A report into the “toxic” culture at Cityclean published this week reveals how the city’s politics – and some councillors – played a part in allowing it to continue.
As well as evidence of a litany of abusive and threatening behaviour, largely by GMB reps and a group of “10 white men” they protected, the report says managers were powerless to tackle it because of a lack of political support.
It says panels of councillors reinstated members of the GMB union sacked for gross incompetence on more than one occasion.
During one high profile row in the summer of 2019, a committee chaired by a Labour councillor who was also a GMB member reinstated a rep who had been suspended by management.
The report, written by Aileen McColgan KC, said: “The Council and Policy and Resources Committee prevented the suspension of the GMB rep and permitted his return to the depot in the face of threatened industrial action over the Pride weekend.
“By contrast, a manager who had been involved in disciplinary investigations into the GMB rep left the council with a settlement agreement because, I was told, GMB reps within the council had made it clear that industrial action would ensue if he was returned to Cityclean.
“The message this sent out was that managers at Cityclean were powerless to impose disciplinary sanctions on GMB reps within the council or individuals perceived to be particularly protected by them.”
Among the recommendations of the report is the abolition of member appeals panels – a recommendation made previously in 2017 and 2019 but not acted on to date.
The report said: “Concerns were raised with me about the propriety of allowing panels whose members may have received (and declared) GMB funding, to ‘completely, unashamedly just reverse officer decisions’ relating to GMB reps and/or individuals described to me as being particularly protected by the GMB reps within the council.
“Another witness told me that having politicians sitting on the panels for collective disputes and dismissal cases ‘further enhances the GMB power to subvert normal council processes’.”
It added: The report said: “One manager told me that, in many ways, Cityclean was similar to many other waste and refuse and recycling services in that there was a typical predominantly male manual work force in which issues such as sexism, homophobia and racism were prevalent.
“The real differences in Brighton and Hove were what happened when management tried to deal with those problems. I have found no reason to disagree with this analysis.”
The report says the city’s high rates of shared houses – and therefore bins – access issues and high levels of tourism meant missed collections quickly led to huge piles of waste.
This, coupled with a long succession of no overall control councils, meant minority administrations were particularly vulnerable to the threat of strike action.
Ms McColgan’s report was commissioned by current council leader Bella Sankey shortly after Labour won the first overall majority in the city since 2003.
Some Labour councillors publicly tried to take on GMB – most notably Warren Morgan, who was council leader from 2015 to 2018.
When he resigned in 2018, he told the Argus GMB rep Mark Turner was one of the most influential Labour figures urging him to resign, saying he was “more influential than LCF members [Labour campaign forum, the local group which then selected candidates]”.
Brighton and Hove News has been told that during this time, when Labour councillors complained to GMB Southern Region about reps’ behaviour, the complaints were simply passed back to the reps who had been complained about.
Cllr Morgan, who declined to comment, was succeeded by Daniel Yates, who was council leader from March 2018 to May 2019.
Cllr Yates said: “I’m shocked and appalled by the findings of the report and welcome the proposals for change.
“I especially welcome the proposed removal of councillors from the disciplinary appeals process completely which I always thought a strange arrangement and always avoided being part of.
“Colleagues deserve better, the city deserves better and I hope this report marks a watershed moment.”
Nancy Platts, who was Labour council leader during the period from 2019 to 2020 when a rep was reinstated by councillors because of the threat of strike action, did not respond to a request for commment.
A GMB spokesperson said: “The type of language and behaviours alleged in the report are entirely unacceptable and employees and the people of Brighton and Hove need to have confidence that these have been investigated thoroughly and correctly.
“However, GMB is very concerned that this report fails the basic test of fairness. It has been compiled and published without contributions from people who are the subject of allegations, raising serious questions regarding its balance.
“There are also a number of areas where sweeping allegations are made on the basis of anonymous, unsupported statements that cannot be fairly assessed.
“The limitations of the report does not help with the vital task of ensuring there is a healthy and safe working environment at the City Clean depot.
“GMB is clear – when incidents are identified and properly assessed as not meeting expected standards, we take firm action. Our commitment to facing down discrimination and bad behaviour is unwavering.”