The story of how refuse workers and street cleaners in Tory controlled Bexleyheath won a landmark victory against Serco last week, including increased pay, sick pay and reinstatement of sacked members, after a campaign which saw union density rise from 25 to 95%, has been reported by Willie Howard in Tribune.
There are 45 Councillors elected to the local council that represent their local community across 17 wards, 34 Tory, 10 Labour, 1 Independent.
They even achieved a change of management. On March 21st, workers had downed tools and went on strike. Contracted out to Serco, the Bexley refuse workers were some of the lowest paid council workers in London. The campaign centred around poverty pay, but also the fact that there was no sick pay policy often forcing people to choose between coming to work sick or staying at home poor. On top of that, like many other private waste contracts, a culture of bullying was ingrained in the depot where people were forced to work shorthanded, insulted and shouted at as Serco sought to squeeze workers as much as possible to maximise their profit margins.
Over the previous months the workers had organised a campaign at breakneck speed; they engaged in mass community outreach, pressured the local council with protests and door-to-door canvassing while union density shot from around 25% to 95%. New reps were elected and an organising committee was put in place with representation from different shifts and teams that managed the campaign from day to day; one that culminated in a victory.
While the Bexley dispute was undoubtedly inspiring, it’s important to understand the context in which this and other recent disputes have taken place.
Local authority ‘outsourcing’ (‘privatisation’ is probably a better term) began under Thatcher’s government, but the implementation of austerity in 2008 and the slashing of government funding to local authorities saw an explosion in councils utilising the services of companies such as Serco, Carillion, Veolia and Interserve. Faced with the task of balancing local budgets, often with half of the previously available funding, many opted to take the privatisation option.
Workers who had loyally served their communities now found themselves under the management of corporations whose only priority was profit. A race to the bottom quickly began, new contracts were brought in with pay being driven down and vital benefits like sick-pay and pensions were removed. [This in 2020!]
Far from being ‘more efficient,’ the quality of the services often plummeted as staff numbers were slashed and turnover became high. A similar process took place in the NHS and across the wider public sector – services being underfunded and run down while privatisation ensured a mass transference of public wealth into private hands.
As successful outsourcing disputes have shown us, it is also key that unions focus not only on the contractor which is essentially a parasitic middleman, but on the client. It’s a key tactic of outsourcing councils to sell the workers off and then wash their hands of them, a complete fiction when one considers the workers are still ultimately working on behalf of the council.
It is vital unions shine a spotlight on those who engineer this process on a local level and who are ultimately the paymasters. In Bexley we loudly protested the council meetings with ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ blaring from a PA system to disrupt proceedings.
All of this local leverage was secondary to the fact workers were using their labour withdrawal. A rock solid picket took place with 120 disciplined workers severely limiting strike-breaking efforts, regardless of the threats of management, scabs and the police. Unions cannot afford to engage in symbolic one-day strikes with six on a picket line; either a strike has teeth or it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
“The refuse workers in Newham, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and Bexley have set the model, it is now vital we harness that on a national level and push back against low pay and the privatisation of our public services”.