This Friday saw the refuse workers of Tory-run Thurrock Council in Essex return a thumping strike ballot on a 75 percent turnout – quite an achievement these days, in the context of a pandemic preventing mass meetings and punitive anti-trade union laws.
The reason for this vote was the council’s plan to bring in a series of drastic contractual changes that would leave these workers between £1,000 and £4,000 per year worse off. Existing terms and conditions around bank holiday pay, overtime, and vehicle checks allowance are to be scrapped in a process the council calls ‘modernisation’, a corporate phrase deployed to mask the reality of a race to the bottom.
Alongside refuse workers, domestic care workers (represented by the GMB union) are also seeing similar cuts to their remuneration. To add insult to injury, while the lower-paid key workers are suffering life-changing attacks on their livelihood, the senior council staff devising and implementing these cuts are seeing no real change to their working conditions or pay.
At one stage, Thurrock had the highest infection rates for Covid-19 in the UK, and numerous refuse and care workers contracted the virus – some becoming seriously ill. Despite the rhetoric locally and nationally about our key workers being supported, the council brass who spent the past year working safely from home were conspiring to rob them at the earliest opportunity.
As workers began to hear about this plan, needless to say they were incensed. One remarked to me that it was ‘the height of betrayal,’ and many felt that their hard work over the past year was flung back in their faces by council mandarins who hadn’t even bothered to inform them in person.
Instead, Thurrock Council is running a campaign of disinformation. Union officials were prohibited from visiting the depot (not because of Covid regulations but because of ‘incendiary language’ being used at meetings), workers were given leaflets accusing the union of lying and maintaining no pay cuts were planned, and most farcical of all, Unite was accused of ‘doctoring’ the original cuts proposal that was provided by the council themselves.
Due to the overwhelming public support for these workers and the acknowledgement of the difficult job they do, the council won’t honestly state in public that they are leaving them thousands of pounds worse off. It is currently mired in its own scandal over a series of highly-controversial speculation deals and it’s clear that the last thing the council want is the suggestion that they are passing these costs onto those who deliver vital services in the borough.
But given these conditions, the response of the refuse workers at Thurrock has been inspirational. Union density is at 95 percent and after-work Zoom meetings have had huge participation. The branch has grown and thrived in the face of management threats and bullying.
Refuse workers have drawn confidence and learned best practice from previous union victories in Bexley, Tower Hamlets, and Newham. Over the past 18 months there has been a jump in union membership, participation, and victorious disputes in London-area refuse, setting the model of how we as a movement should organise.
We won’t combat structural economic processes like privatisation, agency exploitation, and the race to the bottom in a piecemeal fashion. Only by building strong branches and a vibrant rank and file across an industry can we hope to put up a resistance to plans like those of Thurrock Council.
This summer we will be bringing refuse reps from all our fighting boroughs together in order to plan a coordinated response to the threats facing their livelihoods as a whole, right across the sector.
However, that axe swings both ways. While success begets success, if we allow rogue employers to strip key workers of money after working through a pandemic – what message does that send to others?
To quote one of the binmen, ‘we’re in the shop window here.’ The refuse workers of Thurrock are fighting for all of us – we need to show these men and women that there’s an entire movement behind them, and that when you come for one of us you come for us all.