Last month, bin workers employed by Thurrock council achieved an impressive victory following 41 days of strike action.
Around 90 waste and recycling staff, organised in Unite the Union, began striking on 13 April. This was in response to the Tory-controlled council threatening to impose new contracts, slashing wages by up to £3800 per year.
Council bosses also planned to do away with unsociable hours payments, as well as making changes in relation to pay for time spent maintaining vehicles.
The workers initially responded by withdrawing labour only after 9am. However, after several weeks, the action was escalated to a full stoppage of all rubbish collections.
Thurrock eventually moved to bring in scab contractors. They attempted to intimidate the strikers by spreading misinformation – calling the police to pickets with accusations that union members were breaking COVID rules, and even attempting to serve ASBOs.
Nevertheless, after six weeks of solid strike action and picketing, during which rubbish was left piled high at drop-off points, the council was forced to back down and revise the contracts.
The strike was officially suspended on 24 May. Unite says that the workers will no longer face pay reductions. The determination, solidarity, and unity of the workers delivered a clear victory.
"Victory for the workers who stood firm for six weeks in a strike to defend their pay." Thurrock Council thought they could attack pay and conditions but the workers organised and won. @justice4refuse ✊🏾 https://t.co/EGCF5Xh8BQ— UniteWorkVoicePay (@WorkVoicePay) May 21, 2021
These key workers have worked throughout the pandemic in a challenging job that society relies on enormously – only to be rewarded with this scandalous attack from the bosses.
Thurrock council had brought in an expensive consultancy firm to assist them in restructuring their pay scheme and ‘balancing the books’, under the auspices of ‘efficiency’.
Like every local authority, Thurrock has been decimated by Tory government cuts, and has chosen to pass the damage on to local residents.
Despite the applause key workers were given on the doorstep by these same councillors, the drive to cut overrides all other considerations. This wouldn’t be the first time representatives of the Tory Party have shown such hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, these attacks have been beaten. This victory shows that – despite the onslaught of attacks on workers, in the form of both ‘fire-and-rehire’ manoeuvres and council cuts – when workers organise and fight back, we can win.
This is only the latest victory for striking workers. For example, earlier last month, Go North West bus drivers in Manchester defeated another attempt to deploy fire-and-hire tactics. Similarly, Metroline bus drivers in London have won in their campaign against ‘remote sign-on’.
These victories show the possibility of turning the tide, if workers are organised and mobilised.
Thurrock bin workers worked through lockdown. They didn’t get PPE until July last year. Almost all caught Covid. It is a miracle no one lost their lives.— Howard Beckett (@BeckettUnite) May 22, 2021
At the end they disgracefully faced fire & rehire. They defeated it after weeks of strike action.
Power in the union.
The dispute also highlights the connection between workers’ struggles for better wages and conditions, and the political struggle against austerity and local government cuts.
Many local government and public sector workers are facing battles over pay. The Tories are implementing a public sector pay freeze; council workers – in Tower Hamlets, Norwich, and now Thurrock – are facing fire-and-rehire attempts; and local councils are in the midst of an acute funding crisis. The pressure is building, setting the stage for big class struggles.
If each of these battles is fought in isolation, then they will be easier for the bosses to defeat. Instead, therefore, the Labour and trade union movement must draw together these struggles into a generalised, militant movement to defend every penny and every job.
The TUC and the Labour Party must make this campaign a priority. Labour councils, in particular, must show fighting leadership.
The disgraceful sight of Labour councillors fighting unions to implement cuts must end. Instead, the Labour and trade union leaders must build a mass campaign against austerity, linked to the fight against outsourcing and fire-and-rehire.
The ultimate aim must be to defeat and overthrow the Tory government. In its place, we need a workers’ government with a socialist programme – one that will reverse all the cuts, privatisation, and anti-union laws that have been carried out against the working class in recent decades.
Only on the basis of socialist policies – with public ownership and workers’ control – can we guarantee decent pay and conditions, unionised employment, and quality public services.
We applaud the Thurrock refuse workers in their victory. May it spur on many more, and help consign the whole capitalist system to the dustbin!