Birmingham bin workers sold out by Labour

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Bin workers in Birmingham have been fighting for their livelihoods against a Labour council that is using every trick in the book to enforce major cuts to services and a union, Unite, that is happy to yield to the party it supports. Joe Smith reports.

Birmingham City Council (BCC) wants to remove 122 grade 3 roles from the bin crews and replace them with grade 2 workers, an effective pay cut of £4,000-£6,000 per year. Those grade 3 workers to be laid off, about 20% of the refuse collection squad, are being offered other jobs within the council which will consist mainly of temporary or lower paid work, enabling the council to call the redundancies ‘deletions’.

Councillor Lisa Trickett, who is in charge of waste management, has other plans to ‘modernise’ the service by cancelling overtime and extending the working week. Workers will go from four days at nine hours, to five days at 7.5 hours each, adding 1.5 unpaid hours a week per bin worker. The workers already barely meet their current targets following previous cuts when bin crews were reduced from five to three workers.

Those facing redundancy now are the ‘leading hands’ supervisors who are in charge of monitoring the back of the bin lorry and ensuring the safety of pedestrians while the vehicle is reversing. The remaining bin workers will have to either work slower to accommodate for the loss or ignore safety to meet higher targets.

The council announced the redundancies on 27 June. Unite the Union notified its members in the refuse service and 90% of them voted for strike action. They remained on strike for seven weeks during negotiations with ACAS. In the early stages the council spent around £21,000 a week on private contractors like Wier Waste, Cartwrights and Suez to act as scabs.

On 16 August an agreement was reached with ACAS that the redundancies would not go ahead and Unite and BCC suspended the strike. By this point the council was spending £311,000 per week on scab wagons. These private companies only clear specific areas or just take black bags while leaving wheelie bins full. Even the top estimate of the cost, as referenced by BCC, of paying the bin men at grade 3 is only £600,000 per year, showing that the council is prepared to sacrifice longer term savings at the expense of this vital service, which will affect all 400,000 households in Birmingham.

A week later, in a public report, interim Chief Executive Stella Mazie and Corporate Director Jacqui Kennedy stated that BCC’s position hadn’t changed, and urged that the cuts go ahead, claiming that, with the leading hands being predominantly male, they needed to make reductions in the council’s gender pay gap to meet equal rights law. This excuse starts to fall apart when you consider that BCC has already slashed the number of council staff from 2,100 in 2012, with the aim of taking it down to 700 staff by 2019 as part its ‘Future Operating Model’. Jobs have been taken away from teaching assistants, librarians and carers regardless of their gender.

Soon after Manzie’s and Kennedy’s public report came out, BCC broke the ACAS deal by sending redundancy notices in the post. Bin workers said that some of these notices were significantly backdated. Unite restarted the strike on 1 September.

The strike is now suspended again due to a High Court judgement that the redundancy notices were unlawful and amounted to strike-breaking in breach of the Employment Agencies & Employment Business Regulations 2003.

Unite has called the action off without consulting the bin workers, some of whom wanted to stay on strike as a show of force and expressed dismay at Unite’s contempt for industrial democracy. Effectively the court case has served as an excuse for Unite and the council to pacify the workers and put them back to work.

The service is also being deliberately mismanaged by the council. Richard Beddows, a bin worker rep for Unite, has said their schedule has left some streets still uncleared and workers waiting at depots.

Unite has told the bin workers not to picket Labour councillors. The workforce has expressed their dismay at the growing possibility that, as in the past, they will still face cuts or redundancies and their union will yield. New council leader Ian Ward has said he wants to end the dispute out of court. The industrial tribunal, due to start on 27 November, will be costly for the council and the union, which has financial ties to the Labour Party.

Ward is equally committed to the Future Operating Model and the cutting of another £170m over the next two years. £700 million has already been slashed from the council’s budget since 2010.

At a People’s Assembly meeting, one of the bin workers from the Lifford Lane depot explained how let down by Labour he and many of his co-workers are feeling. He said he’d voted Labour all his life but now sees that it is not committed to standing up for the needs of the working class. The dispute should make the role and position of the Labour Party, now led by Jeremy Corbyn, and the vital need for independent working class organisation, yet more evident.

UPDATE: On 24 November BCC struck a deal with Unite the Union just days before planned High Court action – which has cost the council £6.6m – over the dispute and is now withdrawn. The deal means that 109 of the 122 leading hands will retain their grade 3 status and salary, albeit with extra hours and responsibilities. The working week will be condensed, removing the rest day and adding 40 days of work a year with no extra pay. Of more concern is the fact that the bin workers are only guaranteed protection against redundancies and any role changes for 12 months; and that any future changes to waste collection services will be agreed by a joint ‘Service Improvement Board established jointly between BCC and the unions. We've already seen how the union undermined the militant action of the bin workers – which resisted the initial proposals – by sending them back to work while it struck a deal with the council. Why would the union strike this deal if it genuinely intended to win a permanent victory for the bin workers? This deal has given them a way to undermine industrial action so that the council can attack the workers more easily during the next round of austerity cuts.