Socialist Worker

Birmingham bins strike sees strong fightback and solidarity

by Sarah Bates
Issue No. 2643

Strong on the picket line

Strong on the picket line (Pic: Unite the Union on Twitter)


Bin workers in Birmingham have staged two powerful strikes this week over discrimination by council management.

Around 325 Unite union members and 30 Unison members struck on Tuesday and Friday against Labour-run Birmingham City Council.

Workers say after strikes in 2017 bosses made secret payments to GMB members who didn’t join in the action.

A war of words has broken out between the GMB and Unite unions over what happened. The GMB says that ”Any suggestion GMB members received payments in return for not striking in 2017 is nothing short of a grotesque slur.”

But Unite says, “The GMB decided not to ballot its members in 2017 and had accepted the terms offered by the council which would have seen bin workers lose up to £5,000 a year.

“As a result of the actions of Unite members, GMB members had their jobs, terms and conditions protected and did not suffer the losses in pay the GMB had accepted.

“The GMB regionally, through their officer, and the council then agreed a payment to these workers who did not go on strike. The reality is that those who did not strike and had no losses received a payment that was intended to always remain secret.”

Strikers estimate these lump sums were about £3,500-£4,500, and they only found out because their GMB colleagues told them.

Bin workers responded with a resounding vote to strike, and there were big picket lines at the four main bin depots.

Care workers joined the pickets

Care workers joined the pickets


Home enablement workers in Unison, part of the long-running fight to save their jobs and the care service, joined the picket lines.

Chris, a striker at Lifford Lane told Socialist Worker that strikers were “really pleased to see the care workers. They do a fantastic job, are low paid and aren’t valued by the council at all.”

He said the strikers were “flabbergasted” to be attacked so brutally by a Labour council.

“We’re all pretty astonished, we’d expect it from a Tory council, but not from a Labour council” he said.

Workers staged long strikes in the summer of 2017 over the council’s attempts to axe safety-critical roles from bin wagons.

They wanted to slash the workforce by around 100 and force more experienced bin workers to re-apply for a poorer paid role on a lower grade.

The agreement in 2017 guaranteed workers jobs and safety responsibilities for two years.

Safety

But Unite is pursuing legal action as it says council bosses are allowing bin wagons to go out without the safety-critical workers on board.

Chris says the safety training of experienced workers is important. “They’re in charge of the safety aspect of the vehicle. A lot of people are experienced at driving bigger vehicles, but they’re not used to the reversing aspect of it.

“On some of the residential rounds, we’re doing 150 reverses a day”.

Chris, a bin worker for almost three decades, explains that the “service has been deteriorating for 30 years due to chronic mismanagement.”

All the talk of Labour acting “for the many, not the few” sounds hollow to workers who face round after round of assaults from their Labour bosses.

He said that there are “not enough workers and not enough vehicles” to cover the rounds. And to meet requirements, the council is hiring out wagons from a private company.

The inadequate service means residents are frustrated that their rubbish isn’t being picked up.

Chris says that bin workers “get a terrible amount of flak. But we just want to deliver the service and want the tools to do the job.”

The strike is overwhelmingly supported by workers, with only four wagons leaving the Lifford Lane depot on Friday’s strike. And strikers report it’s a similar picture at all the depots.

The dispute—alongside the home care strikes which has raged for over a year—present a huge PR nightmare for the city’s Labour council.

It is attacking its own workers—some of who are among the lowest paid—so they can deliver Tory austerity.

All the talk of Labour acting “for the many, not the few” sounds hollow to workers who face round after round of assaults from their Labour bosses. Why won't Labour's leaders intervene as they ought to?

Workers need to be ready to step up the action to win.

Workers' names have been changed

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