Brum bins dispute: on balance, a victory

December 2, 2017 at 9:44 am (Brum, Jim D, labour party, Unite the union, workers)

Strikers and supporters on the picket line
Strikers and supporters at the Lifford Lane picket line

After 12 weeks of action Unite members have agreed a deal to settle a long-running dispute over changes to waste management services in Birmingham.

On balance, this has to be considered a victory for the workers.

The Labour City Council have agreed to withdraw proposed redundancies in exchange for giving the affected workers new job titles and duties. Grade 3 workers will now be promoting recycling among residents but still be working on bin lorries and maintaining their current grade, pay and conditions.

In addition a victimised shop steward will be reinstated, unions will be included in a forum on future changes to the waste management service, and there will be no changes for at least 15 months. The concession the union has made is to agree to a five-day working week but there will be no increase in working hours.

The council has also agreed to pay Unite the Union’s legal costs. They have spent over £6 million of public money in an attempt to defeat the action and break the union.

The local authority’s leader, Cllr Ian Ward, said the deal had been struck after the council had reached “a legally-sound position, going through the governance processes which we must follow”.

Unite meanwhile described the agreement as “a victory for common sense”.

The dispute dated back to June this year, when the union warned that proposals for changes to the service could lead to the loss of more than 100 jobs and pay cuts of up to £5,000.

The tactics that Unite and the workers opted for – one-hour stoppages each day involving a return back to depots on each stoppage – proved to be effective in creating maximum disruption. This approach also minimised the loss in strikers’ pay and retained a limited service under the effective control of the workers.

On August 16th  it seemed that a settlement had been reached at ACAS and the action (then into its seventh week) was suspended: then the Council tore up the deal (incredibly, even claiming that there never had been any deal!) and Unite re-balloted and resumed the action.

The then-leader of the council, John Clancy, was forced to resign over this fiasco. The (unelected) council chief executive Stella Manzie (who earns £180,000 a year), a well-known ‘gun for hire’ who has worked for various local authorities, cutting jobs and services, joined forces with Tory and LibDem councillors to destroy the negotiated settlement. Labour councillors then demanded Clancy’s resignation.

South Birmingham Momentum gave active support to the workers on picket lines, and also organised a campaign of support within the Labour Party, demanding that the council honoured the ACAS deal and/or negotiated a similar settlement with Unite.

In September a High Court judge ordered Birmingham to withdraw redundancy notices it had served on 113 refuse workers ahead of a full hearing.

High Court Judge Mr Fraser, describing former council leader John Clancy’s management of the dispute and its ensuing chaos, said: “I could use the words remarkable, extraordinary and more.”

He said there had been an “astonishing” state of affairs at Birmingham City Council as rubbish accumulated in the city’s streets.

Mr Fraser also criticised a “schism” between councillors and council officers, saying there had been “chaos” between senior managers and that at times councillors and officers were “positively working against one another.”

A council statement earlier that month said it had issued redundancy notices to ‘grade 3 leading hands’ in the refuse service to protect its legal and financial position.

Under the new proposal, the grade three bin loader role, which was to be deleted, will now be retained. However, this will be with a change of job title and added responsibilities such as data collection for refuse compliance. Refuse workers will transition to the new roles in February 2018. They will also move from a 4-day week to a five-day week.

The deal meant that a High Court hearing scheduled for 27 November did not go ahead. The council has agreed to pay Unite’s legal costs and a court order is expected to cement the agreement.

More information on the agreed proposal can be found here.

Cllr Ward said: “I made it clear that my top priority on becoming leader was to resolve this dispute – the disruption caused for the citizens of Birmingham has been completely unacceptable, and everyone recognises that.

“This has always been about providing an efficient and effective refuse collection service for Birmingham, as that is what citizens rightly expect and deserve from us. Neither the council or Unite wanted things to escalate in the way they did, so I am pleased that through quiet, open and honest dialogue we have been able to reach a legally-sound position, going through the correct governance processes that we must always follow.”

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said: “This deal secures the grade three role and protects the pay of workers who faced losing thousands of pounds.

“It is a victory for common sense and a victory for the people of Birmingham who no longer need worry about the disruption of industrial action.”

Beckett added: “This deal, which protects the livelihoods of hard working refuse workers, would not have been possible without the determination and solidarity of Unite members.

“Rather than rolling over, they stood firm through thick and thin to defend their jobs and the service they provide to the city of Birmingham.

“The stand that Birmingham’s refuse workers took and the victory they have secured should be an inspiration to others right across the trade union movement.”

But serious socialists need to be clear: this deal will mean added responsibilities such as data collection for refuse compliance. Grade 3 refuse workers will transition to the new roles in February 2018. All refuse workers will also move from a 4-day week to a five-day week. In the present industrial climate, we can properly call this a victory – but we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent of the victory, as some are doing. Nor should we allow the ambitious Howard Beckett to use this as a springboard for his campaign to succeed Len McCluskey as general secretary of Unite.

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