Birmingham: A long hot summer of bin strikes
Many local authorities have been embroiled in industrial disputes with their workforces over the past year, forced to make cuts in a climate of austerity. Rob Cole looks back on the Birmingham bin dispute and the controversies that brought it national attention
As we continue to be buffeted by the wintry weather, it’s easy to forget the hot summer and the industrial strife that accompanied it. Industrial action occupied several local authorities and waste management operators over the past year, none more so than in Birmingham, where Unite-affiliated refuse collectors went on strike for more than four months over job cuts and the council’s alleged financial mismanagement.
The result was a standoff between Birmingham City Council and the picketing workers, which left rubbish piling up uncollected in the streets for weeks, drawing the ire of residents as well as national media attention.
The dispute began in June amid accusations of financial mismanagement, after it was revealed that Birmingham City Council had recorded a budget overspend of £9.7 million for the 2015/16 financial year (rumoured by a council boss to actually be in the region of £11.9 million), and that proposed job cuts would have resulted in 122 redundancies for Grade Three workers, those responsible for safety at the back of a waste collection vehicle.
Remaining crews were to move to new working patterns of five seven-and-a-half-hour days instead of four eight-hour days, to increase efficiency. Unite claimed these changes would have a negative impact on safety and see some of the lowest paid workers lose up to £5,000 in annual earnings.
Following a ballot in June, 90 per cent of Unite refuse workers voted for strike action with workers announcing they would be striking from 30 June until 22 September initially.
Following a fractious period of negotiations led by Unite’s Assistant General Secretary Howard Beckett and then-city council leader John Clancy, strike action was suspended in mid-August after a deal was brokered by the conciliation service Acas; this would have seen the Grade Three role retained but with workers moving to a five-day week, although Birmingham maintained that this was subject to agreement at a special cabinet meeting scheduled for 1 September.
However, the cabinet meeting was cancelled, with Clancy claiming the deal was ‘unaffordable’ and that the council would be pressing ahead with issuing redundancies to 113 workers, a decision that would cost Clancy his job as he was forced to resign as council leader on 11 September following a vote of no confidence from his Labour cabinet colleagues.
An end to the dispute came into sight on 22 September, when a preliminary high court hearing ruled the issuing of the redundancies ‘unlawful’, with Unite agreeing to suspend strike action again until a full hearing due for late November. Industrial action was suspended permanently on 25 November, according to the city council, after an agreement was reached to retain the jobs of those in Grade Three roles with a different job title and expanded responsibilities for engaging residents on waste.
All told, the dispute came at great cost to Birmingham City Council, both politically (seen in the resignation of Clancy and negative press headlines) and financially, with cabinet member for clean streets Cllr Lisa Trickett confirming after the end of the dispute that it had cost the council “an estimated total of £6.6 million” due to costs associated with temporary staff, deployment of contingency plans and additional landfill tax.
Negative press coverage and anger from residents largely stemmed from the disruption to the refuse collection, which continued right into October following the suspension of strike action in September, with 6,088 individual collections missed in October compared to 2,386 in the same month in 2016.
Both sides maintain that the escalation of the dispute into a national saga could have been avoided, but largely refrained from accusing the other of deliberately inflaming tensions, with the new leader of Birmingham City Council Cllr Ian Ward assuring that ‘neither the council nor Unite wanted things to escalate in the way they did’, although Trickett did accuse Unite of ‘holding the city to ransom’ in August.
Could all this have been avoided? While the council has been silent on the issue since its resolution, understandable given the political fallout generated, Beckett is adamant about the source of the dispute: “We always considered this was an officer agenda for austerity. This was very much something driven by the officers, and the councillors who were under budgetary pressures caved into that pressure when they should have stood up to it.”