Birmingham Bin Workers Beat Blairite Council

The Socialist Party salutes the marvellous campaign of Birmingham’s bin workers. Birmingham council have backed down in their battle with the city’s bin workers on the eve of a High Court hearing to determine whether their 106 threatened redundancies were lawful.

The council have agreed to withdraw the redundancies and give the affected workers new job titles and duties. They will now be promoting recycling among residents but still be working on bin lorries and maintaining their current grade, pay and conditions.

In addition a victimised shop steward will be reinstated, unions will be included in a forum on future changes to the waste management service, and there will be no changes for at least 15 months. The concession the union has made is to agree to a five-day working week but there will be no increase in working hours.

Bin workers outside the High Court

The scale of this victory, after 12 weeks of action, can’t be underestimated - a hard-nosed Blairite council hiding behind a union bashing chief executive have been totally humiliated.

The council, who said that these cuts were an economic necessity have been forced to eat their words and have also agreed to pay Unite the Union’s legal costs. They have spent £6 million of public money in an attempt to break the union.

No doubt this last minute climb down was a recognition that they faced losing the case and incurring even more disdain from the public by wasting even more of their money on a campaign that never had widespread public support.

After a vigorous meeting of bin workers on 25 November, the deal was accepted. The deal only lasts until April 2019 – the workforce having zero trust in the council - are well aware of what might come then. ‘Victory, prepare for the next battle’ seemed to be the watchword.

The victory is also significant because the attack on ‘Grade 3’ positions in the bins is widely understood to be preparation for attacks on ‘Grade 3’ positions and pay across the entire council workforce.

The bins dispute has exposed the sorry role of Labour councillors making Tory cuts. The battle to drive Blairite councillors from the Labour Party continues and the battle to ensure Labour councillors don’t just complain about making cuts rather than fighting them needs to be stepped up. Many bin workers have shown enthusiasm for challenging Labour councillors who have attacked them if they stand in next May’s elections.

Howard Beckett, Unite assistant general secretary, who played a significant ‘hands on’ role in the strike action declared at Labour’s 2017 conference: “Birmingham’s Labour run council was imposing austerity on staff and reneged on a deal to the end the strike. It is not good enough for Labour councillors to hide behind talk of Tory budgets”.

There were a number of key factors that led to the win. There was a high level of organisation provided by convenor Richard Beddows and the citywide reps, as well as a determined unity shown by the strikers throughout the action. The tactics that strikers opted for in this case - short, intermittent action of three one-hour stoppages each day involving a return back to depots on each stoppage - proved to be effective in creating maximum disruption. The approach also minimised the loss in striker’s pay and retained the fleet of bin wagons under the control of the striking workers. These tactics brought a predictable condemnation from the council.

Despite waste piling up across the city and the council’s media campaign targeting the strikers, the Birmingham public, tired of austerity and cuts to services, supported the bin workers according to regular surveys in the local press. Significantly, not one of the nine Labour MPs in the city declared their support for the striker’s case but instead waited weeks until seeing the public mood, before collectively writing to the council leadership demanding that the dispute be ‘sorted’.

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September's mass protest in Victoria Square

Key too was the preparedness of Unite to throw all its resources behind winning this dispute in an industrial and political campaign against the ‘Blairite run’ Labour council who were prepared to go to extreme lengths to grind the workforce down. Council leader John Clancy was forced to resign having been stabbed in the back by his own cabinet colleagues following an attempt to broker a deal with Unite through conciliation service Acas.

During the action the bin workers received donations and letters of support from trade unionists and socialists from as far and wide as Mexico, Hong Kong and South Africa, along with picket line visits and donations from local union branches. In the course of the dispute, Richard Beddows was a key speaker at the National Shop Stewards Network rally in September and Howard Beckett addressed the closing event of Socialism 2017.

The victory is a vindication of the solid and determined stand taken by the bin workers and backed up every step along the way by Unite. Fighting back and militancy pay! Despite GMB and Unison being unwilling or unable to achieve coordinated strike action on the bins, Unite saw the action through to the end and are already reaping the rewards in increased membership and an enhanced reputation as a fighting trade union.

Having chosen to cut services rather than to campaign and fight to defend them, the council has put staff across the city on notice that they will be coming for them next in order to make the cuts demanded by the Tory government. Only by learning the lessons of this dispute and applying pressure to the local leaderships of Unison and the GMB to be part of strike action coordinated across the unions in the city can members of those unions hope to defend their jobs and the services that they provide.

The final word (for now) should go to two bin workers, speaking outside Saturday's mass meeting:

"This was one fight we had to win, and win we did...UNITE are a force not to be messed with..Maybe they will think twice 14 months down the line"
"Our action has demonstrated to the working people of this country that you don't have to take it, if you stand your ground you can prevail"

Written by workers for workers.

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