Frontline refuse workers in Thurrock are striking back against attacks on pay and conditions. Yonas Makoni interviews one of the strikers.
Why are you striking?
So we transferred from [waste management company] Veolia back in 2010, because the council wanted us to go on their terms and conditions. But because the council contract was less money, they gave us this carrot, if you like, to sign up to their terms and conditions. One was the 60-hours contractual overtime pay - whether we used it or not - instead of Christmas, Easter and bank holiday bonuses; one was half-hour vehicle maintenance pay in the mornings; and one was triple-pay for bank holidays.
At the time, when we first came over, they wanted us to work bank holidays, which we had never done before. We only worked Tuesday to Saturday. So they encouraged us to work bank holidays by offering us triple-time pay. Originally, they offered us double-time and a day in lieu [of notice] and no one really wanted that, so they changed the policy to triple-time which was more of a financial reward to get us to buy into these bank holidays. So, now we’re working 9 bank holidays a year (including a Statutory Day at Christmas that every council employee usually gets off), so that residents’ collection days are not disrupted and they’re on the same day throughout the year.
But then, of course, what they’ve done now is they’ve said “we’re going cut your pay down to double-time.” When they introduced these proposals last year, they said “we’re reviewing your allowances.” They call them allowances but they’re part of our contracts.
When they first brought in these proposals, some of the changes that affect us in waste [services] weren’t on there. It was stand-by payments for people who go out in the middle of the night and have to sit in-doors waiting, they have to clear up roads after smashes and things like that, shift allowances for people that work nights etc. Bank holidays was one of them, as well, in the original proposals and they were attacking things like overtime as well. What they did in the very last minute, because they knew we were balloting, the day we balloted, they changed it so it affected the waste service more than anybody else.
We’re predominantly all Unite members here, you see, and we’re a proactive union in the council, so they’ve attacked us and how this affects us - a driver in waste stands to lose something like £4,300 and the loaders stand to lose £1,100. So it’s a considerable amount of money - you can make changes, you can apply things to people and everything else, but once you mess with their money, that’s when people stand up and they fight.
And every single person apart from about 5 are out on strike. What we did was we went to work from 6 until 9 so that we could keep the vehicle, so that they can’t take it away overnight and get other people to use it. And then we strike from 9 o’clock in the morning for the rest of the day, so they really can’t put out a service. We went into negotiations with them and ACAS on Thursday last week, cause we suggested bringing in ACAS – not them. We had a 4-hour-20-minute meeting with them and got absolutely nowhere. We put it to the members and now they’ve voted for a further 3 weeks of action starting on the 10th, and that’s full days now, so that’ll take us right up to the end of May.
This was initiated by the Tory councillors – they voted it through without batting an eyelid at the Cabinet meeting. They’re just ruthless people who don’t care about key workers. I mean, the people who are affected by this, everybody from a supervisor down, is a frontline worker, key workers. The care workers, who are GMB members, worked with people who were dying of Covid, lots of them contracted Covid themselves, and took it back to their families. Some of them were very seriously ill, thankfully none of them died, but they worked with patients who were dying obviously.
And then you’ve got the careline workers. They work in like a little mini call centre for the elderly people who are in sheltered housing, who have pull cords in their house and intercom systems, so that if they get in trouble, they can call the careline people. And the careline people have to be available 24/7, 365 days a year, you know. So a lot of their money is made up through standby payments, call out payments. If someone gets sick, there has to be someone in that seat, so they are affected massively by this. I think the duty managers in the care work setting, they stand to lose about £8000. These are people who’ve worked with dying patients, you know.
And then, of course there’s us – the frontline bin workers. We’ve worked through the pandemic without masks, without PPE. They had us sitting four in a cab, with no masks – they said they didn’t have any masks. They’ve now put in all the measures and given us hand sanitisers and the wipes and everything else, but you know, you could work with up to 20 different people in a week. Although they say they've put all these measures in, they really haven’t. It’s the bare minimum of what they have to do.
The council is throwing money at this. They've got contractors in doing the trade waste, doing the flats; they've put bin lorries in various locations and expect the residents to take their rubbish down there in their cars, which residents are really upset about, because obviously they've just put the council tax up as well.
Our chief executive is on £200,000 a year. We've got directors on £150,000. This is all public, if you go on the Thurrock council website check out the pay scales. They're on some serious money. None of these people are affected, it's all people who are key workers who worked throughout the pandemic. And let's not be mistaken, these other people were all working from home, not going out and getting all their stuff from Amazon, while we were out in the thick of it. I remember when this first started back in March, I can remember the look of fear on people's faces. We were all so worried.
You know, how can they do this to people who've worked with dying people and are putting their lives on the line and their families' lives on the line? All to be treated like this. It's immoral, it's terrible.
How much support are you getting?
We've got massive public support. I’ve never seen so much solidarity from people. We've had members of the public coming down in their cars and giving us a bag of biscuits and twenty quid. We’ve had some donations from people, from various people such as Howard Beckett who’s standing for General Secretary, and we've got Steve Turner, I think, coming down next week.
And the social media response from the public has been amazing. There's a group on Facebook called Justice for Refuse Workers, which has a lot of stuff on there from Thurrock and has been really good to us. There's one of our dust crews – this lady's husband died and they obviously talk to her every week when they go round there – but they made a cushion with a picture of her husband on it and gave it to her and that's had three million hits on Facebook. The public support is just unbelievable, it's overwhelming. I never expected that from the public.
What can we do to support you?
If anyone can come down to the picket line and show their face that would be great. If you're able to make a donation to our strike fund that would be good. We get strike pay from the union, but we're in a situation now where the strike pay's not going to cover the drivers' money, so we're now trying to find that little bit more to keep the drivers going.
But everyone down there is standing strong. They’re strong, they want to see this through and they’re not going to concede. They’re really, really strong people. When you go into something like this, you think “I know so-and-so, he’s not a very outgoing person. Maybe he’s not gonna want to stand up and fight.” But people have exceeded my expectations. People that you wouldn’t think would stand up have stood up and said “you’re not cutting my pay; I’m not taking this.” They’re a good bunch and they’re standing strong.
Please donate to the strike fund: Unite 1/1152, Sort Code: 60-83-01, Account number: 20216557
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