What the Brighton and Hove bin strike really reveals about local politics

Posted On 21 Oct 2021 at 9:14 am

In an opinion piece on Tuesday (19 October), Conservative councillor Robert Nemeth purported to explain the underlying politics of the recent industrial action by Cityclean HGV drivers.

The strike by GMB members did indeed reveal a lot about the politics and economics of our city, and the country as a whole, but not in the way Councillor Nemeth tried to claim.

Refuse workers at Cityclean clear are some of the lowest-paid staff in the city, and the drivers in question were being subject to unreasonable changes to their routes.

For months and months during the pandemic, we saw politicians of all parties clapping, banging saucepans and generally singing the praises of the frontline workers who kept the country going.

Bin lorry drivers are exactly those frontline workers – they didn’t work from home on laptops, but kept going throughout, risking their own health to keep our city clean.

Some of us suspected that the clapping and kind words wouldn’t amount to much when the
pandemic was over, and so it has proved.

The Tory government and this Green council have done nothing to pro-actively give a pay rise to frontline workers.

In these circumstances, what power do low-paid workers have to prevent unacceptable conditions, or try to improve their pay?

In many cases they have very little power but in some instances they have the power to lawfully withdraw their labour and go on strike. I don’t believe any trade union member takes this decision lightly.

Nobody enjoys having their streets full of uncollected rubbish, which demonstrates just how important this frontline service is to the city. But what has the strike ended up achieving?

The council reportedly introduced the subject of pay during the negotiations, so that was legitimately considered a related issue.

An agreement has apparently been reached that addresses the issues around management of routes as well as granting pay rises to not only the Cityclean drivers, but all council workers on the lowest pay grades.

So what does this tell us about the politics and economics of local authorities? Firstly, it demonstrates the importance of local public services being exactly that: local and publicly provided.

When council services are ‘in house’, with strong trade union membership, workers are able to negotiate better wages. When they are outsourced to private companies, public funds are used to facilitate profits, and companies pursue a ‘race to the bottom’ on wages and conditions.

Rubbish being cleared in Clarendon Villas in Hove today

Voters in Brighton and Hove should ask themselves whether they want their taxes to go to shareholders of private outsourcing companies or to give modest pay rises to low paid workers keeping their city going.

This episode also tells us a great deal about the Conservative party. Councillor Nemeth referred in his article to ‘paying off the GMB’. It was not the GMB that received pay rises, it was ordinary workers on low pay.

In an earlier council meeting on the dispute, Councillor Joe Miller stated that you ‘can’t negotiate with terrorists’, seemingly not understanding that the actions of GMB members were entirely within the law.

As the proposed agreement was debated at a council meeting, Conservative councillors suggested that refuse collection should be put out to tender, effectively privatising the service.

In other words, in response to a moderate pay rise for low-paid frontline workers, the Conservatives threw insults and demanded more privatisation to help funnel public money to their friends in the private sector.

Councillor Nemeth seemed to be very angry that the Labour Party has a close relationship with GMB. He’s quite right: Labour are the party of ordinary workers and trade unions.

Cityclean bin lorry drivers on the picket line outside the Hollingdean depot – Picture from the GMB

What Councillor Nemeth didn’t acknowledge is that the Conservatives are the party of big money and big business.

What about the Green party? Councillors trumpeted the eventual agreement as a positive development for low-paid workers, but they were forced into that by industrial action.

Nothing prevented the council solving the dispute in advance of a strike, and indeed nothing was stopping them proactively finding ways to increase pay.

Low-paid workers across the city, for example care workers for private companies, might be wondering what they need to do to get a pay rise.

This episode gives two possible answers: join a trade union, and lobby your councillors to take public services into public ownership!

Jacob Taylor is a Brighton resident. 

  1. Jon Reply

    The GMB is affiliated with the Labour Party last was described last year in a report I think they commissioned and was reported by the BBC –

    The GMB Union has been called “institutionally sexist” after an independent report into sexual harassment within the organisation.
    The report’s author, Karon Monaghan QC, said “bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment are endemic”.

    The new leader of the GMB Gary Smith was elected with just over half of a 10% turn-out.

    Apparently it’s the City clean management who harass the GMB and you need to join this union

  2. Serena Evans Reply

    Without the core issues of why the bin strike happened being addressed, it could theoretically happan again next month! The extra money won’t sort the other issues out, if it didn’t start out being about money.
    We we the residents have already paid 5% extra council tax this year, so it is completely out of order to suggest penalising tax paying residents (or cutting council services) for any of this!

  3. Gary Charles Farmer Reply

    Yet again it’s party politics ahead of the needs of the residents and the city. As long as councillors are bound by incomprehensible loyalties and a system that stifles independent thought and common sense we are forever at the mercy of institutions who put national agendas, bought power and mindless loyalties above the good of the city. Vote independent and vote for someone who actually puts you first.

  4. Jason M Reply

    We just want a reliable service even if his means costing more and outsourcing to a private company. What is obvious is we have a poor, unreliable and expensive service which damages the economy of the City and makes residents lives a misery.

  5. fed-up with brighton politics Reply

    Interestingly, the GMB said in some article or another that the deal ‘ticked all the boxes and more’, so the offer was presumably more than they wanted (whatever that actually was).

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