Reflecting on a summer of bin strikes in Birmingham

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
This summer's strike involved a range of different stoppages including an overtime ban and workers returning to depots for all breaks

Refuse collectors going on strike, or threatening to, is a perennial problem up and down the country. So how can the industry and authorities finally sort out this mess?

Reports of waste collection strikes are nothing new. In fact, it can often feel as if the industry is always involved in a strike, whether it is an initial threat, industrial action or aftermath and reconciliation.

The waste industry is one of the most vital public service units, and when it goes on strike, everyone notices. Given its essential role, why is industrial action a frequent occurrence in the sector and what can be done to create a permanent resolution?

Tensions reached their height this summer after refuse workers in Birmingham walked out for an astounding seven weeks. The trouble started due to a dispute over job losses, with the Unite the union claiming the council’s restructuring plans threatened the jobs of more than 120 staff and that low-paid workers would lose up to £5,000 a year. However, Birmingham City Council argued the plans would modernise the service and save £5m a year. And thus, the battle of the bins began.

The strike involved a range of different stoppages, including an overtime ban and workers returning to depots for all lunch and tea breaks, therefore delaying services even more. The council argued if it did not bring in cuts soon, it would overspend by £5.2m over the coming years.

As the weeks dragged on, the dispute became more intense. It was not just the workers and local authorities who were left to deal with the consequences, however. Local residents bore the brunt of the strikes, having to live among colossal piles of household waste, made worse by the fact the action came at the height of the school holidays.

RWW readers know all too well the serious health risk that abandoned waste brings to communities, and as the strikes ran into their second month, reports of pungent smells and rodent infestations increased.

What started as a regional issue quickly became a national one, with various media outlets including the BBC, The Guardian and the Daily Mail frequently reporting rising tensions and angered residents. Birmingham, which has long battled to uphold a positive reputation, soon became tarred with images of streets filled with rubbish.

“It just comes down to bad management from Birmingham City Council,” says Tim Byrne, who runs his own waste consultancy in a neighbouring town. “The strikes were an issue affecting everyone and in my opinion it comes down to negligence on behalf of the council. The current state of affairs is just appalling for the taxpayer and it’s shocking it has gone on so long.”

Community spirit

In an indicative demonstration of British spirit and camaraderie, residents of the Birmingham community came together to help minimise the damage the strikes were causing. Muslim volunteer group Bearded Broz hit the headlines after they began clearing rubbish away for vulnerable people.

Speaking to RWW, Bearded Broz co- founder Imran Hameed says: “We were called in to help local communities after there had been uncollected waste for about four or five weeks. We used our own vehicles to help elderly and vulnerable people, taking waste to the local tip.

“But then things got really busy so we took to WhatsApp and social media, asking people to come out to help us.”

Although many appreciated the help, it wasn’t long before ‘keyboard warriors’ took to social media to criticise the group, calling them “scabs” who were undermining the efforts of the strike.

Hameed says: “Some people thought we had been brought in and paid by the council to cover the work, but that wasn’t what we were trying to achieve. We only collected excess rubbish so that the vermin would stay away. It was disgusting living there at the time, in some streets there were black bags piled as high as the size of a small van and rats were running past us.”

Residents soon became so sick of the discarded waste they took to the council chambers to protest against the strikes.

“We understand that the council doesn’t want to be pinned down by whatever the bin men say, but I think there needs to be more mediation between the two sides in future. We put a lot of pressure on the council to change their way of thinking because it’s not the residents’ fault, but they were suffering,”
adds Hameed.

Birmingham City Council and its waste service were at loggerheads, a tense industrial situation experienced by many authorities across the country. Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association (ESA), sympathises with the difficult position the council was put in.

He says: “The cost pressures on waste are going up because revenues aren’t as strong as they were a few years ago. There’s new regulatory requirements which have come into play, and it becomes costlier to meet these. There’s also other the apprenticeships levy and other costs going up.

“It makes it all very difficult and extremely challenging for councils that have an unenviable position. They are trying to balance conflicting positions while maintaining service levels and providing the best possible service they can. All of this is being done while also trying to raise recycling rates as high as they can and making it all affordable.”

A nationwide problem

After seven long weeks, the Birmingham strikes came to an end, thanks to conciliation service Acas. The impartial authority managed to bring both sides around the table for productive discussion. In a statement, it detailed how Birmingham City Council cabinet members agreed in principle that the grade three posts would be maintained, and consequently there would be no redundancy steps in place.

Unite also agreed in principle to recommend to its members work pattern changes, including consideration of a five-day working week. However, in the weeks that followed, it was announced the strikes would begin again following a disagreement over redundancy notices.

There were also rumblings of strikes further up North. Workers in Doncaster recorded an 89% vote in favour of strike action after private contractor Suez made a 2% pay increase offer, conditional with the removal of guaranteed

overtime. Unite argued that this would result in most workers not receiving an increase in pay, a claim Suez vehemently denies.

Fortunately, the proposed strike was called off following further negotiations, but given that there are similar strike rumours in Brighton and Hove, the issue is clearly a nationwide problem. So how can we develop an overall permanent resolution rather than temporary localised ones?

Mark Turner, GMB Union branch secretary, says the answer lies in the system’s current framework and management. “Here in Brighton the current situation just isn’t working and it spans from austerity cuts and cuts to local governments. The way the service is being run is unsustainable.

“I have been in the resource service for 33 years and there has always been disputes. My way to resolve it is simple – get enough staff for all of the vehicles. That, as well as recognising different areas demand different types of collection, are both important factors to solving future disputes.”

Rather than a rewrite of the model, others argue the waste industry should simply opt to move away from kerbside collections.

Nik Spencer, inventor of the Home Energy Recovery Unit, argues that energy from waste (EfW) technology should instead be developed to be small enough to fit into a domestic setting, therefore reducing the reliance on kerbside collections.

He says: “The current model has proved workable in the past, but amid the current strikes and increasingly creaky infrastructure, the time is right to energise our approach to domestic waste management.

“As has been evidenced in the Birmingham bin strikes, refuse collection is increasingly hampered by the ageing infrastructures of our towns and cities. With most urban areas experiencing more congestion than ever before, it’s costing more in fuel and wages to maintain a regular collection service.”

Spencer argues that a domestic EfW system would also make homes partially self- sufficient in their energy needs.

He adds: “Local authorities nationwide spend an average of £6 billion per year on the collection and disposal of household waste. Waste management technology in the home makes not only sound environmental and commercial sense, but also encourages the UK to move towards a future where overflowing wheelie bins and uncollected waste is a thing of the past.”

Locating the fundamental cause of the unrest is an area of constant debate, but the consensus is that a solution needs to be developed fast in order to avoid dispute after dispute. Strikes are undesirable for all involved, and it is up to all within the waste industry to find an answer which can be both cost-effective and efficient, as well as safeguard the livelihoods of the workers and the wider community.

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