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Council rats at the bins again

July 9, 2009

article-1176148-0063B28000000258-737_468x372[1]As many locals might have read, refuse workers for city clean in Brighton and Hove are facing pay cuts of as much as £8000. These workers have previously been amongst the most militant in the City – in 2001 there was a large strike and occupation, which forced the council to take the previously privatised service back in house (more info) and last year saw over 200 workers out on wildcat strike against management bullying (more info).

The council have fallen to a new low, attempting to keep a straight face while presenting this attack on pay as being part of their ongoing equality agenda. The council finally made offers of compensation earlier this year to thousands of largely female workers who had been illegally underpaid for years. The council had managed to spin this out since 2001, spending enormous amounts on consultants to tell them how to pay the minimum possible. The final payments offered were approximately half the amount owed – even by the councils own calculations. This was worked out by comparing the salary of people in traditionally female jobs, against those which were historically male jobs. Traditionally female jobs have for a long time been under paid – something this process was supposedly there to address – jobs were compared on a like for like basis, the idea being to eliminate the gender bias. The response from the council has been rather than accept they needed to bring up those they had underpaid, is set to be an attack those earning slightly more – this in a city with a London cost of living, but no complimentary salary weighting. It gives a good view into the mindset of those vastly overpaid to run the council that their response to decades of unequal pay is to bring down the wages of low paid workers even further.

This has happened other places such as Birmingham, which saw thousands on strike earlier this year against a “single status” settlement that was simply a poor disguised attempt to make huge attacks against the living standards of council workers. In other areas, such as Greenwich, local authorities have been forced to back down from such proposals by successful campaigns by trade unionists against such attacks, demanding equal pay, but without pay cuts.

This process isn’t just about cost saving. The council administration has long despised the refuse workers for their militancy. There is a pervasive attitude is one of “how dare these lazy dirty proles stand up for themselves”. As the recession bites deeper, talk along the lines of “they should be glad just to have a job” will doubtless come out, along with wild tales of the vast amounts these workers supposedly earn. Stories will be spread of how lazy they are, and other attempts to smear them. Perhaps those who feel they are lazy and underpaid should spend all day in the rain collecting garbage for a salary over a third below the Brighton average! We will have the bizarre spectacle of those who fly into an apoplectic rage whenever their bins are collected a day late declaring that “no one will notice if they are on strike anyway”. And when all that fails, it will become personal as it has in the past – inexplicable claims that have come out before saying “They’re all sexist and racist anyway, why should we care” – something that even if it was true, would have little to no bearing on their wages.

While underpaid workers getting back some of the money they have been denied for years is obviously a good thing, the whole situation exposes the problems of dealing with such issues on a legal basis. The equal pay settlement was won through legalistic means – this is the bosses terrain, and if they can give it to us, they will certainly try and take back. Right away, they have attempted to turn their defeat in having to pay this back pay into a victory, by using it to attack the refuse workers they so despise, and dividing up the workforce. If the equal pay settlement had been forced onto the council through workers taking action, rather than painstaking backroom union negotiations then this problem wouldn’t be here. Equal pay without anyone having their wages slashed can only be won on the basis of class solidarity – workers standing up for each other, and recognising they have both a common interest and a common enemy. If other workers show solidarity for the refuse workers now, then this is likely to be returned in the future when someone else needs it – as they have done in the past.

The attack on the refuse workers will just be the first step, as bosses all over attempt to force the cost of their crisis onto workers. The council may angrily demand how we propose to pay for these wages – let the managers justify their 6 figure salaries and work this out for themselves. If these workers can be screwed, then anyone can. Bosses want to set an example here and crush those who have dared resist their bullying and cost cutting in the past. In 2001 when the refuse workers went out on strike there was a mass campaign in support of them – supporters joined in shutting down would be scab lorries, and picketing agencies who attempted to recruit scabs. If the council don’t want to pay to have the bins emptied, then we must all join in and side with them and stop collections all over the city. Brighton Solidarity Federation are in solidarity with all workers who fight to promote their living standards. To get involved, email us at contact [AT] brightonsolfed.org.uk.

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