Following the arrests of GMB organisers Gary Palmer and Helen O’Connor on picket lines, Lucette Davies explains the growing trend of authoritarian actions by the state against trade unionists and why we must resist
Surrey Police have arrested GMB organisers at the picket lines of refuse workers on three occasions over the last week. The strike of refuse workers in Surrey has followed on from industrial action by refuse workers in Eastbourne; Wealden; Chesterfield; Sandwell and many others in recent months.
And it comes at a time when countless other vital, yet desperately low-paid workers have had enough and are taking industrial action. Often these actions are returning pay offers in the double figures. Which, after 15 years of pay stagnating, and inflation growing exponentially, may be the only way workers are going to be able to survive.
The GMB has described the waste industry as “a race to the bottom” because of the low pay their members receive and poor working conditions. Although some bin strikes have gone on for a few weeks before agreements on pay were reached, in the end many have been successful.
One of the organisers arrested is Gary Palmer, who has already been charged with ‘obstructing a highway’ following his arrest at the picket lines of Wealden’s refuse workers. He has been arrested and subsequently de-arrested on two occasions at the Surrey Heath depot. The other person arrested in Surrey is GMB organiser Helen O’Conner who was also subsequently de-arrested.
These arrests happened when both Gary and Helen stood blocking the exit from the depot preventing refuse trucks from getting out. Their arrests meant police could move them away from the depot’s exit until the trucks had all left at which point they were de-arrested.
It is only when rubbish starts building up on the streets that employers such as Amey in Surrey will start to recognise how valuable their employees’ labour is. The actions of Gary and Helen were vital to making the strike effective. I spoke to refuse workers in Eastbourne, during their strike and the last thing they wanted was for the streets to be covered in rubbish. But when the only asset you have is your ability to work, the only method you have of increasing your pay is by withdrawal of your labour.
It is a damning indictment of our society that vital workers have to resort to such measures to simply be paid enough to feed their families. But it is an even more damning indictment of our society when police use their powers to undermine unions who are acting in the interests of their members. Were those police acting on behalf of the employer Amey or on behalf of the Tory MPs, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove whose constituencies are in Surrey? Have the police become simply another arm of the establishment who are acting against the interests of the working class?
We can all help in this battle of the establishment against workers. We can go to picket lines and join with union officials when actions need to be taken. There is also a GMB fighting fund which we can donate to. This fund will help the union support workers financially when they strike, and provide assistance with the union’s legal fees. We can also get along to Brighton magistrates court on 16 November when Gary is making a second court appearance for the charge against him of obstructing the highway. We need to make it clear we believe this to be an inappropriate use of law.
We have a legal right to peacefully protest, and a legal right to take industrial action. It is only because people have historically exercised these rights that we have the protections at work that we currently do have.
The GMB has now informed the employer Amey that strike action in Surrey Heath and Elmbridge has been called off as their members have agreed to an improved pay offer.
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Lucette is a People's Assembly activist, member of Counterfire and founder of East Sussex Save the NHS
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