations of management bullying.
Declan explained, “They’ve already cut us down from the unsocial hours. It means we’re more or less working the weekend like we do the week.”
Steve said, “Morale has hit rock bottom. Lots of guys are looking for other jobs.” The dispute is part of the battle across Britain against councils slashing jobs and public services.
Barking and Dagenham council claims it has to slash £54 million during the next three years. But workers aren’t taking it anymore. “Everyone is fed up with the cuts,” said Declan.
Ed agreed, “They keep cutting our money. We’ve had enough—sometimes you’ve just got to take a stand.”
Workers’ names have been changed
Security guards and police patrol the picket lines
In one of several letters to workers, the council warned that “the strike will be managed as robustly as possible”.
It added, “Any unknown picketers should be reported to your manager.”
During the first day of the strike a police riot van sporadically drove past the depot and went into the yard.
Security guards dressed head to toe in black patrolled the periphery. They would sometimes take the dogs to the park opposite the picket lines. But workers said it was really about trying to intimidate them.
“We’ve never had this before when we’ve been on strike,” said one worker. Socialist Worker has seen a letter management sent to workers before the strike with “questions and answers” about the action.
“They detailed how they were going to handle the strike,” said Jacob “and that included them putting in CCTV cameras”.
The letter says this would be “deployed for the duration of the strike period at key locations for crime and disorder reasons”.
It also made clear that “no overtime will be paid to clear any backlog” and that there’s “no service for Good Friday or Easter Monday which means no overtime for those two days will be available”.
This has led workers to allege bullying behaviour by the refuse bosses.
Damian said, “It’s the management bullying that people are really fed up with. They can’t stand anyone who speaks up to them.”
Jacob also explained that the workers’ GMB union office is also under threat. “We’ve got our union offices in the Frizlands Learning Centre that’s on site in our depot. But now they’re trying to move it.”
It’s clear that it will take solid action to beat management back—but workers are confident and up for the fight.
Support this crucial dispute
The attack from bosses has provoked a solid reaction from the workers.
“We’re serious about making management back off—it’s not a token one day action,” said one worker.
Steve said, “The strike is rock solid—pretty much everyone is out.”
Declan said, “We have to fight now—you have to fight at the beginning.
“What’s next otherwise? They’ll only want more and they will keep coming for us.
“Losing £1,000 would cripple some of the young lads. I’ve only got a couple of years left until retirement, but they’ve got mortgages and kids to look after.
“But I’ll always stand with them.”
Every trade unionist needs to get behind the strikers. It’s a part of the fight against council cuts—a major battleground in the campaign against austerity.
When they strike again in April, we need to show them full solidarity.