Refuse collectors in Birmingham are on strike for the fifth week against a Labour council's plan to tear up their agreed working conditions.
Council bosses want to get rid of 113 “grade three” workers on lookout at the back of bin lorries and impose a new rota with more work and less rest.
But Unite union members are putting up a fight, striking for three hours a day with most members turning out for dozens-strong picket lines at four depots around the city.
At Redfern depot in south east Birmingham, rows of lorries stood empty as almost everyone—including agency workers—joined pickets at the gate. Strikers say that workers in other unions are refusing to cross the picket lines.
One worker, Mike told Socialist Worker, “We can't afford not to win. People could lose their houses because of the cutbacks. Why should we let that happen?
“And Birmingham city council is such a huge organisation, if they do this to us they can do it to all their workers. So we’re not just doing this for us, we’re doing this for everyone. We’re all in it together. It’s about time we stood up.”
Over at Perry Barr in north Birmingham, Stan agreed.
“A lot of us have been here more than 25 years, and there’s camaraderie on the rounds,” he said. “These people aren’t just colleagues, they’re mates. They’re not about to let their mates get sacked.
“And this affects us all. I’m a driver, there’s no direct threat to my grade, but we’re not daft. If they get rid of grade three we’re next.
“As for those on the lower grades, it’s about progression—if the higher grades go it's their future.”
The council argues that its changes are a necessary response to a huge overspend. Workers agree that money is being wasted but they point to the huge payouts made out to successive bosses.
To ride out the strike the council has hired contractors and told workers to throw away paper it would otherwise have sold to recycling firms.
Two of the main costs it cites—agency fees and overtime pay—are due to understaffing that only the unions' resistance has stopped from getting worse.
Workers believe its real agenda is smashing the workplace organisation that stands in the way of much deeper cuts from the pay of council employees.
“This council doesn't have a strategy to resolve the dispute,” Paul told Socialist Worker. “Its strategy is to break the union. We’ve no room to manoeuvre left—we simply have to win this. Enough is enough.”
The action is hitting hard, and strike-breaking efforts have had a limited impact.
Some bins are overflowing, surrounded by bags piling up. Others had become infested with maggots in the weeks they waited to be picked up.
Unite has publicly warned it could keep the action up until September. Workers predict a longer fight, saying they may reballot before then to get a legal mandate for action right up to December.
Workers in other unions at the council should back their fight and build solidarity among their fellow council workers to beat back the council chiefs.
Dave said, “There’s only one way forward. If we’ve got to go long haul, we’ll go long haul.”
Mike agreed. “We’re stronger than ever,” he said. “If anything the passion has just got stronger during the strike. We’re getting more public support now. More people are beeping their horns.
“We have so much to lose, we can’t afford not to win.”
Kicked in the teeth
All 113 grade three workers are being made redundant and told to apply for new jobs—on much lower pay, and not necessarily on the bins at all.
Dave is one of them. “I'm already in debt, and if we lose this I literally won’t be able to survive. It works out as a £400 a month cut, and it’s scary.”
Experienced workers in their fifties are furious at how the council is treating them.
“I’ve worked here 26 years to be told I have to reapply for a new job,” said Dave. “I don’t want to be a gravedigger, I don’t have the skills.
“I don’t have a driver’s licence, and that puts three quarters of the jobs off limits. So they say I can go into social care, but if I go and get a job in an old people’s home they’ll close it and I’ll have to reapply for another job after that.”
Paul added, “They say there are jobs, but these aren’t real jobs—they’re a propaganda exercise. It means the council can keep saying it’s not making anyone redundant. If people don't get these jobs, they’ll call it ‘natural wastage’.
“These men have given the best years of their lives to Birmingham council, and now we’re being kicked in the teeth.”
More pressure, less safety
The council’s restructuring is an immediate threat to every worker, Stan explained.
The grade three workers play a safety critical role.
“This is one of the most dangerous jobs in Britain at the moment, always in and out of the road,” said Stan. “We had a vehicle crash into one of our loaders a few years ago.
“It pushed him into the bins, breaking his leg and three ribs and puncturing his spleen. If the bins hadn't been there he would have been impaled and killed.”
Without the grade three workers watching the traffic, such tragedies could become more common.
Meanwhile the council’s new rota takes away a much-needed rest day and gives workers more bins to empty in a shorter shift.
Stan said, “They say shorter days will make the job less physically demanding. But we’ll have an increased target in a shorter day, so how do they work that out? It’s bullshit.
“And it’s because it’s physically demanding that we need the rest days to recharge.”
Why is Labour not fighting the cuts?
The attack on the refuse workers would be bad enough from the Tories. They have a right to expect better from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Mike said, “I’m a Labour supporter myself, but this is changing that. I voted for Labour at the last election, I don't know if I can do that now.”
Paul said, “Labour says it has an affinity with the working class, but with this council we're not seeing that. It’s run by ‘Bitterites’, people with a right wing agenda.
“Unite has already said it could withdraw funding from some Labour politicians. And we want Jeremy Corbyn to put pressure on the council.”
Some workers’ names have been changed