They won't divide us

Issue section: 
(355)

The female workers among Birmingham's refuse collection staff have been underpaid for years. They rightly put in equal pay claims and claiming for back pay, and this can range from £30,000 to £60,000 each. It should have been dealt with years ago, but it never was.

So the council had two choices: to bring the women's wages back up to our level or drop our money, which is exactly what they have done. It's loaders on the refuse collection side who have lost, ranging up to over £4,000. The drivers on refuse collections didn't lose anything. On my side of the council, the street clean team, it was our drivers who lost money, up to £3,000, but not workers like me who are considered street sweepers. We didn't lose anything.

The union went into discussions with management, and from day one were told, "Well they've lost it, and that's that." They were issuing section 188 notices, threatening redundancies like confetti. In total they have given us 21 notices about ways to take more money off us.

We started off in December with a work to rule, which meant that full-timers would not be doing any overtime on the weekends or during the week, and then we had a day's strike. We carried on with the work to rule and this went on until after Christmas.

Then management called us back into talks with them. They wanted to talk because there were bags piling up on the street. We didn't want that, to upset the public. If nothing had been sorted we'd have gone out to show the public goodwill and clean up the bad areas - we don't want rats around the place. I think that we'd have done that ourselves. But they brought in scab labour and it really kicked off then.

On the one hand they promise overtime. On the other they bring in scab labour to do the jobs so there's no overtime. There's friction between the scab labour and the full-time force. They say that they'll keep us separated but they can't. There have been incidents already.

They're going to be using this scab labour until October, maybe beyond. We have agency workers with us already who have been with us four or five years. Any jobs should be given to them. They've been trained and know what to do. They are good workers.

Some Tory councillors are putting things in the papers about how bin drivers are on £45,000. Most of them don't even get £29,000. If in four depots you can find someone like that they're working seven days a week and have no home life at all.

But for the majority if they get £29,000 a year they're lucky. Lots of people have houses and are paying mortgages, they've lost £4,000 or more and the banks are stepping in to take their houses.

The council thought that we didn't have the fight in us because the street cleaners and refuse workers were separated in the past, but they were wrong about that. If they think that we won't get the support of the members to carry it on they're very much mistaken. Those of us working on street cleaning wanted to end the work to rule and go on three or four day strike. It would have had a bigger effect.

One councillor has claimed that the scab labourers do more work and bring in more weight on the wagons than the full-timers. This isn't true, because all they do is pick up bags which have been placed in piles on the streets and put them on the wagons.

We think all this is a back way of bringing in privatisation. This Tory council wants to privatise everything. The Tories are going for it far worse than Margaret Thatcher ever did, and they're doing it at a pace.

They do try to divide us from one another. I've been in meetings when they've tried to claim that it's "all these cooks and cleaners - I'd like to see them throw a bag on the back of a wagon." A couple of the reps did bite. We had to stop that, because the issue was not about the women. The women have been underpaid in Birmingham for years and it should have been addressed. We won't allow anything the managers say to split us.

Steve Underhill is a Unite rep at the Montague Street depot, Birmingham.