Rubbish is piling up in streets across Birmingham as resistance to a Labour council’s cuts programme intensifies.
Refuse workers have been striking on and off since 30 June, and escalated to daily walkouts from Monday of this week.
Most of the strikes have been two hours long. Unite plans to step up to three-hour walkouts from next week—and to keep the action up until September.
The dispute concerns a “restructuring” of the bins service. It’s supposedly about making it more efficient and less reliant on overtime.
But for workers it means an intensive new shift pattern, the threat of job losses, and wage cuts of up to £6,000 a year.
One worker, Ben—not his real name—told Socialist Worker, “We just want to keep our job at the rate we’ve been paid. We haven’t even had a pay rise in five years.”
He added, “We work a nine and a half hour day. Under the new shift pattern we’re expected to collect the same amount of rubbish in just seven and a quarter hours.
“Our industrial action means we’re working a seven and a quarter hour shift now, and we’re proving that it’s just not possible.”
One central proposal is getting rid of a safety critical role, the grade three supervisor.
Ben said, “They not only load the bins, but when the truck reverses they check there’s no children running out behind it, for example.
“These wheelie bins fly up in the air when the buttons are pressed. But in order to drive down pay they are getting rid of the people who watch them.”
The talk of overtime is exaggerated, he argued—and its real cause is understaffing.
“The overspend on overtime is £200,000 at most,” Ben argued.
“We all need cover, and that means we have to work overtime.”
The council has the government’s Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel (BIIP) breathing down its neck.
It came out of the 2014 Kerslake Review, which argued that the council was indebted, inefficient—and too slow in making cuts.
The bins service came under particular scrutiny. The review argued that privatising it would save £14 million.
The Tory government set up BIIP to “hold the council’s feet to the fire” and make sure it didn’t let up on the review’s recommendations.
But while the local press is revelling in coverage of maggots infesting uncollected bin bags and the like, the prospect of a summer of stench has rocked the council.
It has responded by hiring expensive strike-breaking agencies, and found excuses to victimise workers. Councillors count on public hostility to the strikers.
But the blame for bin chaos lies with the austerity government, its enforcers in BIIP—and a Labour council that shamefully attacks workers on their behalf.
Supporting the strike is a chance to fight back.