On October 20th bin lorry drivers working for Brighton and Hove City Council won their fortnight-long strike, gaining a £4k a year pay increase. As rubbish piled high in the streets, and the Green controlled council threatened and cajoled them, the fifty four workers, all members of the GMB, stood firm. The result is that not only do drivers and other bin workers get a significant raise, but so do over one thousand low paid Brighton and Hove staff across all departments.
The response to the strike in the city has been interesting. Predictably, Tory councillors called for private contractors to be brought in to clear the rubbish and break the strike. One had the nerve to refer to the GMB drivers as ‘terrorists’.
On the other hand Labour’s position was merely pathetic. At the end of the first week councillors Allcock and Wilkinson “wrote to the leader of the council, the chief executive and the GMB branch secretary to facilitate a meeting between both parties in order to find a swift resolution for residents” (Labour Group). In other words, instead of going down to the picket and supporting the strike, Labour councillors tried to play the role of ‘plain dealers’ standing above the dispute.
As for the ordinary people of Brighton, there’s been widespread support for the bin drivers who are seen as essential workers on an unjustly low wage. Clearly it’s a major victory for the labour movement in the city while the ruling Green Party has been been shown up as inflexible and incompetent. Rifts in the Party have also been exposed again. Local Green MP, Caroline Lucas, distanced herself from the council, making it clear that she was not involved in negotiations.
The strike began because management had been changing routes and mixing up crews without consultation, making a difficult job more arduous – even dangerous. One driver on the picket line told us that he collected 47 tonnes of rubbish in a day rather than the typical 17 to 19 tonnes. In the first week council negotiators themselves conceded that low pay was also a significant issue, only to withdraw an initial offer almost immediately. However by the time of the final deal not only was a decent raise on the table, but a process had been agreed for deciding routes and rostas in consultation with the union.
The crucial factor in this stunning victory was determination. Everyone came out, and the mood on what were effectively mass picket lines was buoyant. Confidence and solidarity won the day.
Crucially, this is a dispute with national implications. The lesson is simple: if they can do it in Brighton then why not across the country. The huge victory of Go Ahead bus workers in Manchester who took prolonged strike action against fire and rehire practices set a benchmark. Now the Brighton bin drivers have stepped up to that mark.
What’s more NHS workers have overwhelmingly refused the government’s derisory 3% pay offer, and local government workers have rejected yet another pay cut. Meanwhile university staff in UCU are being balloted on industrial action over pay and pensions. There is now the real prospect of serious strikes taking place across Britain.
All in all, it’s been great see Brighton workers setting an example through solidarity and sheer determination. Fight and you can win – never was that phrase more fitting. Now we can look forward to workers asserting their collective strength across Britain in the autumn and winter months.