Striking workers offer further evidence of a shifting industrial terrain, reports the Angry Trucker AKA Richard Allday
The seven-week strike by Birmingham council refuse collectors has been suspended, a day before Unite the Union was to ballot to extend the action to Xmas. The suspension followed the direct intervention of Labour council leader John Clancy. Howard Beckett, Unite’s Acting Regional Secretary, credits him with ‘going the extra mile’ to reach a settlement.
The dispute centred on the council’s determination to cut the refuse collection budget by £5 million. They claimed that Birmingham “is not meeting national productivity levels”, and that failing to improve productivity “is not an option”.
The council’s kneejerk reaction - as is so often the case with neoliberal employers - is to reduce staffing levels, and pay. One-hundred-and-thirteen ‘leading hands’ were to be cut from the workforce. Although the council generously stated that ‘ … all workers with an appropriate skills match’ would be offered new council jobs at the same pay grade. Note the weasel words ‘with an appropriate skills match’: boss-speak for ‘if your face fits’.
The council also stated its intention of replacing the current 4 x 9-hour shift week with 5-day working (albeit 5 x 7-hour shifts). The disturbance this would cause to family lives based around a 4-day working week was of no concern to the employer.
So here was the nub of the conflict; an attempt to impose new working conditions, with a much-reduced workforce, on new shift patterns. It is to the credit of the workers involved, and their union Unite that they stood firm in defense of their fellow workers jobs and pay.
For seven weeks they struck, and were clearly prepared to stick it out till Xmas if necessary. The refuse piled up, but the council was not interested in seeking a constructive resolution. They preferred to launch a propaganda campaign against the workforce, and sought to mobilise local residents to act as effective strikebreakers. In this they were ably assisted by the local and national media.
However, peace has temporarily broken out after the council leader personally intervened; the threat to the leading hands’ jobs and pay has been lifted, and Unite has suspended further industrial action while a full resolution is attempted. Part of the deal is that the union will recommend to its members that they consider changes to their work patterns. So there is no guarantee that we have seen the last of the action.
It is undoubtedly a significant win for the refuse workers, in that they have seen off a major attack on jobs and pay, but there is little doubt that the council still intends to cut costs. Indeed, the bloody-mindedness of some councillors can be seen from the statement the council put out immediately after the conciliation service ACAS’s press release (announcing the suspension of industrial action, and the lifting of the redundancy threats).
The Birmingham council statement reads: “The ACAS statement does not represent the council’s official position, as the matter still has to be considered by cabinet members” which will take place at a special meeting this Thursday (Aug 24). Not exactly conciliatory, is it? It almost makes you think some councillors are disappointed that the council leader lowered the temperature.
While it is true that local government, Birmingham council included, is suffering from Tory cuts, it might be more constructive for them to concentrate their anger on the real cause – the Tory government’s infatuation with austerity and cuts. They could start by supporting Bristol’s mayor’s call for a day of action by local government on September 9, and following Nottingham council’s decision to pay for a coach to carry demonstrators to lobby Westminster on Tuesday September 12.
They could use this as a platform to build for the national protest at the Tory party conference in Manchester, called by the People's Assembly, on Sunday October 1.
Birmingham council face a very simple choice – either they register token protests over central government cuts, and then collude in attacks on their own workforce; or they take on the real enemy, the Tory government – in which case they will find staunch supporters among their own workers and their communities.
If they choose the former, then there is no doubt that the bin strike will prove to be just a start.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.