Dispute over Birmingham’s refuse collection services takes bizarre turn as council stretches credulity in attempt to use Thatcher-era anti-union laws to block strike over discriminatory payments
The twists and turns in the long-running Birmingham bin collection dispute continue today, with a judge refusing to grant the union an injunction against Birmingham City Council (BCC) using under-qualified ‘scab’ Labour – while telling the union it’s legal arguments were better than the council’s.
But out of sight of judges and the public – until now – an even more bizarre drama has been playing out.
At least notionally a Labour council – its left-wing waste management cabinet member dramatically quit last month over its behaviour – BCC is trying to block the strike action by using anti-union provisions of an act of Parliament brought in by Margaret Thatcher: the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (otherwise known as TULRCA.
The SKWAWKBOX has obtained copies of a ‘letter before action’ sent by the council to Unite’s legal representatives – and of the union’s response – and BCC’s justification for its claim beggars belief.
Birmingham Council’s bad-faith actions in the 2017 bin strike were exposed by the SKWAWKBOX, which published documents showing that the then-council leader had agreed a deal with Unite and Unison to end the industrial action, but the council then attempted to renege on its agreement – and issued redundancy notices to the workers.
The revelations forced the resignation of the council leader – and the union subsequently won a stunning victory, protecting not only the jobs but the grades and pay of the attacked workers.
Members of a third union, the GMB, among the refuse collection workforce did not participate in the strike – though they benefited from the deal nonetheless – but they subsequently received an additional payment from the council.
The council tried to claim that the payment was for a ‘failure to consult’ (FTC), because GMB was not involved in the talks that ended the strike – but as the workers suffered no losses, Unite responded that the payment did not meet the criteria for FTC and were in fact a payment for not striking and an inducement to workers not to join Unite. This discrimination against Unite and Unison members is the basis for the current phase of the dispute.
Unite wrote to the council at the beginning of December to inform BCC that industrial action would take place unless the union received satisfactory answers to a number of questions laid out in the letter. A month later, after Birmingham residents had suffered disruptions over the holiday period, BCC had still not bothered to respond.
After talks eventually began and bore no fruit, Unite announced its intention to escalate the industrial action – starting next Tuesday.
And then BCC sent Unite the letter the SKWAWKBOX has obtained.
TULRCA 1992 contains measures introduced by Thatcher to reduce unions’ ability to represent working people, by banning ‘secondary action’ – and by specifying other types of action that were ‘unprotected’, in effect unlawful.
Section 222 of the Act states:
In effect, it means unions cannot take industrial action against an employer for treating employees who are not in a union the same as employees who are.
The BCC letter
BCC’s letter to Unite’s solicitors complains about the costs it is incurring in trying to get round the effects of the industrial action – action it did nothing to prevent for a whole month when it could have at least postponed it just by responding to Unite’s written questions at the beginning of December.
The letter then demands that the industrial action be abandoned or the council will seek an injunction – but the basis for its demand boggles the mind:
The council’s letter claims that the strikes are unlawful because Unite is asking for a payment for its members that GMB members will not be receiving – even though the payment Unite wants for its members is the one GMB members already received.
So to make it ‘fair’, by what passes for the council’s ‘reasoning’, Unite would have to demand another payment for GMB members as well, even though the whole dispute is about the first payment that Unite members did not receive.
As one union member put it: “They’ve got some f***ing neck!”
Unite’s response was more measured than their member’s – but it still amounts to the legal equivalent of “you’re joking – and you don’t know what you’re talking about!”:
To recap: BCC made payments to GMB members and excluded members of other unions from that payment – and is now trying to prevent the excluded workers from taking action on the grounds that it wouldn’t be fair to the people who did receive the payment.
The phenomenon of right-dominated ‘Labour’ councils failing to behave like they’re actually run by Labour is a blight on the party’s reputation in Birmingham and elsewhere. Urgent action is needed to remove the blight.
But in Birmingham, a supposedly-Labour council has behaved in bad faith in relation to some of its lowest-paid employees since at least the 2017 refuse collection dispute, making and breaking agreements and only correcting its actions when forced to by union solidarity and by the exposure of its faithlessness.
Now – after wasting a whole month in which it could have averted or at least postponed the action – the council is complaining that the dispute is expensive.
And telling the union that it’s unlawful to take action for the same secret payment GMB workers – because that wouldn’t be fair to the GMB members.
If only it was unbelievable.
The bin dispute has already cost one BCC leader his job. It looks like further departures are needed so the people of Birmingham – and employees of BCC – can enjoy real Labour representation.
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