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Behind Glasgow’s COP26 Bin Strike

After years of neglect, Glasgow's refuse workers are taking a stand for liveable wages, decent conditions and better services – by striking during COP26, they might finally get a hearing.

The COP26 climate conference was supposed to be a proud moment for Glasgow, and a ‘coming of age’ for the world, according to Boris Johnson. But with the conference less than a week away, things are starting to look a little different.

This month, refuse workers for the city’s council announced plans to go on strike during the conference. The dispute centres around pay for the key workers in the refuse sector, with the strike coming at the end of fourteen months of pay negotiations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, or COSLA, a national association of all Scottish councils that functions as an employer for council staff.

The first pay rise offer from COSLA was just £800. They then upped that offer to £850, but refused to go any closer to the £2,000 annual increase asked for by unions. After tax, union officials say the current offer would barely account for more than £6.50 more a week—and from COSLA, there’s been no movement since.

‘Throughout the global pandemic, we were called key workers… but nobody protects us,’ says Chris Mitchell, a refuse worker and GMB union convener, who has been going viral on Twitter for his videos organising the strike. ‘Now those people are taking a stand. Low-paid workers have been put in a corner, and they’re coming out fighting.’

At present, Glasgow’s refuse workers are seriously underpaid. Their pay, according to GMB Scotland organiser Sean Baillie, is not only one of the lowest in the country, but lower than the councils neighbouring Glasgow, like East Renfrewshire and East Dumbartonshire; there, he says, annual pay is some £2,000 more.

For the workers themselves, the pay increase isn’t a luxury—it’s a necessity. With lorry driver and CO2 shortages causing supermarket prices to rise by 1.1 percent, fuel bills rising by as much as £400 per year, rising inflation, and a cut to Universal Credit, just to name a few recent developments, British workers are set to be a lot worse off this winter. One calculation by the Resolution Foundation says households could be £1,000 poorer next year as a result.

Already, I’m told, refuse workers who live alone often qualify for in-work poverty status. ‘I’ve got members that have to go to food banks, I’ve got members who can’t even live month-to-month,’ says Mitchell. ‘What does that tell you about the amount of respect for cleansing workers?’

In the face of rising costs, this pay increase is about being able to keep their heads above water. ‘The money we’re asking for is just to maintain your standard of living, when you factor in the price of rent, the price of utility bills going up,’ explains Barry McAreavey, a bin lorry driver and union rep in Shieldhall, in the south-west of the city. ‘Everything’s going up in price.’

When the option for strike action was tabled, 96.8 percent voted yes—but it wasn’t a decision taken easily. ‘This would only be the second time in my 25 years that we took industrial action legally,’ says McAreavey. ‘These workers do not take this decision lightly because a lot of them are financially stricken as it is.’

It’s also about more than pay: it’s about protecting their service for the future. ‘Over the last six years the service has been decimated,’ explains Mitchell. ‘They’ve continued to make what they call ‘efficiency savings’—we call them cuts—and the people suffering through this are the workers, and the public that we serve.’

For those Tribune spoke to, their demands and wider hopes also include adding a new lorry and crew to each depot to resolve staff shortages, improving the service’s infrastructure, and making the council stick to its promise to introduce fully electric vehicles in the fleet.

Those failures cut to the core of this strike. Rather than the result of the last few months, those on the frontline say the dispute has been a long time in the making. The SNP government in Holyrood, the council in Glasgow, and COSLA have all played a role cutting back the service across recent years; according to Baillie, a shift in the staffing pattern to four-days-on, four-days-off several years ago, combined with a refusal to hire new workers every year to replace those who leave or retire, has left refuse workers with an impossible burden.

As a result, earlier this year, pickups in some areas were reduced to once every three weeks. A new £35 levy on large items that proved unaffordable for the worst-off also led to a huge increase in fly tipping, and the staff shortfall worsened during the pandemic. Headlines in Scottish newspapers have been awash with coverage of rubbish filling the streets as refuse workers struggled to cope; meanwhile, the council has been forced into a £1 million overspend on agency staff to cover the work that can’t get done.

The crisis has led to reports of uncontrollable pest problems in the city, with one estimating that Glasgow is now home to 1.3 million rats; local refuse workers have even been sent to hospital on several occasions after being attacked by the rodents. In response to this growing concern, council leader Susan Aitken said that ‘all cities have rats’ and that Glasgow is just in need of a ‘spruce up’.

Those about to head out on strike say that the response was emblematic of the SNP council and government’s wider response to the crisis and their treatment of workers. Referring to a campaign of ‘smoke and mirrors’, one worker said SNP officials would just pretend nothing was wrong, and even lie about making cuts to their service provision.

‘Any time you challenge their budget they come back and say they’ve been spending millions of pounds… but it’s not been for boots on the ground, to try and improve the frontline service,’ says Mitchell. ‘It doesn’t do the fundamental things that Glaswegians want; they want their bins empty on time, they want their streets swept and they don’t want rats chewing through their back door. They want a better service than they get now.’

While the SNP has talked big about its opposition to austerity, it has also attracted accusations of being ‘more brutal than the Tories’ after cutting 7.5 percent of local council budgets between 2013-14 and 2018-19. The refuse workers are far from the only group planning strike action—ScotRail workers are also going on strike in protest against an unsatisfactory new pay deal.

The refuse workers have received a lot of support for the strike, including recently from climate activist Greta Thunberg, who called on them to join her at a protest she will be running in the city during the conference. Videos made by the union about their decision to go on strike have received hundreds of thousands of views, while McAreavey tells me that the public have been offering donations before the strike fund has opened.

Scheduling the strikes during the UN COP26 climate conference has, of course, led to some commentators and the council to criticise the strikers—but the workers feel that that impact is crucial to achieving a better deal, for them, for other workers, and for public services.

‘The council are asking us to treat Glasgow with respect during COP26, but where has the respect for these workers been?’ asks Mitchell. ‘We’re always there. It’s only when we’re taken away that people start to notice us.’