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Hackney Bin Workers Score Quick Victory
EARLY ON 28 June, workers at Millfields cleansing depot, Hackney, refused to take their vehicles on the road. This was not a strike, they insisted to CLARE DOYLE from the Socialist Party; it was just a "stoppage"! (The law makes wildcat strikes illegal.)
They were not picketing, just waiting beside the nearby canal for their union representative. But when it got past 9am and there was no sign of a TGWU officer, there was talk of marching on the union office.
Then they decided to make for the Town Hall and go straight to Hackney's top man, Max Caller.
"He says we were 'outsourced' (privatised) because we were always on strike. Well we want to tell him and the public that there are still big problems and refuse workers are still prepared to fight, if we have to".
They could not have chosen a better moment to embarrass the hated and vastly overpaid chief executive of Hackney council.
Within minutes of their arrival, Caller was on his way to Westminster to try and convince government ministers that he could deal with Hackney's problems and there was no need for them to intervene!
On the town hall steps, the two workers at the centre of the dispute - calling themselves Smith and Jones - explained what had happened. "This is the way management has been over the last six months - getting harder and harder 'Do it or else!'
"This week, they just ordered some of us to tip at Edmonton - about an hour away. Before that, it was Ashburton tip - about ten minutes away. On Monday, we finished our work but an hour over our time. On Tuesday again we did an hour over for no extra pay and no thanks. On Wednesday we were back in the yard at the usual time - 2.30 - but hadn't finished the job.
"The deputy contracts manager just told us there and then: 'You'll work down'. That means being taken off your usual beat and put in the pool. This breaks the TUPE agreement we had at the time of privatisation" (see editorial in last week's issue of The Socialist, which went down well with the town hall protesters).
"The procedures were totally ignored. For one thing, they should send the managers on a course to learn how to speak to people!
"We got a letter saying we'd be 'off beat' from Monday but work Thursday and Friday on our usual round. It was 'non-negotiable'. We've been 23 years and eleven years working in this depot."
"This is a battle leading to a war," said the TGWU steward. "They want the unions belly up, just agreeing to everything management says. They want to change our terms and conditions before they put in for a ten-year contract.
"After our 'summer of discontent' last year, when we had a lot of stoppages, some of us had not taken holidays and when Service Team took over, they got £200,000 out of Hackney council to buy our holidays from us. Now we're told the council is having to pay them an extra £1.2 million because of the extra rubbish being picked up."
"Yet they can't even get the toilets at the depot cleared out!" continued Smith and Jones. "There's sewage at the back and not even any toilet paper. There's cockroaches in the lockers and two new showers not even connected up. There's three showers for 100 on the 'dust' and 40 sweepers.
"Management get brand new cars, including the two union men who went over to management as trade waste officers. The top ones have got brand new four-wheel drive Mitsubishis."
"Let them try and do our work", said the steward. "Last summer when we were fighting the council, one of the managers got a hernia trying to lift bins the wrong way. He spent £3,000 on an operation and then claimed it back!"
By the end of the day, the immediate dispute was resolved... for now. The two men would be back on their beat and all wages for Friday were to be paid. Another lesson, along with the recent Brighton binworkers' victory, in action paying off but also another sign of widespread discontent over privatisation.
One other issue fuelling the workers' anger and frustration was the attitude of their own union. When a TGWU official finally came to meet them, he said he had been contacted by the management and asked to repudiate the action and of course, the law being what it is, the union had to be very careful.
The unions should listen to their members rather than the bosses and their threats of legal action. The primary assets of a union are its members, not its buildings or the salaries for its top officials (£90,000 in the case of the TGWU's leader, Bill Morris).
In The Socialist 6 July 2001: