By Lee Miller
For the second time in a year, refuse workers in Birmingham have resorted to strike action in successful campaigns to defend their jobs, pay and conditions. A determined group of workers, with solid support from their union, has achieved a rare victory which is also helping to bring the long period of right-wing dominance in West Midlands Labour to an end.
The 2017 strike was settled after the Labour-run council withdrew its proposals to downgrade safety-critical roles, with workers facing job losses and pay cuts. In an extraordinary development, it then emerged that payments of around £3,500 were made – in secret – to employees who had not participated in the 2017 strike action. These payments were negotiated by the GMB and made on the grounds that these employees had not been consulted about the issues resolved in the 2017 strike. Unite members saw this as a blatant divide and rule tactic, described by Unite Assistant General Secretary, Howard Beckett, as ‘blacklisting’.
Faced with further industrial action from Unite and Unison members, the council resorted to Tory anti-union laws in an attempt to declare the strike illegal. Left-wing Cabinet Member, Majid Mahmood, resigned his position saying, ‘I am not going to be party to a Labour council using Tory legislation to attack bin workers, our brothers and sisters in the union movement.’
The refuse workers have remained steadfast in their demands. And they have been backed by Labour members across the city, with activists in Birmingham Momentum playing an important role. The result is a clear victory for Unite and Unison, with equivalent payments to be made to each worker.
Austerity-hit Birmingham City Council has shed many thousands of jobs under pressure from government cuts. Services have been slashed to the bone. The failure to mount any kind of resistance to the government has increasingly led the Labour-run council into confrontation with its own workforce. Successful campaigns against these attacks have been few and far between.
But this victory, spearheaded by Unite the Union, has already started to shake-up the Labour establishment . West Midlands Labour – traditionally heavily dominated by the right with union backing – voted overwhelmingly to ask Labour’s NEC to investigate the Council leader and his deputy for their roles in the bin dispute and the ongoing dispute by Unison home-care workers. This increasing collaboration between unions, left-wing councillors, and party activists, is an important step forward.