Refuse workers in the London Borough of Bexley recently began balloting for strike action, on 9 October. Organised through Unite the Union, this is the second strike ballot they have held in the last 12 months.
Their last ballot came back in favour of industrial action, but the strike was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. At the end of July, however, the campaign announced that the workers would commence six days of strike action.
The dispute is over health and safety concerns, insufficient sick pay, and allegations of bullying. As the union has stated on Twitter: “They [the refuse workers] remain on poverty pay with zero-hours contracts for many.”
The Bexley workers are not employed by the council, but by infamous outsourcing company Serco.
This parasitic giant secures billions of pounds worth of contracts from the government – including for the disastrous test and trace programme – while consistently providing subpar services to the public, along with dire conditions for workers.
Serco Test and Trace reached 62% of contacts this week, a record low. Local health teams reached 97%.— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) October 16, 2020
Serco also just announced "soaring" profits.
This isn't a coincidence: Corporations like Serco put profits before people.
It's time to kick them out of Test and Trace.
The case of the Bexley refuse workers is no exception.
On 29 July, however, the evening before the strike was due to commence, Unite announced that the strike was to be called off, due to a partial victory. The union announced that Serco had backed down and accepted some of the workers’ demands, including:
- £10.25 per hour minimum pay rate, backdated to 1 April this year.
- 2.75% pay rise for everyone already above the minimum rate, pending the outcome of national negotiations.
- Full sick pay, with no three-day wait, for every worker
- The removal from the site of a manager alleged to have bullied workers over a period of time.
- A commitment to health and safety improvements.
The campaign opted to accept the terms. But sensing that the workers had momentum, the union announced that they would be re-balloting for another round of strike days, in order to demand a London living wage.
According to a recent statement by the union, however, Serco has failed to even upgrade a number of workers to the pay rates agreed over the last disputes.
Fight the profiteers
The outsourcing giant is now under increased scrutiny due their racketeering around the government’s test and trace contract. And locally, in the London Borough of Bexley, their contract for the bin collection service expires this autumn.
The tendering process was due to be debated by the council on 16 October, but no statement has been made yet by either the council or by Serco Group bosses. This is good timing for the striking workers.
Correctly, Unite is not only making demands for better pay and conditions, but is making broader political points about the company and outsourcing in general.
“Increasingly, the public is recognising that flawed reliance on the private sector, especially during the pandemic, is a huge mistake,” stated one recent release from Unite. “Public health, which includes refuse collection, should not be handed over to profit-hungry outsourcing giants.”
This politicisation of the strike campaign is a very positive development. The working class as a whole are being bled dry by parasitic companies like this. Fat-cat bosses make billions in profit through handouts from the public purse. Meanwhile, services remaining in public hands are cut back to the bone.
Solidarity and support
Another welcome development is that the campaign is linking up with refuse workers in other London councils. Although neither have organised strike action yet, their peers in Merton and in Croydon are also running a campaign for improved pay and conditions.
In these cases, however, workers are employed directly by Labour councils. Similarly, in Labour-controlled Tower Hamlets, local government workers organised in Unison have undertaken multiple rounds of strike action against attacks on their terms and conditions. And Croydon council have announced that they will be making upto 450 redundancies.
With councils all over the country facing bankruptcy, then, it is not only refuse workers who are being squeezed. There is a general onslaught against jobs and conditions.
The labour movement must unite to fight these attacks. Maximum unity between the unions and different sectors of workers is needed, to organise coordinated action in response.
As in Tower Hamlets, local Labour and trade union members should throw their support behind workers in struggle. The demand from grassroots activists must be for the leaders of the labour movement – locally and nationally – to organise a mass campaign against council cuts, austerity, and outsourcing.
Solidarity with the Bexley refuse workers, who are leading the way! With Serco already in the public eye, a vote for strike action and another victory against profiteering bosses could provide a clarion call for workers everywhere.