During my first week at the plant I found GMB dispute letters laid out all over the control room desks. The letters summarised the national sickness absence dispute with Veolia and the proposed ballot for strike/action short of a strike taking place that month.
The Unite rep, R, stood on a step in front of the pit window, and everyone in the control room stopped work to listen to him.
“Me and the other union reps have discussed it. We’re not happy with Veolia’s national sickness policy — specifically the ability of HR to overrule the opinions of local line managers. There’s no flexibility; genuine illness will mark you for disciplinary action, and there’s nothing your manager can do about it.”
“We’re being punished for bad habits down in one depot.” said G.
After the briefing, I asked R which union I should join.
“We’re Unite, but the fitters are all about to retire. Everyone’s in GMB — you should join GMB.” He had a very serious face on. “Also I didn’t tell you that – it’s against Veolia policy to do union recruitment during working hours. Can only do it on your breaks – pah!”
A year later, I ring the regional office
“This is GMB region, how can I help?”
“Hello, I’m wondering if you can put me in touch with my rep and branch? I’ve been a member for over a year but had no contact from them — “ I give my name, rep’s name and workplace details.
“Ah that’ll be MH’s branch…I’ll just find out when the branch is held, do you mind if I put you on hold for a minute?”
Music plays. I stand for five minutes, tapping my feet on the workshop floor.
“Yes hi. Any luck?”
“I’m afraid I wasn’t able to find out about your branch, but I tell you what I’ll do – I’ll send an email to you and MH asking him to get in touch with you, and he can send you the branch information. Can I just confirm your email address?”
She runs through the address and I confirm it.
“Before you go...” I interject “This is the third time I’ve rung asking for branch meeting details, and I’ve never received an email from you or MH — I’m sure you’re very busy in your office, but I’d appreciate some communication from MH, in any form.”
“Oh really? That’s not good... I’ll look into it for you...”
Later that month, I’m in the control room with N and G. The operations manager comes in with a woman dressed in office clothes, and introduces her to everyone.
“This is the new Domestic Waste manager at Lumley St.”
In the chat with N and G, the new manager mentions that one of her goals is “to get some flexibility on this twenty-minute drop business.”
“That’s music to our ears,” says N “If you can achieve it.”
Once the managers have left, I ask them about it.
“The bin wagon drivers have an agreement with Veolia,” says G “Negotiated by the unions, that they will only wait in line to tip at the ERF for twenty minutes, no longer. After that, they leave the site, whether the wagons are empty or not.”
“They drive the wagons back to the depot full of waste, which can get left overnight — they’ll be disciplined for that.” N continues “Or the depot have to hire in temps, or drivers on overtime pay, just to empty wagons. The drivers are hired to do two tips, but they won’t work past 2pm. If there’s a queue at the ERF, we often can’t get them through in time, even with OMAs cleaning apron constantly.”
“What are drivers paid?” I ask, “D’you know what time they start, what contracts they’re on?”
“I don’t,” G replies “I know that they’ve been on strike for this though. The thing is, if drivers strike, waste builds up all over the city. Most of them have second jobs now, they can’t stay past 2pm because they’ve got other work to get to, kids to pick up, etc.”
N “They have everyone over a barrel. It’s like the rail unions, there’s no flexibility.”
G “That’s partly why we’re in a different union to them. The GMB was supposed to bring all the different branches together, stronger and unified and all that — but I don’t want to be in a branch negotiating on the same terms as that lot. I’d be really happy to join if we could guarantee *separate* negotiations. Actually, just a conversation would be good. They’ve never actually sat down and talked to us — no one can ever get hold of that MH.”
Me “What union are you guys in? You’d probably have everyone over a barrel just threatening to strike.”
N “Community. I don’t think I could ever do that….we’d have plenty to negotiate with before it ever got to that stage. Don’t think that’d be right.”
• Emma Rickman is an engineering apprentice at a Combined Heat and Power plant in Sheffield.