At 10.45am on Friday 30th June Bin workers across the city of Birmingham began leaving their vans and depots to begin the first in a series of strikes against their employer Birmingham City Council.
The dispute has been triggered in response to the Labour Controlled authority plan to introduce a package of measures designed to cut the bin service budget.
The package includes the termination of the contract of, initially 122, now 113 full time staff employed at Grade 3 level and then re-employ some at a lower Grade 2 through a competitive process. In addition, the reconfiguring of working days -currently staff work four days at 9 hours with a ‘rest day’. This will be altered to reduced hours on four days plus working until 10.30am on the previous ‘rest day’. This will cut staff wages and eat into their designated rest day in what is a physically demanding job.
The trade unions are also demanding that Birmingham City Council cease their long-standing use of Agency Staff and recruit to full time posts for the Bin service.
The mood on the picket line at the Perry Barr depot was a mixture of anger, determination and frustration. The frustration comes as a result of the members having offered up suggestion after suggestion when asked by the employer on how best to improve the service, yet none of the proposals from staff have been recognised. In addition, a large amount of money earmarked to improve the service in previous commitments had never materialised. This has brought an accusation from the Local authority trade unions of “financial incompetence”.
In discussion with pickets many referred to learning the lessons of a previous dispute that took place in 2014 where, according to Unite members “we had them over a barrel only to let them off the hook and they reneged on the agreement reached. That won’t be happening this time!”
On the picket line there was some intense discussion on the issue of a “Labour Council continuing to make huge cuts when Labour could be in power within months” along with questioning of the failure of the GMB union to ballot its members despite their lodging a formal dispute with the employer. This issue and its consequences for individual GMB members not wanting to cross picket lines had caused a complication and worry that could have been avoided. It had been reported that, as a result, GMB members had been leaving to join Unite.
In addition, there was questioning as to why Unite itself had only called out the Grade 3’s across the city on strike despite balloting the Grades 2 and 4 members? Instead Unite full time staff had only asked Grade 4’s and 2’s to support their colleagues if they felt inclined to. In each Refuse Vehicle Grade 4 staff drive and take charge of the vehicle in road traffic and parked whilst Grade 3’s oversee the bin operation at the rear of the vehicle. Grade 2’s undertake the lifting and emptying of the bins. Clearly without the Grade 3’s in the operation then, not only will a gap appear in the pay structure blocking Grade 2 ‘progression’ but also, and crucially, Health and Safety will also be compromised as the Driver cannot take responsibility for all aspects of the job from inside the cab.
Unite members will continue the action with 2 hour stoppages on designated days throughout July (3rd, 11th, 19th and 27th) and into August (4th) to force the employer to back down over their proposals. However, even at this stage it would provide a massive lift to the Unite members involved in the current action if GMB were to announce that they intend to ballot their members who are equally affected by these proposals.
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