Tag Archives: Unite

Bin strike – a councillor’s view

20 Sep

New refuse workers on strike

The following post has been written by a member of Newham’s Labour Group of councillors

I’m a member of a trade union and I believe in a worker’s right to withdraw their labour. This is a legal right but it’s also a moral right. It’s in everyone’s interest that workers receive a sustainable wage from their employers – proper pay is the bedrock of a better society. And the truth is workers across the board need a rise in wages to deal with the Cost of Living crisis that has been caused by the Conservative government. I think very few people in Newham would disagree with what I’ve written.

Unite’s recent action in Newham has been difficult for Newham’s Labour councillors. We are caught between an inclination to support strikes, and our role as members of a council which is the subject of strikes. In public, councillors are limited in what we are able say – these strikes are an HR matter, and councillors aren’t able to get involved.

Along with a number of my colleagues I attended a meeting with Steve Edwards, the Unite lead for this strike, a few weeks ago. In that conversation, Steve explained Unite’s reasoning for taking strike action. He made the point that refuse workers in Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Greenwich are paid more than equivalent workers in Newham.

Whilst this is undoubtedly true, it was surprising that he chose to make this comparison. The boroughs he mentioned receive inner-London weighting – they are given additional funding to pay workers. Central government classifies Newham as an outer-London borough – so it does not receive additional funding for its workers. The council has long argued that the borough should be given inner-London weighting, but this is not within its power to decide.

Councillors in the meeting raised this with Steve and he offered to provide analysis comparing Newham worker’s pay with pay in other outer-London boroughs. Steve also said that, even accounting for outer-London weighting, Newham would lag proportionally behind other borough’s pay.

I’m unsure what point Steve was trying to make here. Previously he had said he wanted Newham workers to receive the same pay as, for example, Hackney workers, but his comments on London weighting suggested he was looking for a smaller proportional raise, in line with the outer-London pay grades. Steve was asked if he could provide further analysis comparing Newham’s wages with inner-London boroughs, taking into account outer-London weighting. He agreed to send this to all councillors. As of yet, I’ve not received either piece of analysis from him.

During the meeting, Steve mentioned that Unite had ideas about how the council could fund the additional wage rises for workers.

The first of these was around reducing the council’s use of consultants in designing waste collection timetables. Steve pointed out that the council is planning to hire consultants as part of their service refresh specifically to look at how workers are timetabled.

I have mixed feelings about this proposal. Public sector bodies can rely on consultants too much, and consultancy firms aren’t cheap. Nevertheless, using consultants is a one-off cost. The council wouldn’t be hiring this consultancy on an on-going basis, so to suggest that this one-time cost could pay for wage increases feels poorly thought through. (I’ve seen a few people argue that increased wages could be funded with Section 106 money. This idea is a non-starter for the same reasons).

The second suggestion Steve offered was that the council could make recycling collections twice a month instead of weekly. This proposal has more legs. Despite the council’s long-held aim to move to weekly collections, many people still only get their recycling collected at this rate anyway. Yet, I’m not sure how much money this proposal would actually save. Again, Steve couldn’t provide hard details. The proposal would lead to a worse service for Newham residents. That goes without saying. But it seems unlikely that this dispute can be resolved without services being affected.

I left the meeting confused and disappointed that a settlement between Unite workers and the council wasn’t nearer. I had previously attended briefings from the council, where Colin Ansell, Newham’s CEO, quite convincingly showed councillors that a large amount of baselining work had taken place. Colin seemed confident that the council’s offer was a fair and comprehensive one

More strikes are now due to take place, starting today, and the tactics that Unite are using to push for a better settlement have escalated.

On Saturday, councillors were shocked to find out that a Unite officer, Onay Kasab, had directly emailed their employers.

In his email, Onay states

We are writing to all organisations linked to Newham council or where Newham councillors are engaged to let you know that we will be escalating our campaign on behalf of our refuse service workers…we are now extending our activity to include organisations linked to the council which is the reason why we are making contact with you today.

The email goes on to threaten Councillor’s employers with leafletting and lobbying activity outside their premises.

This email has been received poorly by councillors. I felt a visceral dread when I had to explain to my manager why activities I pursue outside of my office look like they might have an effect on my workplace. Councillors who work already have a hard time juggling their commitments, and it’s not unknown for them to perform poorly in their day-jobs because they’re focusing on their political roles. Unite’s actions may well add more stigma to councillors at work, and this targeting may well dissuade talented people from standing to be councillors in the future.

The approach also feels discriminatory. Many councillors don’t have to worry about a threat to their employers. They may be retired, own their own businesses, earn their money through landlordism, or be in cabinet positions already. The councillors affected by Unite’s threats are those who have a day-job. These councillors are more likely to be poorer, younger, and female. There’s a feeling amongst some that it’s not a great look for Unite to throw fellow workers under the bus.

Finally the letter… doesn’t really help Unite. In our mayoral system, councillors have very little influence over how the executive operates. The most realistic support councillors could give strikers would be to pass a motion at Labour Group asking the Mayor to find a settlement with the refuse workers and meet their demands.

But the Mayor is not compelled to take that advice. Nor could she, if she felt that this would damage the long-term financial viability of the council.

Targeting councillors, who don’t have power to help Unite achieve their aims then, seems odd. It adds to the sense that Unite’s team have not really understood how Newham’s systems work, that they’ve not done their homework.

Unite had a huge amount of good will from councillors across Newham prior to their recent actions. Most were embarrassed by the Mayor’s ill-judged statement on the strikes. Now, however, that good will is dissipating. Part of that is because of the threats to employers. But much of it is because councillors have been unimpressed with their limited interactions with Unite’s negotiators.

There is a feeling amongst councillors that Steve Edwards should have been more knowledgeable in recent meetings and a dissatisfaction that the analysis Steve promised to send them hasn’t arrived yet. Councillors are also asking why this analysis hadn’t been done before strike action took place. And Unite’s actions seem to have created sympathy for the Mayor (“poor Rokhsana, having to deal with all this!”).

Nevertheless, you’re unlikely to hear councillors say this out loud. Most still support Unite’s general aims, even if they’ve been unimpressed by their conduct and performance. A few are acutely aware that Unite’s endorsement could help them pick up a winnable parliamentary seat later on in their careers.

The real losers here are residents, some of whom have not had their bins cleared for weeks. And the real winners? The Tory government, who have presided over the cost of living crisis, and systematically failed to fund local government services properly, have seemingly managed to escape any blame for the situation on local social media. Both the Mayor and Unite have failed to contextualise this strike within a wider national picture of vicious government cuts. Consequently, Newham residents seem to either be blaming the strikers themselves, claiming refuse workers are greedy (“they earn more than teachers!”) or council mismanagement, rather than structural issues with the country’s economy.

All sides in this dispute would be well-advised to tone down their rhetoric and focus on negotiating towards realistic outcomes.