Discussions continue over Birmingham bin strike
Discussions between Birmingham City Council and the trade union Unite are “ongoing” as both parties seek to find a resolution to the industrial action taken by Unite-affiliated refuse workers in Birmingham over the Christmas period.
More than 300 refuse collectors belonging to Unite went on strike during the holiday period. The action was taken in response to payments made by the council to workers belonging to GMB, a different trade union, who did not take part in strike action in Birmingham over the summer of 2017. Unite says the payments are tantamount to the “blacklisting” of Unite-affiliated workers who did take part in the long running bin dispute.
94 per cent of Unite workers voted in favour of a strike, while 97 per cent voted for industrial action short of a strike. Starting on Saturday 29 December, the action involved refuse collectors doing no more than the minimum amount of work they are contracted to, with no overtime, adhering exactly to their job grades and descriptions and contractual start and finish times.
In response to the strike, Birmingham City Council put in place contingency plans to minimise disruption to waste collections. Residents were told to continue to present their waste in the usual way, with recycling in the recycling bin and residual waste in regular rubbish bin, on their usual collection day. Collections scheduled for New Year’s Day were cancelled with the next scheduled date for collections being today (8 January).
Residents were encouraged to use one of the city’s five Household Waste Recycling Centres in order to continue recycling and ease the pressure on collection crews.
Following the Christmas period, both sides have entered into discussions with the conciliation service ACAS to resolve the dispute. A spokesperson for Birmingham City Council stated that both sides “are keen to get things resolved as soon as possible”, while a Unite spokesperson said: “We are in ongoing discussions to see if a resolution can be reached. The council has been made aware that there must be parity in the workforce and that Unite cannot stand by and watch their collective undermined by secret payments made to those who did not go on strike.”
Discussions are expected to continue through this week.
The summer of 2017 saw strikes by refuse workers in the Unite union over ‘financial mismanagement’ by Birmingham City Council, which led to plans by the council to make 122 waste staff redundant in June 2017. Three unions are represented in the council – Unite, Unison and GMB – and all were originally consulted on the proposed changes to staff roles and redundancies. Unite members voted to strike, while those in GMB and Unison did not.
What followed was a bitter and protracted dispute between the Unite workers and the council, costing some £6.6 million to the council through employing outside contractors, paying overtime, extra landfill tax from cancelled recycling collections, legal advice and losses of income from recycling. The dispute finally ended in November 2017 after a deal was struck between Birmingham City Council and Unite, with 106 staff remaining on existing wages with new roles.
The more recent strike action was proposed after it was revealed that Birmingham City Council made payments to refuse workers belonging to the GMB union who did not take part in strike action last year over job cuts.
GMB released a statement on its West Midlands Facebook page before Christmas to clarify the basis on which the payments were made to GMB workers.
The statement reads: ‘Last year’s industrial dispute in the Waste Service followed on from proposals put forward by the council. While GMB registered a dispute with the council regarding elements of the proposals, GMB members did not vote to take strike action. However, some GMB members refused to cross picket lines in support of their striking colleagues. These GMB members did not attend work and had their pay deducted as a result.
‘During this dispute, talks were held to resolve the issues. GMB representatives were refused access to these talks. At that time, GMB highlighted that, should the talks lead to a potential agreement, GMB (as one of the recognised trade unions) would need to be consulted. Unfortunately, this did not happen.
‘It was announced that the dispute was ended on 25 November 2017. An agreement was reached, but GMB was not party to this. The terms of the agreement are confidential and have not been shared with GMB. However, we were notified that the agreement included changes that impacted GMB members working in the Waste Service. These changes were imposed on GMB members without meaningful consultation with GMB.’
The deal struck between the council and Unite implemented changes that affected all refuse workers, not just those belonging to Unite. GMB states that it was not involved in discussions regarding these changes and considered them as a change to the terms and conditions of its members’ contracts.
As such, GMB informed ACAS of its intention to lodge an employment tribunal claim and started a statutory Early Conciliation process, which began on 26 January 2018. As part of this process, ACAS facilitated discussions between the council and GMB, which GMB states were ‘related only to the potential failure to consult’ on role changes.
The GMB statement continues: ‘GMB reached an agreed settlement with the council for the failure to consult claims through this process.
‘The settlement applied to the relevant GMB members working in the Waste Service. The settlement did not relate to any strike action.
‘GMB’s primary focus is to support our members and we will always seek to act in their interests. In this case, we believed that an employer had failed in its statutory duty and we took the appropriate action to seek a remedy.’