As the bitter fight against the Coventry Labour Council goes on bin workers continue to take action elsewhere, and Unite continues to roll out its campaign organising bin workers across the country.
Our union has identified bin collections as a strategically important industry, has held a ‘combine’ meeting of sector shop stewards/reps, and is focussing a lot of its resources on organising bin workers. That’s a good step forward and opportunity for activists to create a powerfully organised sector.
In Manchester, bin workers employed by Biffa have voted for city-wide strikes over pay. The workers are facing a real terms pay cut, after an insulting offer of a 1.7% pay rise. The 200 bin workers will strike Tuesday 3 May to Friday 13 May, with a further two weeks planned from Monday 23 May. These dates coincide with the local government elections and the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
From 22 April, employees of Cardiff City Waste Service will start six weeks of strike action against the employer’s “bullying culture”. The strike ballot returned 98% in favour of action.
Bin workers in Hackney are also set to strike over pay on 25-27 April and 3-5 May following a 1.75% pay offer. A strike notice has also been served to Rugby Borough Council.
The strike of 70 HGV drivers in Coventry, which began on 31 January, continues. The strike is over low pay, with the basic rate of pay for drivers starting at just £22,183.
The employers – Coventry’s Labour Council – resorted to open strike-breaking tactics to beat the workers. They have employed scab labour at rates much higher than the demands of the strikers. They have also suspended Unite rep Pete Randle on trumped up charges.
Unite has responded to this clear case of victimisation by suspending Coventry Labour councillors from the union and threatening to cut further funding for the Labour Party. The union has also lodged a complaint at the employment tribunal on Pete’s behalf.
Organise the Rank-and-File
Unite’s focus on organising bin workers is welcome. Work in this industry is hard, low-paid and, as the experiences of Coventry and Cardiff show, plagued with bullying and victimisation.
That many of the employers are Labour councils, or companies contracted by Labour councils, is shameful, but also provides an opportunity for added political pressure within the Labour Party. The hard line the Unite leadership has taken on the strike-breaking councillors in Coventry should be applauded, and repeated wherever Labour politicians engage in scab behaviour.
We’ve seen important steps towards generalising struggles, including winning inflation-busting pay claims in sectors like busses and HGVs. While this model has undoubtedly been effective, the victories have been at employer-level, which means weaker workplaces are left behind and could be used to undermine the gains of the strongest. To generalise pay and conditions across the sectors, we need to build from employer-level deals to national pay agreements. A step towards that is combines.
On 15 March, Unite held one of its combine meetings of activists in the waste disposal sector. By bringing together a whole industry, across employers both public and private, combines have the potential to launch powerful and successful campaigns. Those who work in the sector, understand the challenges and would benefit from national agreements on pay and conditions are the best placed to set the policy and strategy of the combines.
Activists should engage in these combines, but they should strive to develop them into truly democratic bodies, controlled by the workers in the sector themselves not union officials, with delegates elected from the shop floor.
A genuinely rank and file combine could formulate a set of national demands for bin workers to fight for, and build action committees in all waste disposal workplaces, elected from the shopfloor, with the aim of strengthening workplace organisation and coordinating a national strike campaign.
We should therefore demand: