My life at work: How dare they call us “unskilled”?

Submitted by Matthew on 28 March, 2012 - 9:09

Catherine Miller works in refuse collection for a major local authority in southern England.


Tell us a little bit about the work you do.

I work for a local council. My department is responsible for the refuse and recycling collections, and the street cleaning for the City. I work in the office as an administrator; I pay invoices, do the filing, provide admin support to the Project Officers...

Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?

Definitely not. I am on the same salary as the operational staff, as both their and my job is deemed “unskilled”, which I find quite offensive. While most people are still in bed, they are out there in all weathers, carrying out dirty, physically demanding work. It’s an essential service, and I think it should be financially recognised as such.

Due to Equal Pay legislation, the Council tried to cut our wages two years ago. Many women within in the Council such as teaching assistants and dinner ladies lodged equal pay claims as they thought that men doing similar jobs got paid more than they did.

So the Council’s answer to this conundrum, instead of raising the wages of the female workers, was to look at a traditionally male domain (us), and attempt to cut our wages by up to £8,000. We went on strike over this and got them to back down.

Nationally, public sector pay has been frozen while the cost of living has risen. We live in the South East, the most expensive part of the country outside of London, yet our wages do not reflect this. Depending on length of service, the average pay in my department is about £15,000. Everyone struggles and most people here have a second job.

Our working conditions are dangerous, and the majority of issues we have here are about health and safety, as we work with HGV vehicles and hazardous substances. Most of the bosses disregard a lot of health and safety matters.

How has the recent political situation, the economic crisis and the cuts, affected your work?

We have had our pay frozen for the last two years, and our pensions attacked. It’s difficult to really make direct cuts to our service as people always need to have their rubbish collected.

However, in the most recent Council budget they decided to stop using agency staff, which had a massive impact on us as we rely on agency staff to cover annual leave and sickness.

If we don’t have that then the remaining staff are expected to take on the additional work — we currently have a grievance pending regarding this issue.

What do people talk about in your workplace?

Usual stuff — TV, sport. And the job itself. It’s easy to talk politics because we work for local government, so people will talk about what specific councillors or parties are up to.

What are your bosses like? Is there a problem with bullying and harassment by bosses?

Definitely. The bosses are facing pressure to meet service demands when they have less equipment and less staff, so they take that out on the workers. We conduct a workplace survey every year and one of the results of it showed that over 40% of our staff feel bullied by managers. It’s a massive issue.

Is there a union in your workplace, and does it do a good job?

Yes, we’re in the GMB. When workers ask “what’s the GMB going to do about this?” we always reply “what do you want to do about this?” — the union is what the members make it.

We have 100% membership at our workplace, including agency staff, which I’m proud of. We have a strong culture of unionisation and have done for many years.

We have quite a few shop stewards and we have one elected senior shop steward who is on full time release from his job to be a rep full time, which we negotiated. Workers know never to go into any meeting with bosses without representation. Most of our time is spent on casework, as we have nearly 400 staff here.

We have won some pretty big victories over pay and working conditions by going on strike, both officially and unofficially.

When we refused to go out to work a while ago (unofficially) over an overtime issue, everyone regularly met in the canteen to talk about the dispute and vote on what we were going to do about it, or to hear the latest feedback from management. By contrast, on the national pensions issue, most workers haven’t got a clue what’s going on and don’t feel that they have any democratic say in the dispute.

A lot of workers don’t trust our main branch, as they feel they have sold them out over a few things, so we always ensure that we have regular mass meetings in our workplace, and vote on decisions, so workers know it is us that is in charge of the dispute, rather than the branch. None of the workforce gets involved at branch level or goes to branch meetings.

It’s not perfect, though. We have massive problems with racism and sexism in our workforce, which is a constant battle to fight.

If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?

Democratic, workers’ control! I believe that we know how to do the job better than the bosses do: a lot of our vehicles break down all the time; we’re told that our department doesn’t have the money to buy more, yet they recently spent tens of thousands on management consultants to draw us a new logo!

Our workers know the job better than anyone else, and would make the best decisions for the benefit of residents and the workforce.

If I couldn’t get that, then I would like to see everyone’s pay greatly increased. We deserve it.

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