Bin workers speak out

Workers in the City of Edinburgh Cleansing Department are working to rule and banning overtime, to oppose the Council's attempt to cut their wages. We interviewed two Cleansing Department workers, to find out the real story behind the dispute.

What's the dispute all about?

The Council wrote saying our basic wage would go down to between £12,000 and £14,185.  At present we get around £19,000 odd, 41% is made up by bonuses, now the Council want to cut almost all the bonus. I am set to lose about £300 per month. And they also want to change the shift patterns.

The Council have ripped up the contract.

The Council say wages will be protected for 3 years?

Well, what that really means is a 3 year wage freeze — we are due a pay rise next April, but this “pay protection” would mean we wouldn't get it.  And they have already ripped up one agreement — what's to stop them doing that again?

Which workers are affected?

It's not just the Cleansing, it's just about all Council manual workers.  It's the bucket men, the street cleaners, the welders and craft guys, it's the toilet attendants, the gravediggers, the roadworkers, just about everyone, the only ones exempt from the pay modernisation are teachers and senior executives, though I reckon they'll come for the teachers next. 

Have management been docking workers' wages?

Yes, 30 bucket men have had their wages docked, management said you haven't done enough work, so we're docking you.  Some of the older workers at the Russell Road depot were in tears, people are worried about their mortgages, their homes. But now the dockings have been stopped, it's illegal.

What do you think the workers should fight for?

I think we should be demanding that all the bonus is put into our basic wage. Then they wouldn't be able to take it away from us.
And I think we should demand across the board wage increases, that would make wages more equal, for example £20 per week extra for everyone, not percentage rises which benefit the higher paid more.

What's the significance of this dispute?  And what do you need to do to win?

This is an attack on the right to withdraw labour, it's an attack on freedom of speech, it's an attack on the working class. The whole trade union movement should go out on strike about this.

It’s not just the Cleansing… It’s the bucket men, the street cleaners, the welders and craft guys, it’s the toilet attendants, the gravediggers, the roadworkers, just about everyone

The union has allowed things to fragment. First they picked on binmen in Falkirk. At our branch we were itching to support them, but UNITE said we couldn't do anything as it wasn't anything to do with us. Now they have come for us. There have been disputes in Glasgow and Dundee too.

The Unions are moribund by the anti Union legislation, they are hiding behind the legislation, they are almost impotent. It should be one out, all out.

UNITE, it isn't coming out of this with credit, it's a right-wing union.

We need to elect a strike committee.  The people in positions of power in the Union are too tied into the Labour Party, they don't want to rock the boat, especially with an election coming up.  I couldn't give a toss about the Labour Party, they've betrayed the working class. I only care about the workers that I work for.

I think the Union should say that unless the management has got concrete proposals, then there's no talks.

There's talk about privatising the rubbish collection, but with privatisation there's no accountability. Look at the electricity and gas companies. With privatisation prices will go sky-high.

What's been the attitude of the public?

Most are on our side.  People come up to us in the street, saying “good on you”.

What about the people the Council have brought in to try to break the dispute?

The scabs are working out of the Seafield Depot on Fillyside Road which was shut down by the Health and Safety Executive months ago because of asbestos contamination. We told the Health and Safety Executive, but they are still working there.

What's your work like? What's it like to empty the buckets, or clean the streets?

Well, we're out in all weathers, sometimes in the winter it's really grim. We've got inadequate clothing, the coats and the gloves, the gloves actually make your hands colder. And in our depot there's sometimes no hot water.

We’re unanimous, we’re standing firm, we’re continuing the overtime ban

We have to clean up everything, dog poo, junkies' needles, all the fag ends outside pubs.
Even after a shower, and washing your hair, you can't get away from the smell of the rubbish, you can still smell it in your nose.  It's only when you're on holiday you can get away from the smell.

There's huge bits of litter, huge pizza boxes and stuff.  There's ridiculous amounts of packaging, we should be getting onto the manufacturers of packaging, if people were really serious about the environment then we should be doing something about that.

What's the latest developments?

The management are making all sorts of promises to try and stop the action, but if it's not in writing then it's not worth anything. They've been offering unlimited overtime up to Xmas to try to stop the action.

But we've had a Union meeting and we are unanimous, we're standing firm, we're continuing the overtime ban and work to rule.

The Council have printed 90 day redundancy notices, they are threatening to issue them if we take strike action. But they couldn't get away with it. They haven't got the infrastructure to run the whole cleansing department without all the workers.  If they did issue redundancy notices, then we should all go out to the City Chambers and burn the notices.

The attacks are happening at Councils across the board, it's not just Edinburgh.  If they get away with it in the public sector then they will go to town on the private sector. They are trying to divide the public and private sector, I don't care what sector workers are in.

This is an attack on trade unions, an attack on your right to withdraw your labour. That's why the fight should be extended to the whole trade union movement. If they get away with it, with us, then they will extend the attack to other workers.