Richard Brett didn’t know what hit him. The Liberal Democrat leader of Leeds City Council had launched a fight-to-the-finish battle with the city’s refuse workers. The unholy Lib Dem-Tory alliance that runs the council was trying to impose pay cuts that would have cost the workers an average £5,500 a year – nearly a third of their wages.
The workers voted by more than 70 per cent to strike, and on Saturday 5 September, the strike began.
Eleven weeks later they marched back to work, celebrating total victory, having enjoyed a level of public support that staggered both them and their council employers.
Neil Derrick is regional officer of the GMB union, which represents the 500 workers together with Unison. ‘Pickets had bucket collections at household waste sites which were open during the strike,’ he says.
‘Members of the public were turning up with their black bags of rubbish, which hadn’t been collected by the men on the picket line. They were dumping their uncollected rubbish, then putting their hands in their pockets and giving the pickets money to support the strike. They were saying, “We couldn’t live with a one-third cut in our wages, and we don’t expect you to.”’
The council’s decision to take on the refuse workers was a massive misjudgement both of the workers’ determination to defend their wages and of the public’s reaction to a strike, which inevitably drew comparisons with the 1978-79 ‘winter of discontent’ as piles of rubbish built up in the streets of Leeds. The background was simple enough. The council sought to comply with Labour government legislation on equal pay – but decided to do it by axing the refuse workers’ pay instead of raising the wages of lower-paid workers. It offered to delay the pay cuts, but that was all. Conflict became inevitable, and the council’s stance united the two unions representing the refuse staff.
The council confidently expected the action to crumble through financial hardship, especially so close to Christmas, and off-the-record media briefings predicted that the strikers would be forced back to work after two weeks. It didn’t happen.
As the action continued, the bosses’ frustration grew and the verbal attacks on the strikers by the council, particularly from councillor Brett, became ever more strident. ‘Striking bin staff putting vulnerable at risk’, the council told the city’s Yorkshire Evening Post, in one of the first indications of the launch of the council propaganda campaign. ‘We’ll privatise them!’ was the next threat.
Agency and contract workers were drafted in, and the council rashly stated that services would be resumed within two weeks. They weren’t – the rubbish piled higher, while support for the refuse workers grew.
‘There’s a general trait of “fair play” in the public’s mind,’ says Neil Derrick. ‘The fact that the pay cuts were so savage, so big, hit a nerve with the public. Even though the public were being hugely inconvenienced, they never took against what they saw were the victims of the council’s swingeing cuts. They felt the bin workers were as much the victims as they themselves were.’
The council spent tens of thousands of pounds on mail shots to residents’ homes, assuring them of swift resumption of services using scab labour. Then hundreds of thousands more was spent on bringing the scabs in.
But the agency and contract workers couldn’t cope. ‘They didn’t know the rounds. They didn’t know the streets. They didn’t know what they were doing,’ says Derrick.
And the more the council’s pledges of ‘resumed service’ were proved to be nonsense, the more the public questioned the rest of the council’s propaganda. ‘People could see with their own eyes that the council was lying,’ Derrick continues. ‘The bins were not getting collected. Because they knew the council was lying about that, they looked very closely at every other statement.’
Then came accusations from councillor Brett that the refuse workers regularly abused overtime and sickness arrangements. ‘He was saying the bin workers were a pack of lazy, sick bastards. People could see this for what it was,’ says Derrick.
Financial support continued to pour in. National Union of Journalists members on the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post sent £750 – and that was just one of the dozens of trade union groups that rallied behind the strikers.
Leeds City Council became increasingly isolated. The fact was that every other council in the country was facing the same dilemma over implementing equal pay policy, but only Leeds found itself involved in a protracted strike with rubbish piling up in the streets.
The council was refusing to negotiate, even appeared unaware that ‘beneath the radar’ talks were going in between union reps and its own officials, according to Neil Derrick.
When the formal negotiations finally resumed, a settlement was agreed that amounted to an almost total stand-down by the council. The vast majority of the pay cuts were withdrawn in return for ‘efficiency’ improvements that would have been introduced anyway. It had taken 11 weeks of strike action, but the refuse staff returned to work as ebullient as they had been when they walked out, heads held high.
Long-term repercussions are expected. ‘The council has lost the refuse workers,’ says Neil Derrick. ‘It will take years to win them back.’
The effects of the conflict are also expected to be felt at the ballot box. From 1980, Leeds City Council was under Labour control for more than 20 years. The Lib Dem-Tory coalition only took over in 2004. Now the Labour Party in Leeds, which supported the strike, and is still the biggest single group on the council, has a chance to regain control in May.
‘We are going to do everything we can to remind the public of what the Lib Dem-Tory coalition said and did during the dispute,’ warns Neil Derrick. ‘There has to be a day of reckoning. Whatever side you take about the dispute, Leeds was the only local authority which got itself into this position. Other councils all faced the problem of implementing the equal pay policy, but because they were prepared to sit down and seriously negotiate, they avoided disputes. Everywhere else the issue has been resolved.’
Bang out of order
‘I’ve been a refuse worker since 1979. I’m a loader on the bins.’ John Eddleston, 57, has completed 31 years as a refuse worker in Leeds. He’s one of the real front-line workers – the member of his team responsible for getting the bins to the back of the truck and emptying them.
‘When I first started it was a lot harder,’ he says. ‘We actually carried the old metal bins out. The wheelie bins are a lot easier. The only thing is they want us to literally run round. Somebody of my age, my body, it won’t take 220 bins an hour. That’s 220 properties, which could be as many as 260 bins because some have two or three bins.’
John is a shop steward with his union, the GMB. He voted for strike action when the council attempted to cut 500 refuse workers’ wages by around one-third, more than £5,000 a year. He says that when the bin workers struck, from day one they enjoyed public support not just on the picket lines, but on the estates and streets where they lived.
‘People came out with chocolates saying “heroes” on it,’ he says. ‘You’d be surprised. That’s what they call us. Heroes. The public have been absolutely fantastic. I walked round my own estate taking my dog for a walk. I saw it.’
The Lib Dem council leader, Richard Brett, targeted the strikers with scathing criticism. The response by one group set up to support the strikers was to dump uncollected bin bags outside his home. ‘They said Brett came over as very arrogant,’ says John Eddlestone. ‘He said we were only educated up to primary school level. That is an insult. He said we all took 30 days a year off sick. People where I live said I never have time off.’
John picketed one of the refuse department’s transport depots, at Cross Green in Leeds. ‘There are 50-plus trucks in there,’ he says. ‘They flooded the yard with 100 agency people. That is still going on. Why are they paying £22 an hour for agency people when they can pay us £6.70 an hour? It’s disgusting.’
When the strike ended in victory for the workforce after 11 weeks, the public still voiced support. ‘When I returned to work the number of people who came out and talked to us – they couldn’t praise us enough. What they were saying was that the council were bang out of order. A lot of them said they want to make sure this lot never get back in again.’