Coverage of the ‘Birmingham bin strike’ – the strike by Unite members of the city’s refuse collection workforce – in television news has been largely limited to footage of bin bags and soundbites from Tory MPs condemning the industrial action and trying to exploit the situation to attack Labour leader jeremy Corbyn.
Online coverage has, just occasionally, gone into slightly more depth, but has presented a story of a financially-squeezed council with little choice but to impose changes in order to save over five million pounds a year – with the implication that Unite and its people are being obstructive and unreasonable.
Both versions of the coverage are deeply misleading.
The SKWAWKBOX has spoken to both Birmingham City Council, to Howard Beckett, Unite’s assistant General Secretary who is co-ordinating Unite’s response to the situation in Birmingham – and to mediation service ACAS – to get to the truth of the matter:
That the scenes of heaped-up refuse in Birmingham have been caused by a faithless council, not by unions or workers.
Below are the key points:
Birmingham City Council (BCC) has claimed that it is imposing the changes in order to save some £5.2 million a year on the cost of the city’s waste management. However, only a tiny portion – well under 10% – of this figure has anything to do with the strike.
Mr Beckett told the SKWAWKBOX:
BCC wants to remove safety-critical responsibilities from the people working at the rear of the lorry and switch them to the driver. This is unsafe because the driver can’t possibly have the same view of the situation at the business end of the lorry that the people working there do.
The council says that CCTV makes it safe, but it’s not the same. There have already been accidents with children and with workers.
Their aim is financial – removing safety responsibilities means they can downgrade workers at the rear from a grade 3 to a 2. This means that those workers – who are currently on a salary of £19-21,000 a year will lose three and a half to five thousand pounds a year.
But this won’t save BCC anything like five million – the total saving would be around £400,000 annually.
To put that into context, the salary of BCC chief executive Stella Manzie is around £180,000 plus expenses. I don’t know what her expenses are with BCC but her expenses in the last year she was in Rotherham were around £160,000.
So the cost of the CEO to the council is about £320,000, but low-paid workers are meant to lose a huge portion of their income for a yearly saving of £400,000.
The rest of the savings are in changes to shift patterns, switches from agency to full-time employed staff and so on – changes we accepted as part of the deal with the council.
The sideways-move ‘option’
The council claims that those who would be affected by the downgrading of their job do not have to take a pay cut because they can move into other grade three positions around the council. Cllr Lisa Trickett, BCC Cabinet Member for Clean Streets, Recycling and Environment, said:
None of the Grade 3 leading hands who are being made redundant need to lose their jobs with the council. Alternative Grade 3 posts, at the same salary in other parts of the council, are available for all those affected leading hands. No one needs to suffer a cut in their basic pay.
However, Howard Beckett highlighted the unrealistic nature of this ‘option’:
The council claims alternative grade-three jobs are available, but this is disingenuous. Most of those jobs are on fixed-term rather than permanent contracts – and many of them need IT skills, hardly suitable for the people whose jobs are being downgraded. It’s simply not the case that these workers can just switch to a different job to maintain their pay.
The disappearing deal
The council now claims that no deal was agreed in August at the talks mediated by ACAS. However, Beckett told this blog:
BCC wanted to go to ACAS as it was losing local media battle. I agreed and the council sent John Clancy. Our position was simple – we were prepared to accept almost everything the council wanted: changes to shift patterns, the switch to a 5-day working week (five shorter shifts instead of four longer ones), changes to the way the refuse collections are run, workers taking on more responsibilities. But the council had to agree that the workers would retain their safety responsibilities and remain at grade 3 – and that one Unite rep who had been suspended would be reinstated.
We struck a deal on this basis on 15 August. The next day I met shop stewards and they agreed.
On the 18th, Clancy sent details of the deal to depot managers saying it had been ratified. Manzie then returns from holiday and starts questioning Clancy’s authority to make a deal. Initially he stands his ground but then goes dark.
On the 24th, Manzie files a report with the council and puts it on the website even though she has no authority to do so as it hasn’t yet been approved by cabinet. Suddenly even Clancy is saying no deal has been struck.
The SKWAWKBOX contacted ACAS, who responded:
Acas can confirm that an agreement was reached between Birmingham City Council and Unite the Union on the 15th August 2017, following discussions at Acas. The terms of the agreement were made public by Acas at the request of both parties, in a press release agreed with both parties. The text of the press release issued at the time follows.
“Following discussions at Acas the following terms have been agreed:
Birmingham City Council and Unite the Union have today made sufficient progress in their talks for the Shop Stewards to pause industrial action.
Birmingham City Council cabinet members have agreed in principle that the grade 3 posts will be maintained. Consequently there are no redundancy steps in place.
In addition the parties will now look to discuss, through ACAS, how the service can be improved, with the intention of improving efficiencies in performance of the bin collection service generally, including what savings can be made, and specifically how best the current Grade 3 roles can now be maintained and developed so that they take forward the ambition to deliver cleaner streets and align to wider Total Place principles.
Unite have also agreed in principle to recommend to their members work pattern changes, including consideration of a 5 day working week. Both parties agree the working week should be designed to maximise service delivery.
To assist in the resolution of outstanding issues both parties will go to ACAS.
These discussions will be with the intention of incorporating any agreement as an amendment to the Waste Management Service Cabinet Report in September 2017.
Both parties are pleased to be recommencing industrial relations and pleased that the bin collection can resume without disruption.
Even more damning, though, is an email that the SKWAWKBOX has obtained sent by council leader Clancy – because it proves that not only was the ACAS deal struck with Unite, but it was also ratified by the council cabinet:
‘Decision’; ‘key decision’; ‘take this as an instruction’. And, emphatically:
Officers of the council are required to act in accordance with cabinet decisions.
Ms Manzie is an officer of the council and is therefore bound by that same requirement.
The decision was made, ratified and communicated to key officers as an instruction – not just concerning the reinstatement of the suspended union rep, but of “all of the terms of the compromise [to] be implemented“.
The SKWAWKBOX tried to reach Mr Clancy on Saturday for comment, but instead a council spokesperson called back. The spokesperson told this blog that the redundancies had been long planned:
The redundancy notices are as a result of the decision taken in June.
The spokesman also repeated the claim that alternative grade 3 positions were available, so that none of the refuse workers subject to the council’s redundancy notice needed to be out of work – but Howard Beckett’s comments above suggest that the situation is far less simple.
But were the redundancies planned since June?
Only if the council was misleading journalists in August. As the BBC points out, in mid-August the council claimed that no redundancies were planned:
The decision to create redundancies was supposedly in place all along since June – yet in August, the council was insisting that its plan include no job losses.
Both cannot be true. Yet suddenly, last Thursday, the council issued redundancy notices to 113 refuse workers, effective from 1 October – apparently summarily, without any of the usual consultation process.
Unite’s Howard Beckett believes the council’s motives are transparent:
It’s clear the council is using the threat of such rapid redundancies to try to intimidate workers into accepting a deal that’s bad for them.
The ‘equal pay claims’
The council claims that the reason for the redundancy notices – which less than three weeks ago it said it had no intention of issuing – was to ‘protect its legal and financial position’.
This relates to a supposed risk of equal pay claims if it grants the terms that it had made – but denies making – with the refuse workers.
However, Unite’s legal advice is clear that there is no such risk. Ms Manzie claims to have legal advice to the opposite effect – but has refused to release it even to councillors. Beckett said:
Cabinet was supposed to meet on Friday to consider Manzie’s report . I asked for a copy of their instructions to counsel, a copy of their legal advice saying there could be equal pay problems. They didn’t produce anything.
We got our own legal advice showing there are no equal pay problems – there have never been any. Manzie is sabotaging the deal because she’s wedded to cuts.
Together with Unison – who are not on strike but have legally registered a dispute and are supportive of us – we wrote to councillors before and after the cabinet meeting was supposed to take place, urging them to respect the agreement they made and ratified. We also took out an ad in the local press explaining the situation to residents.
I have been told the cabinet intended to vote to keep the deal.
Manzie responded by suspending the cabinet meeting until 14/9 to buy time – and immediately issued redundancy notices to my workers.
Unite’s legal advice, by the highly-regarded Thompsons Solicitors, is clear:
The weight of evidence is overwhelming: however the Establishment media may present it, the residents of Birmingham are not facing piles of refuse and the problems that go with them because of any action, inaction or indecision on the part of Unite or the city’s refuse collectors.
They are facing that situation because of a faithless council choosing to renege on its clear and ratified agreement for ‘reasons’ that are no more than an excuse.
That this is being done by a Labour-dominated council is a disgrace – but ‘Labour’ in Birmingham is still dominated by so-called ‘moderates’ who have gone to anti-democratic and even unlawful lengths to prevent members removing them from their tightly-held positions and who continue to stretch and break the party’s rules to disenfranchise members, even after personal intervention by party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Birmingham residents need to understand just who is responsible for the refuse debacle they are facing – and Birmingham Labour members, for the sake of party and people, need to take every necessary step to prevent those responsible from standing in next year’s council-wide elections, so that voters are not forced to deliver their verdict at the ballot box.
As a result of the council issuing redundancy notices in clear breach of its agreement, Unite has issued a ‘Letter Before Action’ to the council warning it that it has until 3pm on Monday to withdraw the threat of redundancy, or else the union will injunct it from carrying out its threat.
The people of Birmingham have a clear case before them – and need to support their refuse workers, not their faithless council.
We’ll leave the last word to Unite’s Howard Beckett:
The only red line we have is this: don’t take safety of the back of the bin lorries to downgrade the job and cost our workers £3,500-5,000. The rest we can live with – and all this was already agreed with the council. The council needs to stop its fiction and scaremongering.
At the moment, all the Labour group is doing is showing that they are Tories in all but name.
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