2001: Brighton bin men's strike and occupation

The Hollingdean depot in Brighton

A short history of a victorious strike and occupation of their workplace by contracted-out bin workers that was assisted by local residents.


Refusing Collection
In the week between the 11th and the 15th of June, 2001 a workers' struggle of a kind not experienced in the UK for a long time took place in the refuse collection depot in Brighton. In defiance of the dominant spectacle of social peace, the bin men of Brighton took collective action after being sacked for refusing newly imposed work routines. Quickly, their struggle took the character of a complete refusal to continue working under the same management, passively embracing a large part of the community of Brighton.

On Monday the 11th of June, SITA, the French company which was contracted by the Brighton and Hove Council to run street cleaning and refuse collection imposed new working routines, ones which were completely impossible to achieve, such as cleaning a 17 mile stretch in eight hours with a broom.

On hearing these new measures, twelve workers refused to carry them out and were immediately suspended. When this happened, the twelve called in their fellow workers who had already left the depot and explained the situation. In response, they all returned and blockaded the entrances of the depot, refusing the management's action and demanding their immediate re-instatement. SITA management responded by sacking them all. As a consequence, and in an act which has not happened in Brighton for at least 20 years, the workers occupied their workplace and demanded:

* the immediate re-instatement of all workers (full-time and agency),
* the termination of the contract with SITA.

A day later the following demand was added to the list:

* the formation of a workers' co-operative to take control of street cleaning and refuse collection

The Council responded by giving SITA 48 hours to prove that they are capable of carrying out the work that they were being paid to do. In its attempts to do this, and to break the workers' 'strike', SITA used local (private) employment agencies in order to employ scabs. The jobs of the 240 suspended workers were advertised in the local papers (not only in Brighton, but also in surrounding areas like Worthing and Crawley).

A few of us (direct action anarchists and communists) joined the struggle as soon as we found out it was going on, and participated with workers in the various actions that were deemed necessary. The first was to go with some workers at the other depot from which the scabs were leaving and to stop their trucks from coming out. This was hugely successful: one of us locked himself underneath the first scab truck at the entrance of the depot, effectively stopping any other truck from leaving, while the workers who were there persuaded the majority of the temps not to scab by either explaining to them the situation, or by threatening them that their union would make sure that they would not be able to find another job in Brighton. When the fire brigade was called in to de-lock our comrade, the shop steward from the depot explained the situation and in an inspiring act of solidarity the firemen refused to participate, leaving as quickly as they had come. Most temps who had turned up refused to work after realising that they would be scabs (the job was not advertised in exactly those terms), while SITA and agency managers who had also turned up to supervise the situation were seriously fucked off with the development. Only a truck that arrived later could be used, with a crew of three people, to do a job which usually required more than 30 trucks, each with five people as crew.

The second action that we took concerned the agencies that were employing scabs in Brighton. In collaboration with the union and after their request, we wrote a leaflet warning workers that taking up the job made them scabs, and handed them outside the agencies. The management of the agencies freaked out and tried to stop us by calling in the police. The fact was however that there was nothing that the police could do apart from giving us abstract threats. After the agency management realised there was nothing they could do, the promised that they would not recruit any more scabs. The same thing happened at another agency that SITA employed which was outside Brighton, in the neighbouring town of Worthing. After we leafleted the workers there, the agency also promised to stop employing scabs.

The fact that we managed in collaboration with the workers to stop the scabs gave even more strength to the workers' struggle, since SITA was unable to comply with the Council deadline. Negotiations between the workers, the Council and the company would have definitely been very different had we not succeeded in stopping the scabs.

Since the beginning of the occupation, SITA had refused any negotiations with the workers, while the agency preferred using outright threats to break up the struggle. However, after the actions that the workers took and the extent of public support, the Council mediated between the two and a further meeting was agreed. In that, the final agreement was made: SITA lost the contract and would leave the management of the refuse collection in September; all sacked workers would be re-instated and fully paid for the week spent in occupation; the working routines would return to the way they were before the 11th of June; all further dismissals have to be negotiated with GMB, and a council representative would supervise any further changes in the organisation of work.

History
Similarly, the street cleaners represent another bastion of working class resistance, with a long tradition of militancy [1]. Many of the work practices date from the days before the privatisation of street cleaning (which was around 10 years ago!), a situation that SITA had been trying to defeat for a long time--without particular success.
There was speculation going around that SITA had provoked the situation (without however anticipating such a reaction) in an attempt to get rid of the 'bad old days' practices of the workers. Knowing that it would only be able to exert more profit by re-organising the work conditions, the argument goes, SITA staged the initial suspension, knowing that the rest of the workforce would react. By sacking them all, SITA was hoping to re-employ them on individual contracts that came with the new work routines and with effective decreases on their wages and, more importantly, breaking down their strength and solidarity. Their gamble however was unsuccessful: the workers remained united. By taking this unlawful action, the workers forced management into a defensive position. The mediations that an official strike imposes were largely absent.

Conditions of nearly full employment also placed the workers’ struggle in a better position. It explains for example why the private agencies were quickly forced to abandon the employment of scabs, or the fact that many of the 'scabs' that turned up in the second depot were easily persuaded not to cross the picket lines, since finding another job was easier than it used to be.

The struggle immediately received the support of most of Brighton's residents, who had felt the effects of the privatisation of refuse collection and the deterioration of the service as a result of SITA taking over which had made refuse collection sporadic and ineffective. Although the streets were piling up with rubbish, we did not in the duration of the struggle come across a single person who blamed the situation on the workers. Their struggle was socialised and thus gained more strength. Similar to the struggles in the railways, where the deterioration of safety (to name but one) was a direct consequence of privatisation, but more dynamic in its practices, the struggle of the bin men shattered social indifference and embraced Brighton's community, though mostly in a passive way. The visible participation of direct action activists in the struggle also testified for its openness and social character.

It also seems to be the case that the Council itself was dissatisfied with SITA but was legally bound from terminating the contract. The strike of the workers seems to have given the opportunity to the Council to exert pressure to terminate the contract. This would explain both the Council's decision to give a 48 hour deadline, which they were not forced to do, and the local paper's negative attitude towards SITA.

Organisation of the Struggle
One of the main positive features of the struggle was the total unity of the workers behind all activities. The majority of the workers spent most of their time at the occupied depot (sleeping rough, eating canteen food and sandwiches, etc), they had a shift system for the entrances, and all were willing to help out with practical tasks (such as flying pickets, driving to employment agencies in other towns, etc). The morale remained high most of the time. And although that was never made explicit, certain types of sabotage of the machinery took place in order to avoid a forced return to work in the case of a police eviction. Quite a few workers were prepared to fight back in case the police would try to evict them (brooms and other sticks were conveniently close to the guarded entrances), though their expressed aim was to keep this a peaceful action.

The fact that SITA was a French-based company did make us wary of the possible 'national' content of the struggle, but although there were instances in which anti-French sentiments were expressed these were clearly marginal and did not characterise the struggle as a whole. And although the Argus (Brighton's local paper), known for its reactionary attitude, did try to use the racist card[2], this was not successful.

However, one of the problems that we recognised from the very beginning of the struggle was the lack of communication and information exchange between the workers. The way that the whole thing was organised, everything type of information, every activity and every leaflet went, in one way or another, through the union rep. This had a variety of effects on the struggle:

On the one hand it meant that a lot of workers did not have exact information on what was going on, at what stage the negotiations were, what type of decisions were made. This meant that a lot of rumours were flying about, a fact which sometimes added to their stress about the situation.

On the other hand, we found it difficult to understand the full story from the workers themselves. We were also relying on the union rep (either for practical activities or for information on the general situation) and we could not simply ask any other worker for it. Many times, when we started discussing certain things about the struggle with some workers, as soon as any specific decision had to be made, most of them told us to speak to the union.

An undeniable fact was however that the union representative was a decent and militant person, who did not at any point stitch them up or exploit the trust that they placed upon him, a fact which explained the almost unconditional trust. And the fact was that the union's contribution was conditioned by the militancy of the workers themselves. It was obvious to us after talking to workers, that had it been a different union person there would have certainly been more attempts towards self-organisation or rank-and-file members taking more initiatives.

The fact was that the specific attitude and commitment of the union rep was such that none of that appeared as an immediate necessity. Towards the end, when the union was negotiating with the Council and SITA, it was quite clear to us that should the proposal be unacceptable to the workers, and should they have felt that the union was responsible for a sell-out, the situation would have developed quite differently, and possibly different forms of organisation could have been sought. For good or for bad, it is not easy to speculate on this point. It would be unrealistic however, to argue that there were visible signs of conflict between the union and the workers (apart from some incidents with the agency workers which are discussed below).

Agency Workers
Another promising aspects of this struggle was the degree of unification between the agency workers and the permanent ones. Both sides had decided that whatever happens they would stick together and fight all the way, as if both were in exactly the same position. This was especially important for the agency workers since their position was much more precarious than that of the permanent workers[3] - many of the agency workers did not even have proper contracts since the agency kept delaying them. One of the workers we met had been waiting for his contract for over five months!

The agency tried a variety of tactics to separate the agency workers from the permanent ones, ranging from stupid tricks to outright threats. Firstly, it asked the agency workers to meet at another depot in order to discuss the situation. Their plan, it was revealed, was to ask them to resume work immediately (effectively as scabs), and whoever would refuse would be sacked on the spot. They were hoping that this would catch them off guard and, separated from the permanent workers, they would be forced to accept or risk their jobs. This however did not work, since all workers understood the plan, and promised to remain solid on their position of refusing work. None of them appeared at the planned meeting with the agency management.

After this plan failed, the agency quickly resorted to clear threats, calling the agency workers at home and informing them that if they did not go to the other depot they should consider themselves out of a job. Most of the workers however spend their time at the occupied depot and thus never received the call (those who did simply passed it on to the others and pretended they had not received either.) At the same time, the union representative and the shop stewards re-affirmed the decision that all workers would stick together whatever happened and that any sacked agency workers would receive full support from the union.

On the third day of the struggle some of us attended a meeting between agency workers and one of the shop stewards. It was obvious that there existed some tension between the agency workers and the union but we never managed to find out exactly what it was about because nobody spoke clearly. What we did understand was that the agency workers were expressing fears that the union might abandon them while making a deal with SITA. The shop steward was vigilant to stop any such rumours and re-assured them that the union is totally behind them, so long as they stay behind the struggle. But he also added, in authoritative tones, that he was aware that 'some' agency workers were going around spreading false rumours and that if this continued he would personally 'take care of it' (whatever that meant). He added that he would not accept anyone backstabbing them and that the agency workers should be cautious of their behaviour since they were "guests" there. Of course, many workers objected to that term ("we are also part of the struggle, we are not just guests" they stressed), and the shop steward quickly covered it up. The meeting ended with all them unanimously agreeing that they would fight until the end, united and in solidarity.

In the next days of the occupation we did not notice any other signs of divergence between the agency workers and the union, though when the union rep came back with the final proposal from the Council, some agency workers were clearly wary of its exact content because of rumours circulating.

Workers and Activists (and the Union in the middle)
From the very beginning that we joined the struggle it was clear that the workers or the union did not see us as paper-selling politicos, the obvious reason being that we arrived there with food, blankets and the willingness to practically participate in or organise actions. In contrast to the state socialists who arrived later on, we did not have papers explaining to workers what they are themselves doing, but instead joined with the aim of assisting their struggle. The workers greeted us with a lot of appreciation and friendliness, and that attitude was kept until the end (after the end of the struggle, the shop stewards suggested that we should maintain contacts and that should we ever need their help they would be prepared to do so without second thought, by e.g. doing a walk-out for us). And when a few of us got stopped by the cops in the entrance of the depot, the union rep gave us workers' vests in order to walk in and out without any hassle. It was clear that the workers recognised our contributions (including fly-posting and leafleting around town) as part of their own struggle.

At the same time, and although we met and interacted with loads of the workers, our main point of reference was the union rep and the shop stewards. It was only through them that we arranged joint actions (such as practically stopping the scabs or leafleting the employment agencies which were employing them), and in many cases a lot of the workers were not even aware what we were planning with the union rep (though this did not seem to create a problem for them, probably because of their trust for the union). The fact was that the union rep and the shop stewards were prepared to raise the stakes at any moment (and they surely did when the decision was made to stop the scabs) and that was enough for us to remain at good terms with the union.

We did feel in certain cases that the union was taking advantage of our 'experience' in direct action tactics (like locking yourself underneath a 7-ton truck), but we were all aware of that and to the extent that we were in agreement with the actions and their purpose we were willing to ignore that feeling. It was only after a couple of the actions that we had prepared (or carried out) were suddenly recalled by the union that the possibility of taking our own initiatives without seeking the union's approval and by discussing them separately with workers was discussed. Considering however that we remained outsiders to a struggle that never generalised, such initiatives could have been counter-productive. They way things developed though, such dilemmas became insignificant.

What next?
Within the context of the struggle's potentials, the result was definitely a victory for the workers (though some expressed anger to the fact that SITA would remain in management until September). The final agreement granted most of the demands, and the situation remains open for the possibility of forming a workers' cooperative, though as we said we considered that to be quite unlikely. At the same time, such a development does not in itself solve anything. Although work conditions would possibly be better for the workers if a cooperative was formed (at least for a while), this solution effectively represents the self-management of their exploitation. Of course, every struggle creates its own dynamic and thus its own potentials. Considering that the struggle of the street cleaners did not happen in the midst of a generalised social crisis which would allow for further possibilities to be opened up, and more radical transformations to take place, the temptation is there to say that a workers' cooperative would represent a (partial) victory on the side of the workers. But, disagreement with the potential of a workers' cooperative does not stem from an ideological position which rejects anything that does not concretely attack wage labour and the law of value: by putting them in charge of their own alienation, a workers' cooperative would integrate workers as 'equal' members of what remains a capitalist company, rendering them responsible for its profit-making. This situation would most likely deter many of them from engaging in further struggles the next time that changes in the work conditions become necessary for capital.

Brighton, June 2001

Edited by libcom from a longer article, Refusing Collection in Wildcat-Zirkular No. 59 - July 2001 - pp. (german edition)

Footnotes
1. A lot of the older workers had been working in street cleaning for more than 20 years. The last major strike they had participated in, which many remembered, was a 14-week strong strike and occupation in 1976, which included pitched battles with the police. More recently, just a couple of months before the occupation, the bin men had a sit-in, protesting about the management's refusal to give them the bonuses that they had been promised. That action was as well successful.
2. The Argus reported the workers’ victory with “Au revoir SITA” in its front page.
3. As one of the workers explained to us, in the past, there were two main agencies which supplied temps for street cleaning. One of them gave more money than the other, whose contract only gave extra money when a specific amount of hours was exceeded during a week. When at some point workers from the second agency complained about the differences between them and the other agency, SITA decided that an equalisation of standards was necessary and abandoned the first one and re-employed all from the second, thus bringing everyone’s wages down.

Posted By

Steven.
Sep 10 2006 19:24

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  • The result was definitely a victory for the workers (though some expressed anger to the fact that SITA would remain in management until September). The final agreement granted most of the demands.

    Wildcat

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