Leeds refuse collection workers have voted to reject an offer by the council and continue their all-out strike, which started on 7 September.
The latest offer saw some improvement on future wages, but at the cost of extending the working day by an hour and further changes in conditions. The workers are still calling for no change in working hours and maintaining current pay rates.
With strong picket lines and the unions provision of strike pay, a return to work without the desired settlement is unlikely. 1,000 people came to a recent benefit gig — probably the largest demonstration of trade union solidarity in Leeds since the miners’ strike.
Council smears about workers’ absenteeism, and sickness levels have so far failed to have an impact on public support for the strike. But the unions cannot take it for granted and need to use the support they have to put more pressure on the council.
To date the strikers have stayed on their picket lines and not used opportunities to get their message out directly to the public. One striker told me “The public support us now but losing it won’t make us go back to work. It would make it harder but we won’t go back to work”. Whilst the council has so far sent out four letters to residents explaining their case the unions have relied on the local media to do that for them.
Socialists and trade unionists in Leeds have set up a solidarity committee to raise money and publicise the strike, but the trade union officers have preferred to rely on local Labour MPs and councillors as their advocates.
The council are using the strike as a way of pushing through reforms not just on wages, the original issue, but also on working practices. They plan an increase in the daily work rate from the current 190 residences a day to 220. This is considered an impossible target by the strikers.
At the same time the council are demanding that people doing a hard physical job should reduce their sickness levels. The workers are now the target of a drive to cut costs at the expense of the their wealth and health.
If the strikers lose, other council workers will face similar demands in the name of productivity. But they lack the “industrial muscle” of the refuse workers. A defeat would set an example for other councils to follow and potentially unleash a wave of cuts in jobs and services across local government.
So: the Leeds strikers need the solidarity and support of workers across the country.