Brighton and Hove City Council is to seek outside help to resolve the bin lorry drivers strike.
The decision was taken by senior councillors at the end of a heated six-hour meeting at Hove Town Hall this evening (Wednesday 13 October).
Labour persuaded the ruling Greens to follow their example when GMB members threatened to strike two years ago at Cityclean, the council’s rubbish and recycling service.
In 2019, an expert outsider – trusted by both sides – was brought in to broker a deal and successfully headed off a strike.
Former Labour council leader Nancy Platts said that “urgency” was required because the dispute had reached “a point of total failure”.
Councillor Platts shared comments from drivers, having spoken with them on the picket line at the depot in Hollingdean to hear their grievances.
She said that the workers were among the lowest paid in the city, with many earning a basic wage of £21,000. Some could make £28,000 with overtime.
Councillor Platts told a special meeting of the council’s Policy and Resources Committee: “This has been going on for eight days. It’s been in the papers what this dispute is about.
“This is a crack at ‘toughing it out’ rather than resolving the dispute – which was the advice given to me at one point when I was council leader.”
She said that bin lorry drivers had told her that managers were not treating them with respect, instead speaking to them “like dirt or something on the bottom of a manager’s shoe”.
She said that drivers wanted to be able to complete their rounds and had a tremendous sense of frustration when they could not do so.
But they did not have the tools they needed to do the job and the reasons for rounds being unfinished included
- Second-hand bin lorries that frequently broke down
- Being sent out in the wrong type of vehicle to pick up specific types of bins
- The resulting delays forced staff either to work overtime at short notice or leave a round unfinished
- Managers sending people out on rounds that they were unfamiliar with, with mazes of alleyways and hidden bins
- New drivers not given enough details about rounds and having to work out their own routes using Google Maps
Labour councillors also called for the council’s negotiating team to seek a “dispensation” so that rubbish could be collected from bin stores in flats where they were a fire hazard.
Councillor John Allcock, the joint Labour opposition leader, said that the council should have brought outside help such as an independent industrial relations expert to help before the dispute became a strike.
He also asked why the negotiating team had not found a way to remove rubbish from bin stores in tower blocks.
Residents expected answers, he said, because they were suffering.
Councillor Allcock said: “What’s disappointing is that there are really no excuses for that failure either, considering the last Labour administration left you with a clear example of how to resolve a complex Cityclean dispute without seeing residents exposed to industrial action.
“Is the institutional memory of the senior management team so short that those lessons have already been forgotten?”
At the end of the six-hour meeting, with more than three hours spent in confidential session, the Green and Labour members voted to
- address low pay
- seek a dispensation for workers to clear bin stores in tower blocks
- engage a third party to advise the negotiating team
- formally condemn comments made by Conservative councillor Joe Miller
Councillor Miller likened the strike action to terrorism and accused the GMB of “holding the city over a barrel”.
He said that he had sympathy for the drivers’ grievances with management that were the substance of the original ballot before pay became part of the equation.
“Ultimately in my view,” he said, “the GMB are holding a gun to our head. They’ve got us over a barrel. It’s blackmail. It’s a bit of a shit show, the entire thing. I’ve never known anything quite like it.”
The Green leader of the council Phélim Mac Cafferty censured Councillor Miller for using former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s line on negotiating with terrorists.
Councillor Miller said: “This is a similar situation to ‘you can’t negotiate with terrorists’. The actions of the GMB are not those of terrorists, obviously, but what they are doing is they are refusing to work.
“They have inflamed an issue from one I was sympathetic to, to throwing pain at the last minute, which is going to cost a significant amount of council taxpayers’ money.
“We’re not talking small pay rises. These are significant pay rises. Those are the actions of blackmail and terrorism because terrorists do exactly the same, and blackmail is exactly the same.”
He added that the pay demands were unreasonable because there would have to be cuts to other council services to fund them so a hard line needed to be taken.
The four Labour councillors at the meeting were quick to condemn Councillor Miller’s comments and declare that they were not terrorists despite being GMB members themselves.
The “negotiating steer” provided by the meeting to council chiefs will be reported to a meeting of the full council next week, on Thursday 21 October, at Councillor Miller’s request.
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