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Birmingham bin workers' anger boils over into strike action
Ian Leech, Birmingham Central Socialist Party
At 10.45am on Friday 30 June bin workers in the union Unite across the city of Birmingham began leaving their vans and depots to begin the first in a series of strikes against their employer Birmingham City Council.
The dispute has been triggered by the Labour controlled authority's plan to introduce a package of measures designed to cut the bin service budget.
The package includes the termination of the contracts of, initially 122, now 113 full time staff employed at Grade 3 level and then to re-employ some at a lower Grade 2 through a competitive process.
In addition, there would be the reconfiguring of working days. Currently staff work four days of nine hours, with a 'rest day'. This will be altered to reduced hours on four days plus working until 10.30am on the previous 'rest day'. This will cut staff wages and eat into their designated rest day in what is a physically demanding job.
The trade unions are also demanding that Birmingham City Council ceases its longstanding use of agency staff and recruits to full time posts for the bin service.
The mood on the picket line at the Perry Barr depot was a mixture of anger, determination and frustration. The frustration comes as a result of the members having offered up suggestion after suggestion when asked by the employer on how best to improve the service, yet none of the proposals from staff have been recognised.
In addition, a large amount of money earmarked to improve the service in previous commitments had never materialised. This has brought an accusation from the local authority trade unions of "financial incompetence".
In discussion with pickets, many referred to learning the lessons of a previous dispute that took place in 2014, where, according to the Unite members, "we had them over a barrel only to let them off the hook and they reneged on the agreement reached. That won't be happening this time!"
Discussion and questions
On the picket line there was some intense discussion on the issue of "a Labour council continuing to make huge cuts when Labour could be in power in government within months" along with questioning of the failure of the GMB union to ballot its members despite it lodging a formal dispute with the employer.
This issue and its consequences for individual GMB members not wanting to cross picket lines had caused a complication and worry that could have been avoided. It had been reported that, as a result, GMB members had been leaving their union to join Unite.
In addition, there was questioning as to why Unite itself had only called out on strike the Grade 3s across the city despite balloting the Grade 2 and 4 members. Instead, Unite full time staff had only asked Grade 4s and 2s to support their colleagues if they felt inclined to!
In each refuse vehicle, Grade 4 staff drive and take charge of the vehicle in road traffic and parked, while Grade 3s oversee the bin operation at the rear of the vehicle. Grade 2s undertake the lifting and emptying of the bins. Clearly, without the Grade 3s in the operation, then not only will a gap appear in the pay structure, blocking Grade 2 'progression', but also, and crucially, Health and Safety will be compromised as the driver cannot take responsibility for all aspects of the job from inside the cab.
Unite members will continue the action with two-hour stoppages on designated days throughout July (3rd, 11th, 19th and 27th) and into August (4th) to force the employer to back down over the proposals. However, even at this stage it would provide a massive lift to the Unite members involved in the current action if GMB was to announce that it intends to ballot its members who are equally affected by these proposals.
Birmingham South East Socialist Party member Bob Severn reports from the Tyseley depot picket:
Solid strike action by Birmingham refuse workers against job cuts and bullying brought bin collections to a virtual halt on Friday 30 June. Many agency workers showed their solidarity by refusing to drive the bin lorries.
At the Tyseley depot, some agency workers walked off the job half an hour into the half-day strike, while others stayed on site but refused to go out in the wagons.
Pickets said the strike looked a lot stronger than previous disputes and there was no chance that uncollected bins would be 'sorted-out in 24 hours', as claimed by the council.
The council plans to sack 113 of the workers and hire lower-paid replacements - including from the agency workers. One worker said he was facing the sack after working there for 35 years.
The agency workers would be taken on at a wage 50p an hour less than the rate they currently get with the agency!
Many pickets commented on how little their experience and expertise on the jobs is valued by their bosses, and about the problems that using barely-trained agency workers can create - especially if there are no experienced bin workers with them.
- Dave Wright from Birmingham South East Socialist Party reports that at the Digbeth depot, the strike steward - who has worked on the bins for 33 years - said the council had closed the yard down for the rest of the day. Pickets there shared phone footage of the dispute from the Perry Barr depot.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 30 June 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.