Today in London striking history, 2006: Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike begins

Bosses bagged and binned

The Haringey Dustbin Workers Strike, 2006

A contemporary report by Alan Woodward (with a tiny bit of explanatory editing by past tense)

Industrial action by about 50 Haringey refuse workers, based at the Ashley Road depot in Tottenham, began on 31 July 2006. The strikers were out solid for two weeks, ran it themselves through their own strike committee, and won some of the conditions they fought for.

The strike had four distinctive features:

  • It was against the London Borough of Haringey (LBH) contractor Accord and can be seen as part of the general disorder following the privatisation of refuse collection. LBH had apparently “bought off” the dispute a few months previously with a payment to Accord at the delicate time of the council elections. Some later felt that industrial action then would have been a tactical advantage.• It was regulated by the intricate web of legislation by Tory and Labour governments who, following the traditions of the last half century, were seeking to frustrate industrial action by employees and support employers’ rights.
    • The strike called was an indefinite one, unusual in the circumstances and in recent years, and was the end of a long process of delay and distraction.
    • It was against the recommendation of both the Transport and General Workers Union and the site T&GWU shop stewards convenor.

The site

The dispute took place at the large municipal depot, next to Down Lane Recreation Park. This workplace houses several hundred workers, over 100 vehicles (including a mobile library], several maintenance workshops and the bulk of the LBH Refuse department, including street sweepers. Other unions on site are UNISON for clerical and supervisory workers and AMICUS for craft employees. They were not affected but one UNISON member who was a street sweeper refused to cross the picket line and thus became involved.

The workers involved – all men – were those normally dealing with domestic waste wheelie bins, and paralleled that covering the separate trade waste section for which Accord had around 80 profitable contracts over NE London. The household waste workers had functioned under the previous ‘in-house’ arrangements as Council employees, and had suffered in recent years a series of cuts in staffing levels, negotiated as a result of technological improvement like the introduction of wheelie bins instead of just black plastic bags. The dispute – a reaction to the proposal to take two out of twelve vehicles off the collections – originated from LBH insisting on a small print contract clause requiring productivity “efficiency savings” every year.

Despite this, LBH publicly washed its hands of the conflict saying Accord was responsible. This devious tactic was accompanied by a complete silence for ten days, before a minimum programme of public notification was begun.

Accord plc itself, parent company of Haringey Accord, is recorded as having made £53m profit in 2005. Internal managers were reported as complaining that little if any of these came from the LBH contract, so they are likely to have been complicit in the efficiency saving plan. This of course would result in more work for vehicle crews that was dangerous, unpleasant and at unsocial hours. Following the offer or ‘bribe’ of a one-off payment to accept the cuts the T&GWU, on its website, did not use the “more work for a one-off payment” argument and stressed instead that this was a heath and safety issue. Work arrangements have traditionally been job-and-finish, of course.

Solid picketing

The strikers picketed the front entrance from day one, from 6am for a few hours, in numbers well in excess of the TUC’s Code of Practice recommendation of six. The police acted to form – at the start of the dispute chatting to workers, and saving their institutionalised violence for any later crisis. Only on the third Monday when mass meetings were held and supporters turned up in some strength, did they give the lecture about “only six workers on the picket, everyone else move away or you’ll be arrested”. In the end matters were settled peacefully with two meetings in the park and the strikers going past the gates for an instant workplace ballot. Some returned to work that day but most went home, after talking about the experience for a while.

The events of the last weekend were the result of the crisis of the previous five days. Accord’s ultimatum – accept the bribe and return to work – expired as the binmen said all along their aim was to keep vehicle crews together, regardless of incentives. Previously, media statements by local manager Doug Taylor had forced the stewards to issue a brief document correcting the management version. This pointed out that Accord had refused to do a full study of the extra work involved and that new housing developments were constantly expanding the work to be done. The shop stewards pointed out that a six week pilot session was not completed and resulted in over-time being needed – very much against company policy and an unexpected consequence.

Of course this voice of reason was ignored in the manner of media preference for His Masters Voice. Even so television local news began to carry the story, including residents complaints of smell, heath hazards etc. It is unclear if alternative media agencies, like Indymedia, made reports.

Relations with other workers going into the workplace remained cordial. Street sweepers lodged their own grievance about a similar cut imposed on them and separate lengthy strike ballot proceedings were started. Much of the ancillary work was in fact already being done by increasing numbers of agency staff. These were still awaiting the promised full time work status. Agencies began to appear in the picture as a way of the Council clearing the backlog and hence undermining the strike.

Staff cuts and agency workers

The truth about cuts illustrates the reality. Staffing levels of 73 had been reduced to 48 over the previous 5 years, while Accord managers in administration grew from 4 to 14. Even allowing for additional street cleaning management this is a big increase. Vehicle crews dropped from 6 persons on each to 3. So workers had clearly co-operated with extra productivity

The other site entrance at the depot, through the re-cycling centre, was left alone. Other London workers under Accord contracts, like Islington, were apparently contacted, but little could be done legally to support Haringey.

Over the last few days, when threats were made by the management and LBH over replacement labour, dustbin workers visited employment offices to remind them of the legal position – no agency workers to be allowed as strike breakers, under the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations of 2003. PCS union stewards in the Jobcentre were not always “available” though whether this was due to management pressure is unknown. Rumours about exactly who was doing the recruiting abounded but what is clear is the government agencies were sending out text messages all over London to get staff. Several people, travelling long distances, showed pickets their mobile phone text messages on the Saturday or Sunday to prove this. Regarding the use of technology in this dispute, at least one striker used the internet to discover details of the victorious Brighton dustbin strike a few years ago, on the libertarian communist website, “libcom.org/history”. He downloaded the information for the picketers.

In the event, this agency recruitment tactic failed. Many unemployed people, kept ignorant of the strike by agencies like Prime Time of 752 High Road, N 17, and others who were given some information by Hayes Agency, were quickly engaged in discussion and turned back by pickets on Saturday 12 August. A blue T&GWU ‘appeal for solidarity’ leaflet was persuasive for this purpose. In practice wheelie bin workers were very difficult to replace. Not only do some require HGV licences but also special training is required for the special RIAS trucks that were used.

A brief digression here. Many pickets remembered two previous strikes from the past. In 1979, in the fabled winter of discontent dispute, the Army camped in the park by the depot and went out to collect the hundreds of smelly black bags to general amusement. In those pre-Thatcher days workers were confident of their strength. In 1987 the popular and militant shop steward Brian Berry was sacked, having previously been active in opposing Labour MP Bernie Grant over the Broadwater Farm disorder. Allegations of racism were made but some saw it as straight forward revenge, as his nominal offence was minor and usually ignored. Socialists attacked LBH for victimisation, which is how workers saw it. Berry went but stayed active in the union.

A settlement?

Back to the strike. As scab labour was being sought, T&GWU full time official
Paul Fawcett was quoted on the BBC website as saying a settlement was close and would be recommended to the men on Monday, 14 August. On the Saturday a few strike breakers slipped into the depot through the other entrance and a picket was then put on there too.

During that day the “trainees” were put through a basic health and safety programme, described by one man as “a complete waste of time”. No HGV holders had been recruited and only a small number of people with ordinary licences came. These, it was presumably envisaged, would drive ordinary small trucks while the luckless unskilled would tackle the growing mountain of black bags. Even if this plan had worked the focus would switch to the local incinerator at Edmonton. The round-the-clock workers there had traditionally been seen as militant, but did not respond to Greenpeace taking direct action over cancer causing emissions – so the situation remained open. Few bag loaders would last long, the picketers predicted, but even this watered-down tactic was not to be tried.

Public support grows

Meanwhile supporters had not been idle. Supporters came every day
to the picket line, only a few at first but then more. Money was collected as at the support meeting called by Haringey Trades Union Council on Wednesday 9 August. Here a dustbin worker explained the case and spoke of management’s misleading statements. A street collection sheet was printed and hundreds of small stickers. It was decided to lay responsibility back on the Council. Everybody would bring black bags of rubbish to the Civic Centre at 6pm on the Friday. This was done with some secrecy in the expectation that the publicity would produce a bigger action.

20 people turned up to oppose the cuts to services and to support the strikers. This gained much publicity and it was envisioned that such protests would be organised regularly. This helped to garner public support, and inhibit any Council and media slide into attacking the strikers.

The Secretary of the Haringey Federation of Residents Associations attended the depot picket and circulated round local groups a true account of the situation. The publicity demanded more services for residents, not less as the Council obviously planned for. The union steward spoke to one local residents association on the Thursday, and that group as well as another association agreed after much debate to back the strike. HFRA publicised the Monday picket without endorsement – but were due to debate the matter at their general meeting the following day. Socialist newspapers carried the story from the start and supported the mass picket, as their sellers pointed out. Local libertarians associated with Haringey Solidarity Group were by this time attending and publicising the picketing.

A tremendous struggle and a partial victory

Monday, day 15, saw the resolution of the strike. While pickets and supporters discouraged several potential strike breakers from going into the depot, a small number of crept through. They were kitted out generously in protective clothing
but were obviously still ill-equipped. Police got out of their three cars and pointed out the law which had been ignored by all up to now. The union Full Time Officer came and called a mass meeting, and supporters took over the picket line. He reported that the plan to cut two teams had been dropped and that there would be negotiations over one vehicle being cut from the trade waste crews. Opinion was heated and divided – “one more week and we’d have won everything!”. The official was sent back to finalise the deal, payments for clearing up the backlog etc.

A second mass meeting was held and after discussion, but no vote, the workers went inside for an instant workplace ballot. This came out 26 to 18 for a return to work. A payment of £600 would be paid when the clearing up was complete, compensation for two weeks lost earnings.

Some of the supporters muttered about a defeat but most workers saw it differently. “We never wanted their money – all we wanted was to keep the domestic crews together, and we got that said a departing picket. A few ex-strikers got straight in the trucks and pulled out. The fate of the lone supporting street sweeper was similar and a collection was held for him, a hero indeed.

Soon the would-be refuse workers came out too and left in their new gear. The rest of us gathered our belongings, and posters, and went as well. Money still came in and £100 from the Haringey Trades Union Council Appeal letter was handed over to the T&GWU steward.

Strikers had used mobile phones, the internet, and were prepared to use cars to follow any strike-breakers. This had been an extraordinary 100% solid strike, perhaps to a script written by LBH, but more likely a classic balls-up for which they are famous. The strike restored some confidence, united supporters to an unprecedented extent, and showed that, despite difficulties by Blair and Thatcher, you can sometimes win on some of the issues,

Author of the above, Alan Woodward was a longtime socialist, Haringey resident, a member of Haringey Solidarity Group, treasurer of Haringey Trades Union Council and convenor of the Radical History Network of N. E. London.
Alan died in 2012… here’s a brief obituary

 

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