A GMB member working for CityClean at Brighton council spoke to Solidarity about their battle against pay cuts.
We won an equal pay agreement in 2009, after a campaign which included a strike, and the council regraded us. The current Green administration undertook another review of our pay arrangements in January, which they called “pay modernisation”. It was a levelling-down which attacked our allowances, which means any money we get paid above basic salary — contractual overtime, bank-holiday working, etc. The council is saying it’s an equal-pay issue because many of the lowest-paid female staff don’t get those allowances, but the (predominantly male) bin workers do. The pay cuts amount to a cut of at least £1,500, up to about £4,500 for some of the HGV drivers.
Official talks between council and our union, the GMB, were ongoing for months. From the start, our position has been “not-one-penny”. We won’t accept any outcome that sees us earning less money than before.
The council made their final offer two weeks ago. We weren’t allowed to tell the members exactly how much they would be losing because of confidentiality agreements, but because they had already confirmed they would be removing all allowances it was pretty easy for people to do the sums. The council’s Chief Executive sent an email to all union reps threatening mass dismissal and reengagement if the offer wasn’t accepted, which we knew would make people livid.
That email went round the day before a mass meeting that management had called to officially announce their pay proposals, so when our manager came to our canteen on Wednesday 8 May to announce the deal people were already incredibly angry and ready to act.
We have a strong culture of holding mass meetings in our workplace. Partially that’s because we’re not on the council’s internal email lists, so we can’t communicate with each other that way. But it’s also because many of our workers have literacy issues, and we have many colleagues for whom English isn’t a first language. That means that, although we use memos, bulletins, leaflets, and posters, we can’t rely on them, so we regularly hold mass meetings in the canteen before work to discuss any issues and make sure everyone can have their say.
At the meeting on Wednesday 8, the manager was booed out of the canteen. People felt that if we went out to work after the announcement, it would look like tacit endorsement of the deal, so we held a discussion about what sort of unofficial action we could take. We voted unanimously to hold a sit-down strike in our canteen.
Our first demand was for the Chief Executive of the council to come and speak to us; that happened at lunchtime. She was booed out too. We went home at the end of the day but called a mass meeting before work on Thursday 9 May. Again, we voted unanimously to occupy the canteen for a second day. There was a full council meeting that afternoon, so we decided to stay in occupation until then and then march to the council meeting to hold a protest there. By that time, we’d received written confirmation from the council that they would re-enter negotiations on the pay deal.
Since Friday 10 May, when we went back to work, we’ve been operating a work-to-rule. There have been discussions between different grades of workers to make sure this is done effectively — for example, street cleaners communicating with drivers to make sure emptier bins are collected first, leaving the full or overflowing ones out for longer and maximising the visual impact of our action. Street cleaners have stopped collecting overflow waste from communal bins, which they normally do but which isn’t technically part of their job. We normally work on the Saturday after a Bank Holiday, but no-one came into work on Saturday 11 May.
We’re now preparing an official ballot for strikes which will hopefully begin on Monday 19. The ballot is for action including up to and including an all-out, indefinite strike. No-one here thinks we can win anything with a one-day strike, we know we’ll need to stay out for a while. The union has promised weekly strike pay if we go out, and we’ll supplement that with a strike fund that we started collecting for at a recent Sussex Labour Representation Committee meeting. We’ve never had a ballot that’s returned less than a 90% majority for strikes, so I’m very confident that we’ll win.
We’ve built up our culture of grassroots democracy and engagement over decades. It dates back to strikes and sit-ins we had in 2001 when we were privately owned. We’ve won a local agreement with our management whereby we’re allowed to have mass union meetings in the canteen before work. We always hold mass meetings to discuss any new development or big issue, and 100% of the workforce turns up.
During the occupation we held at least three meetings on each day. It helps build a sense of responsibility and ownership amongst the workforce rather than a passive sense of being told what do by union officials.
The wider political aspects of the dispute are complicated. At the level of our branch and regional leadership, the union certainly has one eye on the electoral boost it will give Labour against the Greens. The Labour councillors voted against the Green’s proposals, which is to their credit, but they didn’t visit the occupation and haven’t been active in supporting us. There are big tensions in the Green Party — Green MP Caroline Lucas visited us to give support, and three Green councillors have said they’ll resign if the cuts go through. The Deputy Leader of the council, Phelim McCafferty, is a former GMB official and he’s come out in support of us, against the council leader Jason Kitcat, who’s become something of a hate figure.
The Greens are trying to portray what they’re doing as being about achieving “fairness” for low-paid women workers. People aren’t buying that, but they’re not allowing the workforce to be divided either. There’s no resentment towards low-paid female staff, everyone is clear in demanding levelling-up. The workplace is certainly male dominated and there are problems with sexism, but we’ve fought that over the years. Jason Kitcat’s wife is a former lingerie model, and some people wanted to make an issue of that in demonstration. But we had a discussion, and the majority wasn’t happy with it. Male workers have also taken down posters of her people put up in the canteen. There’s a long way to go but we’ve made progress; it shows that being in struggle is the best environment for changing people’s ideas.
We’re calling for other workers to support us by signing our petition on the GMB Southern Region website, which acts as a communications blockade and emails all councillors every time someone signs it. Local residents can help by displaying our campaign stickers and posters, particularly on their bins, and when our strike starts we’ll welcome visitors to our picket lines as well as financial support.
The fighting culture, and the level of democracy and engagement we have, can’t be replicated overnight. Partially we’ve been able to build it because of our economic strength; our job is vital and if 300 refuse workers don’t work, people notice. It has an impact. But it was also built up through hard work over the years to win people to a culture of solidarity.