How the Brighton Bin Strike Won

After a 14-day strike, refuse collectors in Brighton have won a deal that will see low-paid council workers across the city get a pay rise – it’s yet another victory that proves the power of collective action.

Credit: GMB

HGV drivers working at ‘Cityclean’, the refuse and recycling department of Brighton and Hove City Council, recently voted to strike in relation to an unresolved dispute over management changes to routes. The resulting 14-day strike led to pileups of uncollected rubbish across the city, with residents posting images on social media of overflowing bins and blocked pavements. The dispute was finally resolved on 20 October when the GMB approved a new agreement with the Green-led council that addressed the concerns over management of routes, as well as related pay issues. Cityclean workers will now begin collecting the backlog of rubbish, to the relief of residents and businesses across the city. But how was this dispute resolved, and what lessons can the movement learn from it?

The central issue of the dispute was the allocation of driver routes across the city, with management seemingly chopping and changing them at a whim. Driving a heavy goods vehicle around a crowded city is not a simple task, and drivers learn their routes over time—knowing which roads you can’t turn around in, or which streets require you to park in a certain place to avoid blocking cars. The constant changing of routes, seemingly with no consideration or process, was causing problems for pickups and great stress to drivers. The GMB ballot (80 percent participation, passed with 100 percent of the vote) sought to strike on this question, as well as ‘related issues’.

Negotiations with the Green-led council broke down a number of times in the first week of the strike. In one meeting, the council offered to look at the issue of pay, which they conceded had been historically low. At that point, pay was a ‘related issue’ and on the table for discussion. On the last day of the strike, an agreement was reached to establish a proper process for management of routes, as well pay increases for the HGV drivers, and crucially, all other council workers on the lowest pay grades. The deal will see over a thousand low-paid council workers get a pay rise.

Refuse workers at Cityclean are some of the lowest paid staff in a city with extortionate rental and property prices. For months and months during the pandemic, we saw politicians of all parties clapping, banging saucepans, and generally singing the praises of the front-line workers who kept the country going. Bin lorry drivers are exactly those front-line workers—they didn’t work from home on laptops, but kept going throughout, risking their own health to keep our city clean.

Many on the left suspected that the clapping and kind words wouldn’t amount to much when the pandemic was over, and so it has proved. The Tory government, and Brighton’s Green council, have done nothing to pro-actively give a pay rise to front-line workers. In these circumstances, what power do low-paid workers have to prevent unacceptable conditions, or try to improve their pay? In some instances, they have the power to lawfully withdraw their labour and go on strike. Nobody enjoys having their streets full of uncollected rubbish, which illustrates just how important the service is to the city, and why refuse workers deserve to be treated with respect and given a decent salary.

This episode also demonstrates the vital importance of having key pieces of infrastructure in public ownership. If the refuse service had been outsourced to a private company, using temporary contract workers, and refusing to recognise trade unions, this industrial action would’ve been impossible. That’s why Conservative councillors, in the meeting where the new agreement was discussed, immediately called for the service to be ‘put out to tender’, effectively privatising it. The Tories can’t stand the fact low-paid workers have exercised collective power and achieved a pay rise, and lashed out to try prevent it happening again. Their anger was palpable throughout, with one Conservative Councillor asserting that ‘you can’t negotiate with terrorists’ in reference to discussions with the GMB.

The importance of this particular service, and the visible impact of it not being performed for 14 days, gave the GMB maximum leverage in the dispute. The Green council knew they couldn’t continue to have communal bins overflowing, and streets covered in rubbish. The resulting deal addressed historic issues of low pay, not just for the HGV drivers, but for all workers on the lowest pay grades—those not even subject to the dispute or members of the GMB.

Brighton and Hove residents may also want to question the supposedly ‘progressive’ credentials of the Green party in this dispute. While Green councillors in the leadership welcomed the deal as a step forward for low-paid workers, it’s important to remember that this was only achieved when they were forced to do so by industrial action. At one point, the Council authorised private contractors to conduct rubbish clearances, effectively breaking the strike. One former Green councillor complained on twitter that striking workers should ‘consider all residents’ next time around. Hardly the actions of a party that cares about economic justice and solidarity with working people.

The lessons for the labour movement are compelling. Labour members, trade unions, and progressive supporters must relentlessly focus on bringing key local services ‘in house’. This is difficult, especially given the context of massive Conservative cuts to local government funding over the past eleven years, but the results are clear to see. Public money can be targeted at improving services, and giving pay rises to workers, not delivering profits for shareholders of private companies. Just as importantly, it means trade unions can negotiate directly with councils over key public services, giving ordinary workers some level of economic power. Those who passively wait for Tory or Green administrations to grant pay rewards for their efforts in the pandemic will continue to be disappointed.

This episode shows the collective power of workers who join trade unions, and that their power can be used to force pay rises for workers across other sectors. For those looking at the success of the 54 HGV drivers that went on strike, the lesson is simple – join a trade union!