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.
The pressure of the strike may be beginning to tell on the council. They have finally agreed to talk to the unions. As I write on 6 October, the strike continues into its fifth week.
Refuse collectors could see their wages falling to a little over £12000 a year. Many of these workers 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.
They refused to talk to the unions while the strikes continued.
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 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.
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. Ad hoc actions in support of the strike have ranged from 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!
In the last couple of weeks the Labour Party in Leeds has opportunistically used the refuse workers’ struggle to bash the Liberal Democrats. Ed Miliband has called for the strike to be settled.
Unison has called for trade union branches and others to support the workers with donations to the strike fund and by putting pressure on Lib -Dem councillors by leafleting their wards and surgeries. The unions have arranged benefit gigs and a demonstration on 17 October in Leeds city centre.
However 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 learned from recent actions like the engineering construction strikes which showed how these anti-worker laws can be broken successfully.
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 in strategy, no attempt appears to have been made to link the Street Scene workers’ struggle with that of other low paid council workers.
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 organised cities 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.