By Janine Booth
Hackney's waste workers are stepping up their fight against wage cuts and attacks on working conditions, declaring a four-day strike on 22-27 January.
Refuse collectors, estate cleaners and street sweepers are all in dispute with Hackney Council over its attempt to impose new contracts. The contracts will see some workers lose £3,000 per year. They will also toughen up working times and targets, cut bonuses, and do away with "washing up time".
The Council is imposing these contracts under the guise of the national "single-status agreement", and argues that for half the workforce wages will increase. But the workers are united in demanding that the Council should not rob Peter to pay Paul: it should increase wages without making other workers pay the price.
Moreover, the London agreement for implementation of single status specifies that arrangements should guarantee "no loss".
Hackney Council handed over its refuse collection service to private company Serviceteam in December 2000, but took it back into Council control in August 2002. The privatisation experiment had been a disaster, which had cost the Council a small fortune.
Despite messing up the job, Serviceteam's bosses had been able to cream off millions of pounds of public money. Councillors have also found the money to feather their own nests with way-over-the-top expenses, pay fat-cat salaries to top Council directors, and employ costly private consultants to survey public opinion because councillors are so out-of-touch with what local people think. It seems that the Council's permanent "cash crisis" does not prevent bureaucrats and private companies from taking their cut, but is an ever-present excuse for attacking workers.
Following a 90% yes vote in their strike ballot, bin workers, represented by the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU), have continuously refused overtime, and also staged strikes on Saturday 27 December, and Friday 2 and Saturday 3 January. Joined by street sweepers and estate cleaners, generally members of UNISON, they will strike from Thursday 22 to Tuesday 27 January.
For many years, Hackney's waste workers have been able to defend their working conditions quite successfully. While the Council has battered its workforce over the past few years, the waste workers have done a bit better than others at digging in and protecting themselves.
The Council has decided that it must take them on and beat them. Hackney's Mayor, Jules Pipe, has been reporting to Labour Party meetings since late last summer that he was preparing for a strike on the bins.
The Council has brought in scab labour, where in past disputes it has not done so. Residents have been disgusted by the appalling quality of the service provided by the scabs.
The Council has refused an offer from the TGWU to attend talks at ACAS. Led by Mayor Pipe, the Council has run a propaganda offensive against the strikers. Pipe has made various wild allegations, for example that workers routinely book off work early then go back later and claim overtime.
Appalled by the Mayor's lies and distortions, Hackney UNISON Branch Secretary Brian Debus invited Pipe to spend a day with the refuse collectors so he could experience their working conditions first-hand. Mayor Pipe has not responded.
Fortunately, it seems that the Council's resolve to break the strike is matched by the workers' resolve to stick it out and defeat the new contracts. It is essential that they get support from the local community, the rest of Hackney's workforce, and the labour movement around the country.
Send messages to Hackney Trades Union Council, Box 11, 136 Kingsland High Street, London E8 2NS, who will pass them on. Demonstration and mass meeting: Thursday 22 January 2004, 10am, Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street.