Interview with arrested Sussex bin picket: ‘We must continue to stand fast’

In early 2022 there was a wave of bin worker disputes as the cost-of-living crisis developed. On 27 May that year, Gary Palmer, a full-time official of the GMB union was arrested in Hailsham, Sussex. The Socialist talked to Gary.

What was the background to the dispute?

A pay dispute with Biffa. Our members are low-paid and wanted recognition for what they do. Workers are now valuing themselves more, so the GMB happily supported them. We got to the point they wouldn’t negotiate or make an offer so we took strike action.

If the vehicles didn’t leave the depot they couldn’t deliver the service. Talks didn’t materialise, or if they did, the offers were absolutely shocking. Members rejected them immediately. The company tried to harass members by writing to them week after week with the same offer to come back to work. Biffa was making a huge amount of profit on this contract.

Suddenly, after five weeks, it became apparent that something had changed. There hadn’t been vehicles in the depot, but then it was absolutely full of vehicles, and every member of staff who was working was told to report.

We were spoken to by the police. Within a few moments the inspector stood back and two lines of police suddenly appeared at the entrance. They arrested three of us. We were charged with obstruction of the highway.

I think the police, the council and Biffa worked together. Everybody, every man and his dog was there on that Friday morning just to make the arrest. It was contrived. That’s not a good use of policing.

What tactics were you using in the dispute?

We had to affect the service if possible, so residents complain and get the council involved. It is about bringing the company’s name into disrepute and affecting their profits.

Were the police colluding with Biffa and the council?

At the start they appeared to maintain a neutral position. At any demonstration or picket line we always try to speak to the police to tell them what’s happening. This time you could see there was a change. Each day we were seeing more and more senior officers. The day after we were arrested I was given an exclusion order. Everything was built into this one event.

You were arrested again later in the year.

I’ve been arrested a few times since then on picket lines. I was arrested twice in two days. Their tactic was to arrest me, put me in a car and then de-arrest me. They said it saved paperwork.

We can only expect stronger and stronger responses from the police on behalf of the government and private employers. Recently we were at the Fawley oil workers’ dispute. 40 to 50 police turned up. They demonstrated very clearly they were going to help get the tankers out. That’s about money for private companies. We must continue to stand fast. We are not going to change our approach.

Why has it taken so long to come to court?

At the first court appearance they expected we would plead guilty. We won’t ever do that. We’re not guilty of anything apart from standing for our members. After the arrests they actually started to negotiate on a deal which our members were very happy with.

Arresting us was a huge mistake. I fail to see that there is enough evidence to convict us in any way, shape or form.

There is a lobby of the court on 24 March. What else can trade unionists do to support you?

Take the fight to their own employers. Each employer has to be pushed as far possible to win for workers.

Do you think Labour will repeal all the anti-trade union laws?

I would hope so but I am yet to be convinced. I don’t want to say never because you hope. I am a trade unionist first. I want Labour to work with me and do something for my members. The employers have absolutely no respect for us.

  • Join the protest in support of Gary and the other defendants 9.15am at Brighton Magistrates Court, Edward Street, Brighton Friday 24 March