Leeds City Council Street Scene workers have been on all-out indefinite strike since 7 September. These workers include street cleaners, depot staff, and household refuse collectors, all of whom are facing wage cuts of up to £6000 a year.
Refuse collectors will be hit particularly hard if the council get its way, with wages falling to a little over £12000 a year for some. Many of these workers doing a hard, hazardous, and vital job risk losing their homes as they lose up a third of their wages.
The councillors' response to the almost entirely solid walk-out by GMB and Unison members is to do everything they can to break the strike. Private contractors like PHS Group have been used to bring in blackleg Lorries and scab labour. These lorries have at times been escorted by the police through the city centre, even if often they do not have the manpower to collect anything but a token amount of waste. The leaders of the Tory-Lib-Dem council have accused the picketing workers of intimidation and other crimes. Now a senior executive of the council has announced that refuse collection is to be put out to tender and that the strike has “scotched” the chances of any in-house bid. Rather than distancing themselves from this leak, the Tory and Lib Dem leaders said it was just “stating what we all know”.
The workers answer the cheap tricks and dirty tactics of the council with strong picket lines, impromptu marches and the inescapable sight of litter caking the city streets. However eloquent piles of rubbish are in showing the collective power of the workers, solidarity actions are required for victory to be assured. Various ad-hoc actions have been carried out by working-class people in Leeds unwilling to let the satraps of the Civic Hall smash the refuse workers. This varies from people gluing wheelie bins shut and low-level sabotage of scab lorries to dozens of bags of rubbish being piled on council leader Richard Brett’s front garden. (This last action led to a night-time police raid on a house. The cleanliness of Cllr Brett’s drive is obviously a serious security matter).
At a solidarity meeting, the Unison senior steward Glen Pickersill called for trade union branches and others to support the workers with donations to the strike fund and by putting pressure on Lib -Dem councilors by leafleting their wards and surgeries. Although this is definitely needed the unions have not called for wider solidarity actions against the employment agencies being used to recruit scab labour. No doubt the stewards' reluctance is down to the anti-trade-union laws, which were framed to defeat many a struggle before they have begun. Lessons can be learnt from recent actions like the engineering construction strikes which showed how these anti-worker laws can be broken successfully.
One group of workers whose part in this story has been largely forgotten is the other low paid council workers. The council’s excuse to slash the pay of the refuse workers was that they were implementing the Single Status Agreement to bring in equal pay for female-dominated and male-dominated manual council jobs. Their answer to inequality was to extend the women workers' pauper wages to the Street Scene workers as well. A previous strike by GMB refuse collectors in Leeds last year disgracefully ignored the poor wages of their fellow workers and argued instead that the refuse workers' jobs were higher skilled and more arduous then jobs done by women workers. This time round, it seems the unions presented a plan to the council to level the other workers' wages up to be the same as the Street Scene workers. Although this is a vast improvement on the GMB's stance last time, no attempt appears to have been made to link up the Street Scene workers struggle with other low paid council workers struggle for a living wage.
Council leaders and chief executives across the country desperate to impose swingeing cuts on services, wages, jobs and pensions are watching this struggle closely. If the refuse workers are broken. hundreds of thousand workers in less organized sectors will face massive attacks on their wages and conditions. The first major battle against the “new austerity” is being fought in Leeds. The entire labour movement must do much more to ensure it is the refuse workers that emerge victorious.