Workers' report: general conditions and the conditions for generalisation at Hackney Street Cleansing Department

A report about working life in refuse collection, recycling and street cleaning department of Hackney Council, including conflicts and co-operation in the workforce.

Submitted by Steven. on August 11, 2010

* The Department
* The Depot
* The Work-Force
* The Working Standards
* The Work Organisation
* The Work
* The Conflicts
* The Crisis
* The Union
* The Future Struggles
* The Past Struggles

Following report about working at Hackney Street Cleansing Department - waste collection, street sweeping - is written as part of the preparation for the 'From Melt-Down to Upheaval'-Assembly of 'The Commune' in September 11th 2010 in London. For details of the meeting check:

The scope of the report is limited in itself, a work-place story. Nevertheless, looking collectively at these 'individual experiences' and to debate the common tendencies is a necessary step if we want to go beyond lefty campaigning and preaching. Working at the depot de-constructs certain myth about the 'monolithic public sector', which is actually undermined by private contracts, agency work and day labour. While unions and the left focus on certain 'issues' (singe status agreement etc.), the actual conflicts evolve around the question of work-intensification and work-force re-composition. While the left still sees the union as the main door-knob for getting in touch with 'the working class', the influence of the union is rather limited. For making an actual contribution to self-organisation of workers against the current 'state attack of austerity' we will have to get engaged in a wider effort of workers self-inquiry as part of 'getting organised'. In terms of 'practical relevance' of reports and communist activities we want to refer to an old, but still rocking report from Brighton bin men dispute some years ago. 1 For a face-to-face debate about how we could organise such a collective inquiry, pop by at the 'work-place'-work-shop in September.

The Department

The department is an example of resisted and finally failed 'official privatisation'. 2 Workers managed to fight back 'privatisation', but did not stop the employment of temporary work-force, private companies and freelance work on the beat and day labour in their own depot.

Waste collection is a major 'market'. In the UK the 'value' of rubbish business is estimated at about 2 billion Pounds. It is also a major social task, necessary in order to keep the absurdity of urban wasteful life going. In December 2000 Hackney Council tried to privatise the Street Cleansing and Refuse Collection department and 'sold' it to a company called Serviceteam. Originally set up by four former Lewisham Council DSO staff, Serviceteam was bought by Australian firm Brambles in 2001. The 'privatisation' attempt failed and the council took over again in August 2002. Workers basically wrecked the new management by non-cooperation. Nevertheless the Unison 'Positively Public Campaign' at the time remained - as most campaigns - a superficial undertaking: for a huge share of the workers at the depot it does matter little whether their minimum wage is paid by a private or public enterprise or whether it is a public or private manager who sends them back home if there is no day job. Shortly after the 'failed privatisation' Hackney Council dismissed many permanent workers and announced new contracts with significant wage cuts. Some of the sacked refuse workers were encouraged to buy their own trucks and work as freelancers for the council. They still work as precarious proletarianised entrepreneurs, always short of rubbish contracts. Other larger private waste collectors and re-cycling companies have entered the Hackney beats since then, such as PMS Wastetech, Viridor, First Mile etc.. The maintenance of the trucks has been outsourced by the Council to Amey and Fleetwash. Nearly all staff of the central tip in Holloway - run by 'London Waste' - are employed through agency.

Street cleansing and waste collection can hardly be re-located to other regions, and there are limits for mechanisation. The major ways to increase exploitation is through work-intensification and enforcing lower wages. In general there are various ways how the division of labour of 'rubbish work' is re-shuffled: in Brighton they introduced 'central bins' at street crosses, people have to bring their private rubbish to these bins, which turns paid into unpaid work. The debated 'bin tax' aims at similar direction: more incentive/pressure for private 'customers' to sort out their waste themselves. In London some of the re-cycling work is done by temp workers 'on truck', meaning that they sort the bottles, cans, plastic etc., while walking next to the driving truck. Finally, the bottom rung of street cleansing labour is formed by 'community pay-back'-gangs, basically weekend-street-sweepers who have been convincted of petty crime and work under the supervsion of an officer - although this kind of work is still marginal, it nevertheless has a symbolic importance within the low wage regime.

Particularly in Hackney we can also see the opposite tendency of outsourcing: in 2010/11 Hackney Council will take back 'inhouse' formerly outsourced work from Hackney Homes (estate management and maintenance) and various recycling companies. Question will be about the working contracts and conditions of these hundreds of formerly 'private workers'. We have to go beyond the formal 'public/private' view and analyse the actual conditions and power relations of this change to come.

The Depot

The 'council job strong-hold' of bin men and street sweepers has been undermined by agency work. Around 30 to 40 per cent work-force - the young and multi-national work-force - in the depot are agency workers, earning half to a third of the wage, having little to no guarantees. Hackney Council boasts with an advertisement saying that everyday 296 miles of streets are cleaned in the borough. They don't talk about the conditions of the cleaners.

The depot in Millfields Road is the central point of Hackney Street Cleansing and Waste Collection department. During the last decade the number of these kind of depots has been reduced from four to one. Older workers remember the 'good old times' when people arrived a little earlier at work or stayed a little longer, because there was pool billiard and darts, e.g. at the Stoke Newington Depot. Now people just want to hit and run, get out as quickly as possible.

Apart from the depot there are other 'central points', e.g. the two main tips, the maintenance work-shop in Andrew Road, various 'sheds' for wheel barrels and equipment, some often frequented cafes for workers on break. The depot functions as meeting and distribution point of the work-force and parking space for the vehicles: trucks and vans for waste collection, trucks with mechanical brooms for street cleansing, cabine vehicles for street cleansing, scooters for pavement cleansing. There are about 300 to 350 workers employed in and around the depot, some more are on telephone lists ready to be engaged during autumn and snow seasons. About 20 workers are employed in the office, some of them as 'transport coordinators', some as personnel and general managers. Most of the managers are former 'bin men', which they like to emphasise. Some of the admin staff engaged in planning routes, staff lists and time schedules are employed by temp agancies. About five per cent of the manual workers in the depot are woman workers, doing mainly street sweeping.

About a third of the work-force is engaged in commercial and private refuse collection (big containers, less wheely bins, more 'plastic sack' pick-up). Hackney Council charges about 10 to 15 pounds per container of commercial waste. Per round two workers load about 200 to 400 containers, creating a turn-over of about 2,500 to 4,000 Pounds per shift. The remaining two thirds of the depot work-force is engaged in street cleansing.

The Work-Force

The composition of the work-force reflect the waves of migration during the last decades. While 'White-British', Caribbean and Indian workers - who have worked in the job for 15 to 20 years - are the main permanent work-force, while Eastern European and African workers form the bulk of the temporary employment. Currently they make the 'old council workers' work hard, despite hip-replacements and heart attacks, while the young temp workers come and go, due to lack of future perspective.

About 60 per cent of the work-force is directly employed by the council. Most of these workers are in their late 40s and 50s, most of them are White British, Carribean or from the Subcontinent. They represent the 'old London working-class'. They still have the 'benefits' of council contracts, most of them managed to buy their houses, though often further out - while the temps tend to live nearby, often in Hackney itself. A lot of the old council workers say: "I am a Hackney boy, but I don't like the area anymore, too much trouble". They only come back for the rubbish job, then drive out again. Council contracts are not limited to certain jobs (bin men, truck drivers, sweepers etc.), meaning that 'work crews' are normally mixed, containing both permanent and temp workers.

Temp workers are employed by various agencies (Cue Personnel, Team Support, Tipsy, Parkhouse). The council normally employs one agency for 'new recruiting', still maintaining contracts with the previous 'main' agencies. Some agencies send sweepers from borough to borough, e.g. if there is no work in Hackney, they are sent to Westminster. Agency managers come to the depot and organise the 'morning day labour market', the supply of temps in case regular workers don't turn up. This means that in any case workers are supposed to turn up at 5:30 am and wait till about 7:30 am. There is a list to sign in, but the 'early' or 'late' position on this list is only one criteria for whether you get a job. If all regular workers turn up or too may temps arrived people are sent back home without job and unpaid. The labour contract of the temps categorises them as 'self-employed', meaning that the agency does not have to pay them in case that there is no work. In general the temps are younger, many of them from newer 'waves of migration', e.g. Eastern Europe, Northern Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, some from the Subcontinent.

Some of the temps have become 'regulars' meaning that they have worked in the depot for several years, often on the same job, e.g. driving or sweeping, for a long time. But even after one and a half years of 'regular service' you might find yourself back on 'day jobs'. There is 'objective competition' in the sense that, e.g. two workers sit together early in the morning, one of them has 'fucked up' the day before on a dust car and dropped the bin into the back of the truck. The next day this worker is taken off the job because of that, his work-mate gets the job instead.

The other end of the stick is the hope to get a council permanent contract. Chances are narrow. Many temp drivers have worked for the council for four years, without having been offered a permanent contract. The council keeps dangling the moldy carrot, e.g. in February 2010 the council announced 20 vacancies for sweepers and drivers. Some people actually managed to get a council job, in some cases people who had been working at the depot for much less time than others: the criteria are not obvious.

Early in the morning the space and smoke-corners in front of the office are Babylonian: the old tattooed Cockney, who has been bin men for life; the group of Jamaicans, who keep their second-generation attitude; the Algerians, who have fled Algeria during 1991, worked in Spanish harvests and stayed in Neaples, before coming to London, speaking five languages; the Morocco-born ex-bus-driver from Berlin, Germany; the Polish ex-shipyard workers who have seen better times; the young Gujarati Muslims who have just arrived from India, but who can connect easily with those who came 30 years ago; the Colombian whose teenage kids have never been back home; the women from Lithuania and Hungary, who came with the extension of the official EU labour market; the young South African who left Jo-Burg two years ago. In the work-shop the guys repairing the public sector trucks and vans are from Afghanistan, their English is still modest, writing their work-notes in Pashtu, they most have arrived here when the UK state started to bomb the place where they came from. A vast amount of global experience. In the early morning some of them are 'competing members' of a second labour market, but as soon as they enter a work gang, people exchange their names and some stories. There are no open problems or divisions between workers of different backgrounds or contracts. Particularly amongst many of the Caribbean and Northern African workers a kind of 'anti-colonial' political position is present, which mainly targets 'London', as an expensive and exploitative place to live, forcing you to work loads and putting money before human relationships, brutalising people.

The Working Standards

The council workers have managed to maintain certain 'unofficial' standards, such as finishing work after a round is done - but under considerable pressure of re-composition and re-structuring these practices are turning more and more against the workers. Standards are passed on across the contractual border-lines, agency workers relate to these 'old' standards and claim them for themselves - but in many cases the job additions of recent years have turned the 'early finish' into '7-hours work without break'.

If we talk lack of money: In terms of annual wage including benefits the permanent workers earn more than double as much, for the same work. Based on a 5-days week a 'permanent driver' earns around 30,000 Pounds, a 'permanent loader' gets around 25,000 Pounds, an 'agency driver' around 16,000 Pounds and an 'agency loader, about 10,500 Pounds. Working six to seven days per week is the norm, particularly amongst the temps. Some work double shift, which amounts to a 60 to 70 hours working week. There is the pressure of low wages and incentives of double pay on Sundays. If a temp works five days a week the minimum wage amounts to around 200 Pounds a week, if you work seven days you take home 280 Pounds, the tax office takes the rest.

You hear some stories from the 'after-job life' which correspond to the wage levels: "Shit, these pain killers don't work, this fucking tooth is killing me! If I was still on benefits, at least they would pay the dentist". "I pay only 45 pounds rent per week, three of us guys share the room. The guy on the sofa is even better off, he pays only 30 quid". The agencies promise proper work-clothes after six months of employment, till then workers spoil their own clothes and can be distinguished as freshers. Agency drivers earn around 8 to 9 pounds an hour, which is more than the agency sweepers and loaders, but less than council sweepers. Some agency drivers applied for council sweepers jobs, but most drivers would rather work longer hours than push a broom. They compare their situation to other job opportunities, as well. Some drivers used to drive for Westminster council, but they said that the management there is more repressive. Working as a bus driver is seen as more stressful.

If we talk lack of time: Working in Street Cleansing still means that you can reduce your actual working-times by working fast, by finishing the round early. This is possible for loaders and sweepers on mechanical brooms. Drivers and sweepers on wheel-barrels are tied to their working-equipment and have to work longer. On some rounds the introduction of a detailed time schedule is undermining this practice to a certain extend. There are half a dozen different 'beats' or rounds for waste collection and mechanical street cleansing in Hackney, each round differs in length. There are 'easy' and 'hard' beats, but on most beats people manage to finish the round after about five to six hours. For the sweepers and loaders this means that they can go home, the drivers have to drive to the tip and return the vehicle to the depot. On most refuse truck workers prefer to work 'without break' for five or six hours, in order to finish early. You have to work 'against the rule', e.g. cross the road constantly when loading domestic waste instead of doing each side of the street separately. The 'unofficial character' of these work practices are arbitrary. On one hand management wants to make sure that people work the full working-time, on the other hand they use these practices as incentives for higher productivity, compensation for low wages, guarantee that people manage a seven days week. Even the agencies 'advertise' the street cleansing jobs in the job interviews with the 'job done - go home' practice. This policy somehow creates a constant feeling of 'suppressed conflict': you accept certain work-practices because you might be able to finish early; you feel little vulnerable, because you do something 'against the rules'; you feel 'in-cahoots' with your manager, because he does not trouble you if you leave early; at the same time it is a kind of 'collective claim' that if you do this kind of dirty and physically hard work, you have the 'right' to clock off in your time - although there is little obvious collective strength which actually enforces the working-time reduction. Obviously the oppressive and schizophrenic triangle of 'time-speed-quality' is in the centre of managements attack on workers - we will describe it in more detail after some notes on work organisation and the character of work.

The Work Organisation

There is a combination of 'technological development', e.g. the mechanical brooms, the pavement scooters etc., and 'third-world-type' of work-relations, e.g. workers working seven days a week and lining up in the early morning for day jobs.

There are two shifts for main road street cleansing, the first shift starts at about 5:30 a.m. and finishes around noon to 1pm, the second starts at 1 to 2 pm and finishes officially at 8 to 9 pm. The crews for refuse collection vary from two to four - depending on route and whether it is bin or plastic bag collection. Street cleansing is done alone - either with the wheelbarrows, the scooter (CityGo) or the pavement-cabine-car - or in groups of two and three on the truck with mechanical brooms. Here one worker drives the truck and one or two workers sweep rubbish and dirt from pavement into the channel/curb, where the mechanical suction-system of the truck can collect it. Certain jobs can be added, e.g. changing plastic bags of public bins at bus stops, sweeping certain market areas on certain days etc. On some main streets 'three types' of technologies are applied, meaning that mechanical broom sweepers, scooter or cabine drivers and wheelbarrow sweepers meet at some point for a short hello. Sometimes there are conflicts between sweepers who work together about the understanding of quality and speed. There are conflicts between sweeper and driver, if the driver drives to fast or slow, particularly when it is windy. There are conflicts between drivers, e.g. about one putting a 'defect' in the maintenance book - which is checked by the management - a 'defect' the driver from the previous shift should have detected. There are various 'unwritten rules'. Some sweepers wait for the mechanical broom truck to arrive before they start working. Others start walking the beat picking up cigarette buts with their hand, putting them into plastic bags till the driver arrives. Saving some time, hoping to finish early, but actually breaking the rule that you don't pick up waste with your hands. But then you do a thousand times a day. Some drivers let sweepers ride on the truck when pavements are clean, other drivers and sweepers prefer to obey the rule that sweepers are only allowed onto the truck during break-times.

Of main importance is the relation between driver and sweepers or loaders. The driver has the main administrative functions: he has to know the route and tasks, changes and extra jobs. In terms of commercial waste collection this means that the truck driver has to know the often hidden places of up to 400 bins, the door-lock-combinations for garages and gates, the accident-prone corners. He has to know how arrange the collection route in the most rational manner. This knowledge can not be replaced easily - it takes several weeks to manage a route of 200 - 300 bins in an eight hours shift - about 10 to 15 tons of waste. The drivers also manage the attendance list, they tick the check-list of performed jobs, they deal with the personnel management. They have the responsibility for the vehicles, they have to check water, oil etc., they have to fill in check-books, go to the work-shop, if necessary. The fact that they can drive and manage the vehicle ties them into general administrational and control/supervising management. They have to return the vehicle to the yard, they have an electronic tachograph, which shows when they switched off the engine and for how long. On each trip to the tip the vehicle is weight before and after, the weight is recorded. White management vans drive around and check the beats - and parked trucks are more easily to detect than hidden wheelbarrows. The driver is asked about the performance of the sweepers or loaders, much more than the other way around. There are certain conflicts about the question of how much the driver is supposed to help the loaders with the actual loading work. It also depends on the drivers whether sweepers and loaders can leave earlier, e.g. before driving to the tip. The practice to pick up and drop sweepers/loaders 'on the beat' is of advantage for the individual sweeper/loader, because they can save time - but it means on the other hand that a fair share of workers only rarely come to the depot where they would meet others. Some drivers are used to jumping in, in case of other drivers being ill. They might work on the mechanical broom one day, on the dust car the next. In general the high turn-over of temp workers is creating major tensions, people don't have time to learn the beat, 'old crews' are wary of having to do extra work due to unexperienced newcomers. Temp drivers are shifted too often so that they have lots of stress to learn the new beats.

The 'hierarchy' between sweepers/loaders and drivers is the bottom hierarchy. The fact that the introduction of agency work has created another layer of middlemen creates a kind of 'old boys network'. As a sweeper/loader it depends on your relation-ship with certain drivers, it depends whether you work for an agency manager who has good relations with the depot manager of your shift etc. whether you might get a day job or a certain regular job or a council job. The combination of 'day labour market' and 'corruption' creates some pressure to continue working on your 'reputation'. This 'corruption' is the grease of a cooperation which is formally divided into various companies and work-contracts.

The Work

The character of work is of the Sisyphus-type, in the sense that you walk or drive the same streets every day, emptying the same bins, tiding up the same plastic bags, sweeping the same rubbish. Keeping Mare Street or Stoke Newington High Street clean is a 24 hours job, after two days of non-work the rubbish would be piling up to ankle hight. The work is agricultural in an urban wasteful way, the physical movements of sweeping are similar to harvest work. There is more work during natural seasons, such as autumn or during snow times, and during social seasons, such as after Friday or Saturday night piss-ups. Walking around with a wheelbarrow and a broom is work on the technological standard of the Biblical Days, but obviously the waste has changed. Most of the street rubbish is modern life refuse, such as fast food, cans, cigarettes and advertisements. In certain ways street cleansing is an outsourced department of soft-drink producers and fast-food chains, a magician kind of work which makes the visual waste of unhealthy urban eating habits disappear again and again.

Working with rubbish, changing reeking plastic bags as bus stops makes you face up to being 'proletarian working class' in cultural terms. Obviously you do unskilled manual dirty work in public, you tidy up after people. Here it already makes a difference whether you sweep or you load waste. A street sweeper is a poor sod, a bin man is a solid working class guy. The other difference is more subtle: people know more or less that a street cleaner or loader working for the council has fairly good conditions, he finishes early and might have a small business on the side, who knows. This contrasts with the seeping in knowledge about the poor blokes having to handle tons of waste for rubbish minimum wages. There is a main difference in your own perception of yourself if you sweep and push a barrow or if a high-tech truck with mechanical brooms or bin lifts is coming behind you. In the second case people step back a bit, in the first case they have invested hardly more than 20 pounds in 'capital' in order to make you work. You might sweep 3 kilometres and gather 200 kilos of rubbish with that kind of technology. With the 'mechanical-broom-truck' in your back you can walk much faster and you don't have to worry picking waste up, the driver and you can make 10 to 15 kilometres and collect 2 to 3 tons of waste and dirt. Obviously there are flip-sides to it. If you walk next to the truck you walk in constant noise and dust. The general traffic automatically pushes the truck driver forward, you have to keep up. In this sense the generally physical work of sweeping and loading got sped up. Walking five to ten kilometres every day sweeping is hard on knees, elbows, shoulders. Some beats are huge and you have to walk extremely fast to finish the round - if you are a sweeper on a mechanical broom you have to be young and physically fit to do the work. Even more problematic than physical strain is is the increased exhaust and dust. You wake up with inflamed eyes and burning lungs. There is the stress and danger of traffic, many guys get hit and hurt. There are accidents using the dust cars - the waste trucks. Many temp workers get send on the dust cars without training, having to operate the bin lift and 200 kilo 'containers'. The changes from single metal bin to single plastic wheely bin resulted in less 'heavy lifting', but more bins per round. At least for estate and commercial waste the trend of recent years went from wheely bins to big metal containers, which results in loads more attrition of joints, bones, tendons due to pushing these heavy bastards around. The increase in volume is complemented by an increase in plastic bag collections on the main streets and domestic waste: you are squeezed between having to handle metal containers and flexible quick pick-ups of plastic bags.

After a while the 'practical relation' with streets and space changes your perception, your 'property relation' to space. You normally might sweep your kitchen or tidy up your sitting room. To extend this work into the public also means that you develop a kind of claim to it. For some people Mare Street is the busy space to cross or walk along in order to get somewhere else. For you it is your daily work-place, you know each corner, recognise each person waiting at the bus stop at a certain time and so on. This feeling of appropriation is different on Old Street - where you hardly see the same person twice and where you feel more out of place in general - compared to walking and working on Homerton High Street. You feel a kind of claim to space and you feel some kind of connection to anyone else working in public. On the other side mobile phones connect a lot of workers back to the 'private sphere'. Sweeping or driving can be boring, talking to work-mates or the public tedious, so many workers are on the phone while being at work. They arrange their 'after-job-life', relationship problems etc. at work, because there is little time without work, often no free weekends.

In general it is not too difficult to refuse the refuse work from a 'communist perspective', meaning to ask the question why the work is done and how. Most of the refuse work is product of the 'commodity fetish' and 'individualised consumption' (individual packaging of goods). In more symbolic terms you are part of the attempt to disguise the decadent and destructive character of capitalist urban life. There was an accident on Old Street. During morning rush-hour a scooter-rider got run over by a motor-bike courier. There was blood on the street and shattered plastic parts. The scooter driver sat in the waiting ambulance car. Two community officers - 'low paid cops' - who re-directed traffic filled in a request form to use the high-pressure water pistol of the Hackney street cleansing truck to clean street and pavement from the blood. Human life-and-death question turned into bureaucratic procedures. While the guy was still bleeding hidden in the ambulance the high-tech truck was used to clear the evidence of the accident. A similar situation weeks later in Lower Clapton after a stabbing, shortly after the London Fields shoot-out. The UK-born Caribbean sweeper curses the young lads 'of the community' who are into crime and gangs and would not work. Minimum wage sweepers wearing their own soiled track-suits clearing away traces of violence of poverty crime, the results of lumpen-isation in their area. Working on this beat makes sick jokes. The health and safety guy should not issue the high-visibility vests, but some bullet proof ones.

The Conflicts

For council workers the 'taking off route' of dust cars in commercial and private waste collection creates more stress. In addition the council wants to scrap the 'attendance bonus', which equals a wage cut of about 1,000 Pounds. There is the enforced pay freeze for public sector workers on top of that. 'Seniority Bonus' has been scrapped already some years back. Unlike in towns like Leeds for the council/permanent drivers in Hackney the 'single status'-policy has brought some advantages, e.g. 1.5 times wages on Saturday and double pay on Sundays has been introduced. Three workers are currently suspended due to alleged 'fights' with the 'public', after some arguments with people caught in a jam behind a dust car or who were aggressive for other reason. Obviously there are some conflicts around delayed payment of overtime for agency workers, delayed delivery of working clothes, anger about being send home unpaid and so on.

The management calls street sweepers to 'general meetings' once a month, giving instructions, talking about performance. The council sweepers get 9 per cent productivity bonus, but it is rather unclear how this bonus is calculated. The management pretends to 'control quality' in statistical ways, they talk about '3 per cent litter and 4 per cent detritus' - actually even the inspections are outsourced to a private enterprise 'Tidy Britain Group'. More matter of fact is their complain that during one month of supervision more than half of the sweepers have been found 'off beat' before end of official working-times. When things go out of hand management re-issues the demand that not only the drivers, but also the loaders/sweepers start and finish their shift in the depot.

The main daily conflicts evolve around the question of 're-composition of crews', 'extra-jobs and change of route', 'productivity vs. quality' and 'early finish'. All these questions seem to be micro-conflicts, very job specific issues which can hardly be raised in 'general terms': but the general term is: more work - less workers. If you have to clean 296 miles of inner-city streets a day there are obviously many ways to design routes, many facets of what is understood of a 'clean street'. There is no limit to changing beats or to adding little extra-jobs, there is no limit in terms of 'quality'. Recently the council has reduced the commercial waste collection by two big bin trucks. The reduction and redistribution of work has resulted in significant working-time increase on some routes and days. In future some of the waste is supposed to be collected in 'plastic sacks', which is more flexible, given that any small van can load them, possibly people working free lance or more 'unskilled temps'. The re-shifting of routes and crews, of technological means (vans, trucks) and of containers (bags, wheely bins, big bins) is a constant process, it is difficult to see the long term strategy and consequences. All in all management has tightened the screws, on some beats dust car drivers work seven hours without break in order to finish the round - after years of 'renouncing breaks' in order to finish early, now many work a full day without break.

Many 'conflicts' are difficult to fight over 'in public', e.g. the fight over length of the rounds, extra-jobs and over 'early finish', nevertheless these are the most important front-lines on a day-to-day bases. We will have to find ways to bring these struggles into the open without undermining the 'hidden collectivity', which they are based on. In terms of likely future disputes: If we merely join the struggles against 'public sector cuts', we miss the fact that for half of the work-force the question of minimum wage and day jobs is far more pressing. Nevertheless, a campaign for 'a living wage' cannot be won through struggle of 'minimum wage workers', given that the main collective strength of the temporary workers depends on their daily cooperation with the permanents. It is difficult to say which group of workers would actually 'move things'. If there was a significant attack on the council workers, may be they would move 'en bloc'. Many council workers are close to retirement age, some workers - particularly sweepers - know that they would not find a similar job anywhere else. Given their position on the labour market, given the certain dependency of the council on their accumulated knowledge and given their aspirations the 'agency drivers' are probably the section, which has best grounds and reason to become more militant in the future.

The Crisis

There are some 'cuts' which are not yet discussed as part of the general social crisis: the mentioned cutting of two trucks on commercial collection, possible cut of attendance bonus. Other workers tell that at Haringey Council several vacancies for council waste workers were scrapped the last minute after announcement of the new budget. On a wider level crisis can be debated in its international dimension. A worker from Greece is up-to-date with what is happening 'at home'. A Polish worker talks about the job cuts in Ireland, one of the reasons why he came from Dublin to London. A council worker says that the unemployment and the migrants will put more pressure on standards. He sees the 'depot labour market' every day, he knows about the minimum wage bin men. The Hackney depot is in a peculiar situation. On one hand everyone knows about the planned public sector cuts, on the other hand people know about the coming Olympics. People hope that there might be council jobs coming up, or that existing jobs are save, because everything is supposed to be shiny for the Games.

The Union

On a day-to-day level the union is not visible. No worker mentions shop-stewards. People tell that the union used to organise the 'beer money', meaning that they organised the links with shop-owners for some extra-loading and extra-tip-money. For many workers that was a good reason to become a member. The council came down hard on the extra-money, the union lost part of its material base. The union is mentioned in relation to certain managers. Those who have been unionists during the phase of 'privatisation' and the 2004 strike - see below - and who have been promoted since then, for example Billy Dunne, former TGWU Refuse Convenor. In that sense the union is - to a certain extend - discredited amongst the council workers and irrelevant or 'unknown' to the bulk of agency workers. Union policies do not reach the needs of the flexible work-force. If under current conditions the union would call for industrial action, e.g. against public sector cuts, it would be quite easily be undermined by 'experienced' long-term temporary workers - see summary of dispute in Leeds below.

We can see that the 'state' has attacked by using 'big issues' like privatisation in the early 2000s, or the pay-cuts of the 'single status'-agreement since the mid-2000s. Facing this attack the 'trade union' form of 'representative and institutionalised struggle' was put in a corner. While 'fighting back' the official issues the union did not manage (or intent) to fight back 'productivity-drive' and 'casualisation' in terms of 'hidden privatisation' and 'agency work'. The latter becomes more and more visible and undermines the very union logic: during the Leeds strike the LibDem-led Leeds Council managed to use agency workers on a large scale to undermine the strike. The dispute ended with 'agreements on modernisation'.

The Future Struggles

Future disputes will need 'solidarity', but solidarity is something which has to develop out of a palpable 'common interest and experience'. Solidarity beyond - in this case - the depot can emerge out of daily practice. There are various points of convergence with workers outside the depot, which could play a decisive role in future struggles. Contacts develop to workers of various small work-shops, restaurants, schools, shops and to estate care takers and dwellers during waste collection. Street sweepers and other 'workers in the open' like post men, security guards etc. recognise each other as a 'urban work-force'. Most of the refuse of North-East London is collected large central tips, refuse vehicles from various boroughs and companies end their daily rounds there - a possible focal point during future disputes. Given the public sector cuts to come and the likely-hood of 'union mobilisations' against 'the cuts' we - proletarian revolutionaries in the wider sense - should focus on the 'day-to-day'-question of class divisions and class power during these disputes, both 'in the workplace' and beyond. 3 We should raise the question of alienation - not in an unhistoric sense, but based on the very concrete form of modern urban work and life in front of our eyes.

The Past Struggles

Hackney - September 1969

Unofficial strike of Hackney Dustmen in protest against new grading scheme spreads to the whole of London. The union uses this rank-and-file mobilisation as a transmission-belt for 'productivity-wage'-negotiations: the union's executive does not repudiate the action but uses it as a bargaining lever in national pay talks taking place in Edinburgh, maintaining in the negotiations that if the demand of the strikers were not met the stoppage would be made official. Thus the spiralling local strike by up to 10,000 workers had played an effective role in what became a successful national wage negotiation. The strike described in the Trade Union Register 1970 as The Revolt Against Low Pay In The Public Services heralds the beginning of a decade of industrial action by a union that had previously shunned strike action. The Register article noted that one cause of the strike had been the build up of shop steward levels until it reached the point where 'it could break through customary powers and channels of action'. Indeed, the less fragmented nature of work organisation amongst dustmen had meant that unofficial workplace organisation had existed in this section since the mid fifties. Later in December 1969 Public Employee Bernard Dix writes an article entitled "Now the dust has settled, Bumper Pay Deals Set New Pattern", extolling the virtues of Union Stewards. He maintained that by concentrating on developing stewards, negotiating the rich pickings from local productivity deals, building the closed shop and 100% membership 'NUPE can achieve the real partnership of modern militant trade unionism, with local and national negotiators playing their respective roles, supporting each other's efforts and winning real benefits for all local authority workers'.

Hackney - Winter 2004 / 2005

The dispute began on 22 December 2004, when Hackney Council imposed new "single status" contracts which saw 58 refuse loaders lose income - up to £3,000 - and introduced new working conditions. Around 150 workers who are members of the TGWU union have started a continuous overtime ban, and refuse workers staged one-day strikes on the two Saturdays following Christmas. Previously the council has run strikebreaking dustcarts out of local authority depots outside the borough. During the four-day strike the council used the yard of a private firm, Docklands Waste Disposal, in Hackney Wick. Early in the morning on strike days workers and their supporters held angry protests outside the depot. The police were sent in to corral the strikers behind barricades and to escort out the dustcarts. The carts are crewed by agency workers who usually work alongside the council workforce and by extra workers brought in by the agency. Hackney Council suspended three Unison members and implied that another 10 may face disciplinary action after a demonstration outside the depot. The council has refused the union's request for a time and motion study to judge workloads.

Brighton - February 2008

After two days on wildcat strike, refuse workers at Brighton's Hollingdean Depot have won their fight against management bullying. The striking bin staff had been complaining about management bullying after staff refused to double their workload due to lack of vehicles and under-staffing. As part of what workers called management's "bully tactics", four refuse workers had been moved onto different crews sparking anger amongst the depot and leading to the wildcat action. However, the four workers have been allowed back onto their old crews and management have started negotiations over staffing levels and vehicle numbers.

Brighton - December 2008

Bin workers in Brighton staged a wildcat walkout and have threatened strikes in the new year in protest of new rounds and redundancies. Refuse collectors said they were frustrated that they were not being listened to about problems with the new rounds, introduced in October, which had led to bags being left in the street sometimes for weeks at a time. The controversial rounds were introduced to save money after the opening of a rubbish transfer station at Hollingdean. Up to 24 voluntary redundancies are expected as a result of this and new recycling rounds.

Leeds - September 2009

The dispute began on 7th of September 2009 - GMB and Unision called for strike against the 'single status' and against a 'productivity bonus scheme'. The 'single status'-policy proposed by the council would have resulted in up to 4,500 Pounds annual wage loss for some groups of workers. The strike dragged on for 11 weeks - during the strike the council started a mass hiring process of temporary workers and asked 'residents' to 'deliver their rubbish' to the 'public tips'. At the end of the strike the council announced: "While it is good news that our staff have decided to come back to work, it is going to take us sometime to re-establish the workforce, re-introduce services and move forward with the modernisation work'. It means many workers will have pay losses eradicated altogether thanks to the council's proposals for a system based on productivity. In return the unions have agreed to work with the authority to modernise the service, tackle sickness and achieve efficiency targets that are required". Not only did they link the wage agreement to 'productivity targets', the wage differences between some groups of workers, e.g. sweepers and dust car drivers actually increased.

The Participation and Divisions

It is unclear how many agency workers were already employed when the dispute started and how many 'permanents' actually joined the strike. Information of council and media are obviously propagandistic, we nevertheless refer to them in the following figures about the 'participation-level' of the strike.

According to the council "311 of the 668 refuse and street cleansing staff balloted voted in favour of this action".

On the 7th of September, first day of industrial action "Two-thirds of the usual mechanical sweepers are working across the city. Half of the council's roadside gulley emptying tanks are also operating". A lot of workers decided to 'go on strike individually. On the first day of the strike action the council saw normal sickness levels nearly double, and this has increased during the following days.

On the 8th of September the council-memo said: "Refuse/recycling collections - 6 front line crews are working normally. Street cleaning - a range of services continue to be provided with over 60 staff working normally - this in an increase of over 50% on yesterday. This includes both mechanical and manual sweeping/litter bin emptying. Household Waste sites - all open except Ellar Ghyll, Holmewell Road, Calverley Bridge. The use of the Stanley Road site has been disrupted due to vandalism - the site locks have been superglued".

On 14th of September around 13 refuse collection crews are working across the city. Some of them have been arranged through the private sector to deal with the backlog of work caused by the strike.

On 18th of September the council alleged that 26 refuse crews were working, which is well over half of the normal service. On the same day the council addressed the 'residents: "Residents can also take any excess recycling or rubbish to one of the city's 11 household waste sorting sites. There are also 480 bring sites across the city providing collection of a range of materials where residents are able to recycle range of material locally". The media said: "Students at the city's two universities, whose main residential areas in Headingly, Hyde Park and Burley were starting to look messy, organised a mass clean-up".

On 2nd of October the council announced that "black bins and commercial waste will now be collected every two weeks by private contractors. Extra bagged rubbish has been collected".

In early November the council said that "Over 450 people applied for just 50 initial vacancies when the council advertised the jobs at the beginning of the month. Nearly 20 drivers were successful at interview and 40 bin men (loaders) have been hired. The recruitment event was so successful, a list of additional people who want work has been created and nearly 100 names have been added to it so far. The temporary bin loaders are being paid £14,446, which is the new annual salary for workers under the council's revised pay and grading structure". This is about 4,000 Pounds less than the 'council loaders' are entitled to, but nearly 4,000 Pounds more than the minimum wage agency workers.

On 9th of November the local media published "By week nine joint council leaders Richard Brett and Andrew Carter held face-to-face talks with union officials. Striking workers were by now beginning to feel the pinch, with more than 100 returning to work".

On 23rd of November "The three-month bin strike in Leeds ended after 600 refuse workers voted overwhelmingly to accept an improved offer from the city council".

The Productivity Scheme

"We're not asking crews to work harder or faster - just a few more of their contracted hours which they are getting paid for anyway", a council spokesperson. For the assessment and development of the 'productivity scheme' a private company was hired - unfortunately these kind of 'management think-tanks' are still a blind spot on the landscape of revolutionary direct action. We quote from the council-memo: "A team of independent refuse collection experts have dismissed union claims about 'unachievable bin emptying rates' in Leeds. Integrated Skills works with local councils to help improve services and make them more efficient. It specialises in planning bin collection routes in order to achieve maximum productivity. Many other local councils across the country empty an average of 1400-1500 bins per day based on an average seven-point-four hour day. Crews in Leeds only manage an average of 1250 bins based on a nine-and-a-quarter hour day. Claims by the GMB and Unison that the Leeds City Council target of 1570 bins-per-day is not achievable have been rejected by Integrated Skills. Its most recent work with the authority shows a target of "13 seconds per bin can be achieved". "The council's proposals were linked to reducing the current average of 29 days sickness across the street cleaning and refuse collection teams as well as productivity improvements and efficiencies being achieved. This is in return for union agreement to review collection routes, increase productivity and see staff working more flexibly within their contractual hours. Current shift patterns will be retained and so will 'task and finish' working".

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  • 2For more examples see:
  • 3At this point we want to refer to a great publication by comrades around 'Solidarity'-Magazine called 'What's happening - The Truth about Work', containing around 20 very interesting interviews with workers from various sectors about re-structuring and work intensification - the little brochure came out in April 2008. We can only recommend to read it for inspiration (Single Copy £5: TU Publications, c/o PO Box 58262, London N1 1ET)