Birmingham's two-month long bin strike has been suspended following talks between the council and the Unite union via conciliation service, ACAS, with the union declaring a victory for its members.
The deal, which the council stresses is only provisional pending a Special Cabinet Meeting on 24th August, means that dustcart supervisors, whose job is to monitor safety at the back of each truck, are allowed to keep their jobs with no loss of pay.
According to ACAS, the council has agreed to retain the supervisor jobs, though they may be “developed” with extra responsibilities. In return, Unite has agreed in principle to its members working a five-day week whereas refuse workers currently work four long days. It remains to be seen to what extent these compromises will mean extra work or longer hours for bin workers.
One local government trade unionist from London expressed solidarity with the strike while also recommending vigilance: "While it's positive that workers have forced the council to agree many of their demands, a final agreement is subject to further talks and ratification by the Council Cabinet. So workers will have to be prepared to take further industrial action if the employer backtracks."
Leading up to the strike, the council made clear its intention to reorganise how waste is to be collected, under a pretence of efficiency.
Each refuse collection vehicle has a three-person crew; a driver and two at the back, one of whom is responsible for safety. The Labour controlled council intended to downgrade the worker responsible for safety and place the entire responsibility for both the front and rear end of the vehicle onto the driver. Any workers unfortunate enough to be downgraded could have faced a pay cut of up to £5,000 from a wage as little as £21,000-a-year. As recent months have shown, councils willing to sacrifice safety for the sake of costs is one of the major stories emerging in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower tragedy.
On 16 June, Birmingham City Council, Europe’s largest local authority, declared its intention to make 122 refuse collection workers redundant. On the same day, Unite announced the result of its most recent action ballot of refuse collection workers. Ballots returned with 90% backing a strike action, in addition to 93% backing industrial action short of a strike.
Strike action began on 30 June, with the most recent actions organised to last from 11 August until 21 September, consisting of three 1-hour stoppages at 07:00, 10:30 and 13:00. The union had also planned to ballot members between 17-31 August and if the mandate to take industrial action had been renewed, there would have been further strikes after the current action completion on 21 September.
After seven weeks of uncollected piles of waste (mostly in poorer wards), the council had done very little but escalate their assault against waste and refuse workers. This included serving long-term workers with redundancy notices, and the suspension of and disciplinary action against a shop steward.
In addition, a volunteer group “Bearded Broz” from the neighbouring borough of Sandwell were, for all intents and purposes acting as strikebreakers. Although there is nothing outlawing the use of strikebreakers, the local press speculated that the “council is so reluctant to spend on the strike” it would not hire agency staff to break it.
It is not unheard of for employers to exploit divisions within the working class. In this instance, parading a group of Muslim men (Bearded Broz) onto national media breaking a major strike in Britain’s ‘second city’ is misguided if not cynical. This is of particular significance in Birmingham where racial divisions run almost parallel with ward boundaries.
However it should be noted that, as recently as June, Bearded Broz had also collaborated with West Midlands Police to “remind” predominantly Pakistani people visiting a commercial district of Birmingham “to avoid loud music [and] stop disturbing local residents”.
In July, footage of three plainclothes police officers pepper spraying and physically assaulting a young Pakistani man with a baton in the Birmingham area emerged on social media. The officers were removed from "usual duties" and the incident was allegedly referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission six weeks ago - nothing has been heard since. In total, 17 people have died after coming into contact with the police in the West Midlands and Warwickshire area over the past year.
Workers will now resume normal duties.