After six weeks on the picket line, refuse workers in Thurrock have won. It is a landmark victory for the refuse sector, council workers and their union, Unite, and one that seemed some way off for much of the dispute. But it is the latest in a string of wins for workers early this summer which suggests that employers who seek to use the pandemic to push through attacks on conditions aren’t having it all their own way.
The refuse workers were on strike over proposals by Thurrock Council which would have drastically worsened their pay and conditions. These changes ranged from contractually guaranteed overtime to the payments drivers receive for conducting vehicle maintenance checks and, in total, would have left them in the region of £4,000 worse off.
The changes were prompted by a decision from Thurrock Council to bring in outside corporate advisors in a major restructuring. Mark, one of those who went out on strike and has worked for Thurrock Council for 13 years, describes the background,
The changes in the terms and conditions that the council wanted to bring were going to have a serious impact financially. The council pay a hell of a lot of money to CEOs, managers, and directors, and they bring in consultants to tell them what to do. That’s what happened here: they brought in a consultancy firm to upgrade what they class as an outdated pay system.
‘Consultancy in local government is a big thing,’ says Willie, the workers’ rep with Unite the union. ‘You can see it in the NHS: just look at how many people there are that get paid ridiculous amounts. I’m talking £2,000-3,000 for a day’s consultancy.’
Willie believes the watering down of workers’ rights under the guise of efficiency is a serious problem in local government and the public sector more broadly. ‘Every couple of years we hear these buzzwords – flexibility, value for money, and efficiency savings, but it’s not. These are the people who come up with ideas that facilitate the race to the bottom.’
The Efficiency Myth
The efficiency mantra is ubiquitous across local government reforms, pushed not only by councils but by a central government determined to slash funding to the bone. But, Willie points out, Thurrock Council has its own particular double standards in this regard,
Thurrock Council employs over 250 people who are on more than £50,000 per year; neighbouring Basildon Council, with an even bigger population, hires fifty. So Thurrock Council were hiring five times as many on a higher level. The CEO in Thurrock is on over £200,000 per year. Everything at the top level is higher than all our neighbours, but refuse workers were the ones being lectured on benchmarking and efficiency and value for money.
This lecturing felt all the worse after the previous year, in which Mark and his fellow refuse workers were classed as key workers and celebrated for keeping the country going during the pandemic. That praise, however, didn’t extend to their employer, who Mark says continued to be neglectful to workers throughout Covid-19.
‘I’ve been told by someone who’s worked at Newham Council that they were giving their workers an extra £25 a day during the pandemic,’ he says. ‘They had a catering company going in and giving them a sandwich and drink in the morning. They also had a professional company coming in and cleaning the interior of the cabs with disinfectant every night.’
Thurrock’s refuse workers, on the other hand, got nothing. ‘We couldn’t get masks. We got one bottle of anti-bacterial spray, which you had to take in every time, and we had to do all the extra work ourselves. And we didn’t kick up a fuss: we got on with our work.’
It was after this resilience in the face of a national emergency that the planned changes to pay and conditions were introduced – despite the fact that the affected workers demanded no special treatment beyond maintaining the existing system.
‘They made us look like we’re greedy,’ says Mark. ‘The only information that the council would put out is that they weren’t cutting anyone’s salary, which was true. What they were cutting was all my contractual overtime, which meant I’d still lose out thousands every year.’
Willie says things started to change when the dispute escalated. ‘When the strike began, refuse workers were still working for a couple of hours in the morning, and that was to prevent them handing over the trucks to agency staff which the council managed to bring in,’ he explains.
Thurrock Council eventually did hire an external contracting firm—Bywaters, from East London—in an old school blacklegging effort. But this would prove to be a costly and unsustainable endeavour. ‘The external firm probably cost them in the region of £2,000 per day, per lorry,’ Willie says. ‘So you’re looking at spending thousands of pounds a day on trying to hire staff.’
When refuse workers did finally escalate to a full strike, Thurrock Council were forced to cancel all rubbish collections. The move caused chaos locally but was offset by the council opening up eight tipping sites across the area. ‘Some of these sites essentially became open-air fly tips,’ says Willie. ‘And they were situated near residential areas, which, needless to say, aggravated the locals there.’
The fact that residents had to dump their own rubbish, despite paying council tax, also caused significant anger in the local community. ‘A lot of the workers live locally too, and there was definitely pressure locally and on social media to reach a resolution.’
Campaign of Misdirection
Despite difficult conditions—in the midst of a pandemic which has seen millions struggling just to get by—the workers refused to give in. But that didn’t stop a campaign of misinformation. ‘We had a couple of newsletters from the council and two letters personally, to us, telling us that everything that the union was saying was incorrect,’ says Mark.
Some of these letters were themselves misleading. ‘One of the letters they sent me broke down the three things I was going to lose and claimed I would be financially worse off by £3,800 for the year, but it was worked out on a 2019 salary,’ Mark says. ‘I sat down and worked it out for the 2021 salary, and I realised I was actually going to be losing £4,280 for the year. So even the information they were giving us was incorrect.’
Mark adds that some of the information was specially worded to shirk responsibility. ‘They sent me a letter saying my bank holidays weren’t contractual,’ he explains. ‘My catch-up hours weren’t contractual. My vehicle maintenance, that I have to do every morning, wasn’t contractual.
‘And then the paragraph underneath told me that bank holidays were ‘mandatory’. If I have to work them, surely that’s contractual?’ he says. ‘We’re not being greedy. We’re not asking for more money. We’re just asking for what we earned; what we’ve always earned. I don’t see that as being unreasonable.’
Willie was left stunned by some of the tactics used by the council to intimidate refuse workers on the picket line. ‘The council were calling the police on us, claiming we were breaking Covid regulations when we were outside in groups of six during the picket,’ he says. ‘They called the police every day at one stage. They even tried to serve us with an ASBO.’
But after six long weeks on the picket line, it became clear to the council that Thurrock’s bin workers weren’t going to break. ‘We were rock solid,’ says Willie. ‘We weren’t backing down. There was no let-up in the workers, and that’s what forced their hand to come to a resolution. It’s important to say the resolution hasn’t been officially signed off, there’s still talks going on, but we’re confident. There’s a major shift in what they want to do.’
Mark highlights how strong the sense of unity was among refuse workers on the picket line. ‘I’ve worked with some of these guys for a very long time and there’s also a lot of new people. It’s very impressive how we’ve all stuck together and decided that we’re not going to be bullied into this. That’s all they tried to do – bully us into it.’
‘Workers did come together on the picket in a spirit of unbelievable camaraderie,’ Willie adds. ‘They brought their own barbecues and had their own music. Everyone had a little job: some were putting the flags out; others were doing their own leaflets. We had teams of people going out door-knocking. It was wonderful. Everyone participated and spirits were high.’
The victory of refuse workers in Thurrock is a reminder of the power in a union at a time in which workers’ rights are under increasing attack. As councils bring in out-of-touch and overpaid consultants to water down pay and protections for those out on the frontline, Thurrock has shown that workers can fight back–and succeed. ‘The idea that the union movement is finished, or that organising itself isn’t going to get the goods,’ Willie says, ‘is just not the case.’