Last week came the welcome news that refuse workers and street cleansers in Bexleyheath, south east London had achieved a comprehensive victory after months of campaigning; winning increased pay, a sick pay policy, a change of management and the reinstatement of sacked union members.
On March 21st, workers had downed tools and went on strike. Contracted out to Serco, the Bexley refuse workers were some of the lowest paid council workers in London. The campaign centred around poverty pay, but also the fact that there was no sick pay policy – often forcing people to choose between coming to work sick or staying at home poor. On top of that, like many other private waste contracts, a culture of bullying was ingrained in the depot where people were forced to work shorthanded, insulted and shouted at as Serco sought to squeeze workers as much as possible to maximise their profit margins.
Over the previous months the workers had organised a campaign at breakneck speed; they engaged in mass community outreach, pressured the local council with protests and door-to-door canvassing while union density shot from around 25% to 95%. New reps were elected and an organising committee was put in place with representation from different shifts and teams that managed the campaign from day to day; one that culminated in a victory.
How Did We Get Here?
While the Bexley dispute was undoubtedly inspiring, it’s important to understand the context in which this and other recent disputes have taken place.
Local authority ‘outsourcing’ (‘privatisation’ is probably a better term) began under Thatcher’s government, but the implementation of austerity in 2008 and the slashing of government funding to local authorities saw an explosion in councils utilising the services of companies such as Serco, Carillion, Veolia and Interserve. Faced with the task of balancing local budgets, often with half of the previously available funding, many opted to take the privatisation option.
Workers who had loyally served their communities now found themselves under the management of corporations whose only priority was profit. A race to the bottom quickly began, new contracts were brought in with pay being driven down and vital benefits like sick-pay and pensions were removed.
Far from being ‘more efficient,’ the quality of the services often plummeted as staff numbers were slashed and turnover became high. A similar process took place in the NHS and across the wider public sector – services being underfunded and run down while privatisation ensured a mass transference of public wealth into private hands.
The Local Perspective
Lobbying the government is all well and good but the people best placed to fight back against this process are the workers themselves. Due to the vital job they do, the likes of refuse workers have a tremendous amount of power and public support when they are organised into a strong union.
As successful outsourcing disputes have shown us, it is also key that unions focus not only on the contractor which is essentially a parasitic middleman, but on the client. It’s a key tactic of outsourcing councils to sell the workers off and then wash their hands of them, a complete fiction when one considers the workers are still ultimately working on behalf of the council.
It is vital unions shine a spotlight on those who engineer this process on a local level and who are ultimately the paymasters. In Bexley we loudly protested the council meetings with ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ blaring from a PA system to disrupt proceedings.
We also had teams of workers going door-to-door in the estates where the councillors lived, speaking to residents about the strike, explaining how it wasn’t our fault and how they should voice their concerns with their local councilor when they saw them. Such an approach ensured that the council went from disavowing the issue to becoming centrally involved.
That having been said, all of this local leverage was secondary to the fact workers were using their labour withdrawal. A rock solid picket took place with 120 disciplined workers severely limiting strike-breaking efforts, regardless of the threats of management, scabs and the police. Unions cannot afford to engage in symbolic one-day strikes with six on a picket line; either a strike has teeth or it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Bexley marks the fourth successive victory Unite have had in east London councils and has now inspired workers in Merton, Sutton and Croydon to follow suit. While building strong local branches it is imperative we begin to link them up and not fall into the trap of siloing ourselves by company or borough.
We should be aiming to establish citywide and national committees of refuse workers, home carers, hospital cleaners and others. Stemming from that can be the establishment of a ‘rate for the job’, the marrying of pay anniversaries and collective pushes to attain real change in the workplace.
The refuse workers in Newham, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Bexley have set the model, it is now vital we harness that on a national level and push back against low pay and the privatisation of our public services.