The bin workers of Birmingham saw their magnificent strike campaign of 2017 sold short thanks to Labour treachery and social-democratic leadership.
When the workers started the strike they were working a four-day week (made up of 10-hour shifts) and were running a system of three-man crews (a driver, loader and leading hand) for each wagon. When the strike ended, they had managed to hold on to the three-man system (under attack by the council) but had lost 52 rest days a year, having been moved onto a five-day week at no extra pay but with all the associated inconvenience and financial loss.
This result was lauded by union leaders as a triumphant ‘victory’.
After the strike’s end, binmen watched as Labour councillors undermined the agreement to stick to a three-man crew. They then discovered that the council had made secret payments amounting to £68,465 to a group of workers (members of the GMB) who had worked on during the 2017 strike.
The GMB bin workers had never been balloted for industrial action, but their union insists that an indicative ballot was held which indicated its members were unwilling to strike. The ludicrous situation of multiple unions representing the same group of workers (Unite, GMB and Unison all have binmen as members) thus once again demonstrated its usefulness to the capitalist state, and its disorganising effect on workers’ struggles.
When these secret payments came to light in December 2018, Unite denounced the preferential treatment and demanded an equal payout for everyone else. Unsurprisingly, the council refused, precipitating a new round of strikes, which had been scheduled to continue into March, depending on the outcome of Acas talks.
Meanwhile, Unite noted that the council was also failing to abide by its pledge to end the growing practice of sending bin wagons out without a qualified safety officer (previously the job of the leading hand, now relabelled a ‘waste reduction collections officer’ or WRCO), whose job is to protect both crew members and the general public. A new ballot for industrial action was held.
“As a result of the ongoing work to rule and strike action over the ‘secret payments’ made to non-striking bin workers following the 2017 dispute, the council has been increasingly sending out bin lorries without a WRCO. This has resulted in highly inexperienced workers, often newly recruited via employment agencies, being sent to collect rubbish without a worker who assures their safety being present.” (21 February 2019)
Strike action was initially due to start just after Christmas 2018, but was halted by Unite general secretary Howard Beckett, who asserted that the mere threat of action would be enough to win his members a payout. Beckett favoured a visit to the not-so-neutral ‘mediating’ service Acas, but this approach didn’t go to plan and the dispute dragged on.
Unite the Union’s unshakeable confidence in Labour also drew the negotiations out. ‘Lefty’ Corbynite councillor Majid Mahmood, the cabinet member responsible for waste and recycling, fancied his chances of getting a payout for the workers, but in the end decided to quit after he lost the support of his council committee on the matter and the dispute looked liked escalating.
Back to Acas went the union for more talks, while the binmen continued to work – as instructed by their leaders, and despite having voted to strike.
After three days of belated strike action in February, and with the threat of more to come in March, Howard Beckett suspended the strike once again as a “goodwill gesture” to allow the council cabinet to decide whether to endorse an outline deal put together at Acas.
By the first week of March the strike was over, as binmen voted to accept an offer in the region of £3,500 each, roughly equivalent to the payouts received by GMB members. The same figure was also offered to Unison members.
The more vital issues around the dropping of safety officers and the failure of the council to transfer agency workers into full-time positions have been quietly dropped for now, as the binmen walk off with £3,500 in their pocket – a relatively low compensation for the five-day week they’ll be working for the foreseeable future.