Lucette Davies reports on the high morale among refuse workers striking in Eastbourne and the support they have from the community
Refuse workers in Eastbourne have been on strike for four days now so today I went to join them on the picket line to show solidarity. I have been very shocked to find out about the pay and working conditions of these workers especially as we have one of the highest council tax rates in the country. But I am grateful to them for this action which has at least made us all aware of how badly our council is treating them.
Eastbourne residents came out and clapped for key workers so now they really need to demonstrate their support practically. These men are inspirational. Their passion and belief in what they are doing was a joy to see. If we ever doubted that their work was important those doubts must surely have been well and truly shaken off. But one thing was absolutely clear from my conversations today and that is that they have laid out their demands which are nothing more than asking to be treated fairly.
I spoke to Rob Baker who is an HGV dustcart driver. He explained that: “The reason why we are on the picket line today for fourth day now is because the council who also run Lewes dustcarts pay us £3 less an hour.” He went on to explain that all they are asking for is: “Nothing untoward other than to be paid the same as our counterparts in Lewes.”
Currently some drivers are paid £11.20 an hour while others receive £10.56. In Lewes although they work for the same company, a subsidiary of the council, the drivers get paid £13.50. The drivers who are currently on strike want to see everyone on the same contract.
The council has so far offered a 3% rise to loaders who are currently on minimum wage and a 7% increase to drivers. But as Rob said: “As minimum wage is set to increase to £9.50 in April the 3% offer would mean nothing.” The 7% for drivers would take them up to £11.40 which is still considerably lower than Lewes. Even in Hastings, where the council has much less money, drivers are paid more than Eastbourne. Some offers to improve working conditions have also been made but it remains to be seen how good these really are.
I spoke to Councillor Josh Babarinde last weekend as I was unhappy with his plan to find a workaround solution to the strike. He claimed it was because his first responsibility is to residents. I thoroughly agree that residents concern about rubbish building up should be taken seriously by councillors. But it is not the fault of the workers who are on strike it is building up, it is the fault of the council who are refusing to provide fair pay and working conditions to the refuse workers. A workaround solution where bins were emptied on non-strike days may have taken pressure of the councillors, and cleaned up Hampden Park. But it has reduced the impact that this strike is having and made a resolution less likely. I have argued with Josh that the only moral action that the council could take is to provide fair pay and working conditions.
So now the workers are ready for another 11 days of continual strike action although the council has agreed to meet with them, for the first time, on Monday. The workers are right to be dubious of the council's false promises when they have prioritised minimising the impact of the strike instead of finding an acceptable resolution and have attempted to spread misinformation about the strike to try and undermine those taking action.
If the 11 days of strike action go ahead then Rob told me “they estimate that will leave between 1,500 and 1,600 tons of rubbish on the street.” He said they deeply regret the problems that will cause residents. I asked him if he felt they had the support of residents and he told me that when they went back to work for three days last week and 85-90% of residents came out and said: “stick to it, keep going, beat the council and get what you deserve.” There were certainly a lot of vehicles tooting their horns as they drove past the picket line today to show support.
Rob told me they have had fantastic support from the GMB and he had: “All faith that the GMB will pull a result for us.” But our community must also back them. I have offered help in distributing flyers to raise awareness amongst residents but will also be setting up a crowdfunder for their strike fund.
It is time that the vital roles that working class people take on in their employment rewards workers for what they give to communities. Refuse workers in nearby Worthing and Ardur are balloting to join the strike, and this strike action in Eastbourne is being watched by refuse workers right up to Liverpool who are now also considering taking industrial action.
If the battle for the rights of the working class extends and maybe spreads to other areas of employment, then unions will be of utmost importance. If you are in work, please join a union and help bring about change in your workplace.
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Lucette is a People's Assembly activist, member of Counterfire and founder of East Sussex Save the NHS