Refuse workers from Hastings to Hackney, Coventry to Somerset, and many other locations are striking back at low pay, bullying bosses and terrible conditions. And in many cases they’re winning. Workers in similar professions, such as HGV lorry drivers, are also getting significant pay increases, in part, owing to a shortage of trained drivers.
So bad is the problem that the government recently invested £34 million in a scheme to create new skills boot camps to train over 11,000 people to become drivers each year. And the problem is especially bad for refuse collection services as workers, tempted by higher wages, are changing their jobs to work for haulage companies. The labour shortage means remaining refuse workers have more power to demand better pay and conditions.
It took just 19 drivers striking in Eastbourne to bring the city to a standstill and to put refuse services on hold. After six days of strikes with the threat to take another eight, workers won a guaranteed minimum of £13.50 an hour from the council. But there’s more than worker shortages behind the strikes.
Paul Hancox, a refuse driver and Unite union rep on strike in Rugby, Warwickshire, told Socialist Worker that workers are no longer accepting bad pay and bullying councils. For around a decade “we worked a well paid job,” he said. “People were breaking down doors to come and work here, but the council has cut back our terms and conditions over the years. Double time on bank holidays went. We lost extra pay for overtime completely. And, of course, we haven’t seen a pay rise in years.
“The distances we have to cover have got progressively more extensive over the years because of the development of new estates. So it’s more work with fewer workers. Now it’s hard to get anyone to work here. With ten warehouses in and around Rugby that pay better than the council, young people would rather work there.”
Paul told Socialist Worker that while workers have been affected by worsening pay, other factors were the spark that led to the strike. “Many of us will be hit hard by the cost of living crisis. Almost everyone says they don’t know if they’ll be able to pay their gas and electricity bill or feed their kids,” he said.
“But what really angered workers here was that instead of the council giving us a pay rise, they offered us a loan to pay our bills. They even said we should lessen our pension contributions.”
Paul said that all of this has led workers to strike, but also noted that the council’s inability to recruit workers means that they’ll have greater leverage in the strike. Across Britain shortages of labour in the refuse collection industry—caused by council cuts—mean that workers wield even greater power to fight back.
Paul summed up what he, and his colleagues now feel as they head out to picket lines. “Six months ago if you’d told me we’d be on strike here, I would have laughed,” he said. “But workers are fed up, and they are leading things. This hasn’t been pushed from the top of the union. It’s come from us.”
The idea that refuse workers can win better pay is spreading across Britain. The wave of strikes began at Brighton and Hove council in October last year.
Workers struck against changes to their working pattern, which the Green Party council hadn’t consulted them about. They quickly realised they could win more and struck for pay too. After two weeks of action, refuse workers won a pay rise for themselves and around 1,000 other workers. The strike showed that action can grow workers’ confidence to fight for more.
Gary Palmer, GMB union regional officer, told Socialist Worker, “After Brighton and Hove, we got many calls from workers asking how they could do the same. We told them that to get what they wanted, they needed to strike. The GMB asked to meet with refuse workers at Adur and Worthing council. We expected that we would meet about four or five people. Our first meeting had 30 people at it.”
After weeks of strikes, workers won pay rises of between 8.2 and 20.7 percent. A combination of strong self-organisation and strong picket lines is one of the reasons that such action is winning. Another helpful factor is that when refuse workers strike, everyone locally knows about it. “Most people don’t really notice refuse workers when they do their job, but when they stop working it’s the end of the world,” said Gary.
“This is useful to us, and we mustn’t start negotiating until the rubbish piles up in the streets.” Gary added that workers are now planning further action in Littlehampton, Sussex and on the Isle of Wight.
In almost every case, refuse workers have demanded a pay rise in line with inflation or surpassing it. Other workers would do well to learn from these victories and take action themselves. It’s a disgrace that the most hard-faced employer facing down bin strikes has been the Labour council in Coventry rather than a profit-hungry outsourcer.
Local councils have caused misery for workers and ordinary people alike by outsourcing refuse services to big companies. They hand millions of pounds every year to firms such as Biffa and Veolia to take on waste services. That removes funding from valuable services such as education and health. And by employing these industry giants councils open up the door to capitalist competition.
These companies will constantly look to drive down workers’ wages and conditions to out‑complete their rivals, win more council contracts and make the largest profits. Councils began privatisation in the refuse sector partly to break trade union activity. Workers there have always been a powerful force. When they strike they can grind cities to a standstill.
When rubbish piles up on street corners people are outraged. And while some may blame workers, many more blame councils and the outsourced companies. For some years, councils’ assaults on refuse workers have been a factor in weakening workers’ struggles. But the strikes today show that privatisation hasn’t beaten the unions, and that the outsourcers can be defeated. All outsourced refuse workers fighting hard for a pay rise should also demand that councils bring them in house.
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