impressions from the sandwell bin strike – 8 september 2010

by two (wasted?) workers from The Commune

We went to Sandwell near Birmingham for the second of a series of one day strike at the local waste depot. The strike is officially called for by Unite and GMB. Like the bin strike in Leeds this year, it is about the single status policy. Due to loss of bonuses and down-grading a loader with 20 years seniority would have to face a significant wage loss: from £21,000 to £17,900. Looming in the background of the dispute is the fact that the council will outsource the waste collection to the private company Serco in November this year. The take-over in Sandwell – waste management for around 125,000 households – is Serco’s biggest single job in the UK: a £650 million contract, running for 25 years. The company and council officially guarantee 12 months terms and conditions to the council workers. The take-over and single status effects around 130 council bin men.

Since July this year workers had been on work-to-rule. In response the council hired 15 extra trucks and engaged around 100 extra temp workers for clearing up unfinished rounds – before the dispute started temp workers accounted for only 15 per cent of the work-force. Currently the new temp workers work from a different depot in nearby Cradley Heath, around 10 kilometers from Sandwell. In August the work-to-rule has been lifted and a series of one day strikes has been announced. Normally around 35 trucks do the rounds in Sandwell. After the first one-day-strike in the previous week some of the council permanent workers decided not to join the second strike. They and temp workers hired by the council-run temp agency manage to staff 15 trucks. Currently 15 trucks leave the depot in Sandwell and 15 more trucks are run from the depot in nearby Cradley.

Given the fact that the strike seemed rather ineffective we asked whether the work-to-rule had put more pressure on the council. One worker – a GMB member – said that the regional Unite boss had pressured to stop the work-to-rule and re-assured the workers that with the one-day-strikes and legal proceedings the case could be solved. This worker said that the work-to-rule had been more painful to the council and that since the shift to ‘one-day-action’ plus legal negotiations the morale has been going down the drain. He also said that workers would probably not have agreed to a one week strike, given the wage loss: strike pay is £30 a day and many workers have mortgages to pay. The mentioned regional Unite leader arrived for a short visit at the picket and unrolled the ‘Don’t Break Britain’-banner of the current Unite campaign. Another worker said that the work-to-rule has been undermined by the extra temp workers, they would work full-time, meaning 8 hours shifts in order to clear up the left bins. In addition to the employment of extra-staff the council sent letters to the permanent workers saying that if they leave work before finishing their work-tasks they will not be paid for the day.

The 40 odd workers at the picket did not make efforts to stop trucks from leaving. According to them, they also haven’t tried to talk to the temps of the other depot or to leaflet in front of it. They say that the temps would not care and that they might think that they have a chance for a permanent contract themselves, once the rebellious council workers are finished off. Actually the council has sent a letter to the temps saying that their job will be finished by end of October. Serco announced that the company will not employ agency staff. In London private rubbish collectors like Veolia tend to give workers a ‘permanent contract’ after a four months trial period. The wages are way below council level, but the hourly wage is about £1 to £2 more than what the agency workers employed for the council get. Obviously, if the strike in Sandwell only focuses on the single status, then there is no incentive for the 100+ temps to join. The temps can actually hope that with Serco they will get a chance for a permanent contract. The question is, whether this hope is more than an illusion. Council workers at the picket said that Serco will change from dust bins to wheely bins and might change from weekly to bi-weekly collection. Currently there are still one driver and four loaders on the trucks. In London even the manual loading of dust bins is down with two to three loaders. Wheely bins require two loaders. In neighbouring Dudley they have reduced the truck teams already to three loaders. It is most likely that Serco will reduce the total amount of workers and the temps will be the first to go. We went for a short visit to the temp-depot in Cradley. Workers obviously knew that they were scabbing. The younger ones said that the job will probably only last till October and the older ones said that they don’t see big chances to be made permanent. For years the council has employed them for 11 and a half months through the council run temp agency, then enforced a break of employment for two weeks, then re-hired them.

In the current dispute the divisions do not only exist between council workers and temps. In nearby Dudley council bin men still get around £5,000 more per year than their colleagues 5 km away. Once single status is introduced in Dudley, their bonus-money will be cut, too: but there is no joint effort. In Birmingham bin men are under pressure and currently balloting for industrial action: independently from Sandwell. The Sandwell and Dudley work-force is part of the wider urban area of Birmingham, but conflicts are localised by council and union negotiations. In Sandwell teachers at the local college had a short walk-out over cuts in July: no attempts to mobilise together with the refuse workers.