Recycling workers and their supporters met in Sheffield on Thursday 5 July to discuss the status of their dispute, after workers suspended their indefinite strike action on Wednesday 4 July.
Scab labour and strike-breakers were employed during the strike. Whilst no-one was willing to speak on-record, there is an allegation that SOVA, the private company which runs the recycling centres for the council, made use of its charity division which works with ex-prisoners.
Some of these may have been used as used as scabs, with the suggestion that their normal positions were under threat if they didn’t comply, a move grimly reminiscent of the infamous Workfare scheme. If this is true, it represents a horrific act of exploitation on behalf of a so-called charity.
The workers’ demands were for the reinstatement of dismissed staff, an end to reduced opening hours of recycling depots (and consequent reduction in salary), improved bonus payments, and pay increases.
A rep from the GMB union reported that staff have now been reinstated, opening hours have been set at 22.5 hours a week for each worker, and bonus system has been agreed with workers. However, this centres on productivity bonuses, which only equal an extra £2 per hour on top of minimum wage.
Despite these impressive victories, GMB members still felt that the changes represented a betrayal of public services.
They will now face an increased workload to meet targets which they feel will reduce the standard of service they offer the site users.
The other offer from management under the talks was rather different and politically very interesting. The workers were offered management of the green waste recycling scheme under their own control, in what union reps described as a “workers’ co-op”. It seems the “green waste” (garden waste) has proved to be a bit of a problem for SOVA, who charge the householder per bag of collected waste. Unsurprisingly, people prefer to dump their waste in the regular household bins, but this, problematically, tended to bring them over the weight limit for workers and into health and safety problems.
The green waste collections currently cost £900,000, and the workers estimate that £300,000 of that is spent on management costs.
If the offer comes to fruition (though the workers seem very cautious of it, and with good reason) their initial thoughts seem to be to run it not as a coop in the traditional sense, but as a democratically-run service under workers’ control, doing away with all management and instead simply employing a financial advisor to manage the accounts.
This is a potentially huge opportunity for the workers, who made clear that they plan to plough all £300,000 back into wages or the service. If the service is taken back in house, workers will insist that the scheme’s profits should be ringfenced for investment in care, housing, and other social services.
This is an inspirational example of class solidarity, and clearly shows a group of workers thinking about how workers’ control — rather than volunteer-based cooperative models or outsourcing — can be used to beat cuts and defend services.
It is important to remember that this is a suspension, and not a settlement. The SOVA strikers will now be taking stock and considering their next steps.
Union reps said that we should throw all thoughts of odd one or two-day strikes out of the window as they are useless. They also said that having a strike fund, especially for those workers without support from family or partners, was essential.
They said finally that if they could launch indefinite strike action to take on bosses’ cuts, anyone can.