One of our members has been closely following the refuse workers strike.
Birmingham refuse workers from the Unite Union are taking a sixth week of strike action against the council’s proposals to cut jobs and change previously agreed terms and conditions. The industrial dispute has seen the workers increase action to three strike hours per day, as of 11/08/2017, Monday to Friday. Almost every worker at the Lifford Lane depot in Stirchley is picketing the main gate. Their resolve is stronger than ever.
This report follows on from report a fortnight ago and the MSB officers give 100% support for the industrial action, and firmly sent our message of solidarity to the workers taking it. We also completely distance our views from those of councillors who belong to any political party, or none, who choose to use this struggle as another platform to serve up devastating cuts that will continue to have the biggest effects to the public sector, and the working-class people of the city who use them and work within them.
The Birmingham Mail’s take on the industrial action has been, as is usually the case, heavily biased against the workers. One of its recent pieces is a thinly-veiled attack on the whole concept of collective industrial action (Neil Elle’s, 10/08/17, Birmingham Mail) and highlights a complete lack of understanding of working-class struggle. We expect nothing more from a paper that regularly blames the workers for the problems that have been created by the political class, introducing counter-productive systems with little or no consultation.
It is really important to look at the facts surrounding this dispute, and the workers on the picket line could write a lengthy book on it. These workers, the most class-conscious, politically-minded, and experts in their field, are fed-up with hearing the same old buzz words – “modernisation”, “productivity”, “challenging times.” They want to confront the real problems with real facts.
The bosses talk of “productivity”. So, it is reasonable to ask the questions. Narrowed down, the question for everybody might be; “How long does it take to empty a wheelie-bin?” Because the councillors have never emptied a bin in the same way as the workers have, day in, day out, they haven’t got a clue how long it takes. So to find out the facts, Momentum SB asked the workers on the picket line instead.
In our last report on the strike action we wrote about the one-size-fits-all approach that the council has taken to the time that it takes to empty a wheelie-bin. In doing this the council has entirely failed to consider the full logistics of the operation. One of the workers on the picket line told me about a number of properties on their round, where the wheelie bins cannot be left any less than 30 yards from the wagon. To correctly collect, empty and return a recycling bin from a property such as this involves a number of steps. After the sixty-yard initial round trip has been completed, the bin is opened and the pod (the paper/card recycling section) has to be removed and emptied. Because the pods are small, and many residents of Birmingham are so environmentally-conscious, the pods are often stuffed full with paper and card, and therefore it takes more than just turning the pod upside-down once to properly empty it. This adds more time to the job. Then the worker attaches the large wheelie-bin to the back of the wagon. This is the bin containing the cans, bottles and recyclable plastics, and can be very heavy. The bin is then lifted up, emptied, and comes back down, where it is released form the back of the wagon by the worker. The worker then picks up the pod from the floor, puts it back inside the wheelie-bin, and wheels the bin back up any kerbs and around any obstacles, for thirty yards and then puts it back. There are roads with thirty to forty properties like this. Workers question whether the councillors and bosses who are making the decisions to cut their jobs, based on the flimsy claim of increasing “productivity, and who have never had to empty a wheelie-bin in their lives, have taken roads like this into consideration, if at all.
If you factor in the assisted collections – where residents who are disabled or old require additional help to empty their bins – the process gets even longer. One worker told me that on their round there is a property with thirteen steps leading up to the property. At the top of the steps they have to manoeuvre through overgrown brambles and nettles to reach the bins. The dodging of brambles and nettles begins again as the worker wheels the heavy bin down back down the thirteen steps, the wheelie-bin behind them, back down to the pavement. After the bin is emptied correctly, the worker then climbs back up the thirteen steps, negotiates the overgrown garden with the bin behind them, replaces the bin, and descends the thirteen steps for a final time. This is for one property. Fifty-two steps, and not a clean run at that! This takes time, and the bosses completely fail to understand this.
Just as the large grass verge around Broadmeadow and Moneyhall Road, that separates the distance between the wheelie-bins and the wagon, takes a lot longer to travel than the councillors care to consider. Just as in some parts of the city, where the distance between the wagon and the wheelie-bins are separated by recreational areas, meaning that workers have to wheel the bins around lengthy paths, downhill and uphill in order to return them. Again, this takes time – but the councillors and bosses don’t factor this in. In their ignorance, they think that by cutting jobs from the refuse department, the service will somehow improve. And in their arrogance, they expect the general public to swallow this ridiculous claim.
The recycling collection in Birmingham has been effectively cancelled for over a fortnight. Darren Share, the Assistant Director of Waste Management at Birmingham City Council, has formally instructed workers to mix the recycling and refuse together. This means that the many residents that responsibly separate their refuse from the recyclable materials are wasting their time (Momentum SB urges everybody to still try to recycle as best they can – we only have one earth!). It’s all being taken to landfill. This looks awful on Birmingham as a city, and provides no incentive for people to use the recycling wheelie bins. The longer-term effects of this decision could mean that residents who previously took time to separate household waste from recycling materials may no longer do so in the future. This has huge environmental consequences, and the problems this decision has created should be laid squarely at the door of the council and the bosses who have given these orders and taken these destructive decisions.
Private companies have been given the contracts to collect the refuse from all of the tower blocks in Birmingham. In this poor attempt to undermine the workers, Birmingham City Council has created a paradox for its own weak arguments. Whilst trying to save money in the refuse department, they have incurred the costs of paying these private firms. How much extra is this costing the council? How much does this contradict the argument for making three-hundred-thousand pounds of savings? Momentum SB are sure that the residents of Birmingham would be very interested to find out these figures. If Birmingham City council really want to save money, why doesn’t it scrap these plans to cut the poorest hardest, and have a look at the incredible wages of the directors and some council positions? There are numerous salary packets that exceed five-times the salary of a grade-three refuse worker. Surely if this is a cost-cutting exercise the council should be looking to redress that balance by cutting the wages for those who are earning extortionate amounts. Momentum SB welcomes any new proposals to save money by reducing the wages of those people who are earning five-times as much as the grade-three refuse workers, whose jobs we wish to defend.
If you think that the private agencies and scab labour are doing a good-enough job, take a look outside your house. Have your bins been collected? Have your neighbour’s bins been collected? Walk to the next street. Have those roads been cleared? Now, compare your findings with the claim from the council that the majority of bins have been collected and the streets have been cleared. Does it look like the council has adequately managed the effects of the industrial action? Or does it look like the workers are seriously winning this dispute?
Political establishment venom, usually reserved for the working-class, has interestingly been partially redirected to the very councillors who are making these decisions (Matthew Snape Birmingham councillors condemn council’s inaction over bin strikes)
Momentum South Birmingham urges the council, who meet on the 15th of August, to scrap their proposals that led to this strike. If they do not, then it is more likely that they will have to worry about their jobs than the workers on the picket line.
Joint the picket line outside the four Birmingham depots! Every day, Monday to Friday, at the following times:
0700-0800 1030-1130 1330-1430.