Last week saw the conclusion of the Bexley refuse workers and cleansers’ dispute, after seven weeks of continuous strike action. The strike culminated in a huge victory for the workers, who have gained a considerable pay rise as well as extra holidays and a raft of commitments to change certain punitive working practices. They have gone from being some of the lowest-paid refuse workers and cleansers in London to being close to the top of the pay table.
In doing so, they faced down an ideologically-motivated and vexatious Tory council, the vulture conglomerate Serco, and also the Metropolitan Police. The lessons learned during this struggle are of relevance to all trade unionists in the battles that we will face ahead.
The environment services in Bexley Council have been outsourced for nearly twenty years, the contract cycling through a variety of privateer companies before finally being awarded to Serco. As is common when such companies acquire these contracts, Serco’s priority was primarily the acquisition of profit, while provision of a decent service and staff welfare came far down the list.
The tendering system means that companies such as Serco, Veolia, Urbasser and others attempt to undercut each other to the point that profit margins are very low. The next logical step is to recoup this profit by attacking staff conditions; as a result, what was once a decent, pensionable job recognised for its wider importance has been subject to a thirty-year race to the bottom.
Last year workers in Bexley, tired of a decade of mismanagement at the hands of Serco, began industrial action. With the onset of Covid and lockdown, they agreed to postpone their action after winning company sick pay policy (something that was outrageously never in place before) and commitments to address the huge pay disparity that the council and their contractor had allowed to develop.
Rather than abide by this agreement, Serco took the opportunity to engage in a union-busting drive and completely reneged on previous commitments on pay. Needless to say, this saw workers ballot yet again for strike action and return to the picket line.
Almost immediately after the ballot, we began to see the council, their contractor, and the police coalesce with a view to break the picket. While the council furiously protested its impartiality and independence from the dispute (hiding behind outsourcing), before the strike, we received a letter jointly signed by both them and the police attempting to place certain conditions of where, when, and how we picketed.
The first day of strike action saw a huge police presence; later days saw up to twenty cops escorting Serco strikebreakers and management out of the depot and physically barring union reps and officials from attempting to speak to drivers.
Despite allegations of a Serco manager driving his car at speed at a union rep, the same manager physically assaulting a female union official, and a scab worker threatening to kill a freelance journalist, the police focus was entirely on the union picket, with cops spending the duration of the picket parked nearby and sometimes filming striking workers.
Regardless of this level of opposition, workers distinguished themselves with their resilience and their determination to fight back. Thousands of leaflets were posted in residential areas by striking workers, specifically targeting the areas in which councillors lived.
Workers also went on residents’ Facebook groups to argue their case and highlight the unfair treatment they had been given. This culminated in huge media coverage, with fifty angry residents calling in to BBC London’s Vanessa Feltz to demand that the council take action.
While the council still maintains the fiction that they were ‘legally prohibited from intervening’, the reality is that a number of things occurred:
- Serco lost the contract;
- A new contractor was brought in that suddenly offered new rates of pay that went far beyond what was initially outlined;
- The council used its influence to redress a number of local working practices.
What trade unionists can take from this dispute is the key lesson that when dealing with outsourcing companies, the primary focus of any campaign must be the client.
For too long, public and private bodies have handed workers and services over to glorified gangsters and then washed their hands of them. Rather than being sucked into rows with middlemen on a four percent profit margin, unions should be going straight to the paymasters and decision makers and putting the spotlight on them.
This is the sixth successful dispute that Unite has had in the London area, following victories in Thurrock and Tower Hamlets. Reps and activists from both of those areas were instrumental in bolstering the Bexley workers to follow suit. The second key lesson for us is to organise the job and put in co-ordinated demands off the back of a co-ordinated industrial strategy driven by these workers themselves.
Next month will see Unite bring together its reps from across the city to formulate a plan for 2022. To quote a striking binman, ‘We’ve had a race to the bottom for years. Well, we’ve hit the bottom. And now we’re coming back up.’