Binmen on strike in Birmingham

More council cuts = more rats! Birmingham’s refuse workers are mounting strong resistance to the latest austerity plans of the city’s Labour-led council.

Proletarian writers

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Bin workers on strike in Birmingham. CPGB-ML banner reads: 'More council cuts = more rats'.

Proletarian writers

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Birmingham city council was once the single biggest local authority in Europe, but a workforce of 20,000 has been slashed by half and the plans being implemented by Labour councillors this year seek to reduce this number to 7,000 by 2018.

The council naturally blames it all on the Tories. Whilst the binmen are to lose £4-6,000 a year and see 122 jobs axed, however, the council’s chief executive collects a cool £180,000 a year, and is supported by bin chief Jacqui Kennedy, ‘earning’ somewhere between £97,000-£120,000. All this carries on under the auspices of a Labour council, where Labour Member for Kings Heath & Moseley Lisa Trickett takes £40,000 a year in ‘expenses’.

Birmingham council, like many others, is in a deep economic crisis, the result of both cuts from central government and its own mismanagement, which in Birmingham on the refuse collections alone has cost £11.9m in the past year. The chief executive and council leaders are seeking to heap the burden of this crisis onto the backs of workers whilst plundering services provided for Birmingham’s rate payers.

Labour cuts

The Birmingham bin strike is the first real and meaningful action of any significant size to challenge the local authority’s spending cuts, and, whilst the binmen are motivated by the immediate challenge presented to them by redundancies, the political significance of their action is serious and far-reaching.

Strike action started on 30 June as the council sought to impose a number of detrimental changes to refuse workers’ conditions, the most significant of which are the ‘deletion’ of 122 senior roles, an increase in workload of 1,300 bins per crew every week, and the extension of the working week from four long (and extremely arduous) shifts with one rest day to five full days, all starting at 6.00am.

Labour councillor for streets Lisa Trickett and the full-time council bureaucrat Jaqui Kennedy insist these moves are aimed at ‘modernising’ the service and removing the 122 grade 3 ‘supervisor’ roles, and they insist that nobody is being made redundant because they will offer binmen the chance to apply for entirely different jobs elsewhere in the council – such as gravedigging, etc.

But these Labour cretins are fooling nobody; it hasn’t been lost on the workers that a promise of a job isn’t a job, while the deletion of a job role is most certainly redundancy. The playing with words and twisting of facts by Trickett and co is about as simplistic as Popeye’s mate Wimpy when he declared: “I will gladly pay you tomorrow for a hamburger today!”

Proposed changes

The grade 3 jobs being slashed are proposed to be replaced by grade 2 binman jobs, which essentially means workers will be expected to do the same job for £6,000 a year less. The propaganda against the binmen emanating from the council has focused on the accusation that there are two ‘supervisors’ to every one operator, which naturally sounds ridiculous.

What the council fails to report, however, is that five-man bin wagons were reduced to three-man wagons after the council introduced wheelie bins. At that time the council appointed one driver/supervisor, who is responsible for the round. Of the two further operatives, one is a grade 3 supervisor, responsible for operations at the rear of the vehicle – including ensuring the safety of the vehicle and preventing children and pedestrians from walking behind during reversing operations.

In reality, this job is an operator/banksman role – a job that should it be called a banksman would require the council to train their operatives in a nationally recognised banksman qualification. Either way, both the driver and banksman work for a living; the idea that there are two supervisors sat about watching one man do all the work is a complete nonsense.

Strike breaking

Having been confronted with a militant and united workforce, the Labour council has not hesitated to use scab labour to undermine the industrial action. In a flagrant disregard for bourgeois law, the council has appointed agency workers to complete the work of men on strike during the dispute, a misdemeanour which could cost the tax payer £200,000.

Under the Employment Agencies & Employment Business Regulations 2003: “an employment business shall not introduce or supply a work-seeker to a hirer to perform –

“(a) the duties normally performed by a worker who is taking part in a strike or other industrial action (‘the first worker’), or

“(b) the duties normally performed by any other worker employed by the hirer and who is assigned by the hirer to perform the duties normally performed by the first worker, unless in either case the employment business does not know, and has no reasonable grounds for knowing, that the first worker is taking part in a strike or other industrial action.”

In mid-July, agency labour were caught being secretly brought into the depot in Montague Street, where managers were giving some very basic health and safety training in the use of the vehicle. It was the council’s intention to send these poorly-trained workers out onto the streets having been given a derisory half-day induction.

The Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has the power to fine the agency a £25,000 lump sum plus £5,000 per scab worker, and to slap a hefty £200,000 fine on the council.

We must demand the council stops breaking employment law and respects the right of its employees to withdraw their labour – they are not slaves.

The communist view

The CPGB-ML extends its full support to the binmen. In opposing a Labour-led council they are incurring the wrath of the council and the silence of the labour movement. Of all the ‘left’ organisations, only the Socialist Party has been on picket lines consistently with the CPGB-ML. There has been no sign of any of the other Trotskyite or revisionist organisations that are presently to be seen fawning over Labour.

Tragically for the well-intentioned Socialist Party comrades, they have so far failed to draw any coherent lessons from the dispute, writing in their Bulletin No 3: “Why is Birmingham Labour continuing to cut services? The answer to this lies in the Socialist Party’s description of Labour as ‘two parties in one’.”

The answer certainly doesn’t lie in that analysis! The obvious question to such a formulation would be why two parties so diametrically hostile to one another would coexist? From Nero and Poppaea to Andrew Ridgley and George Michael, history teaches that a split must come about when real and definite differences exist.

There can only be two possible conclusions: firstly, that the contradiction is one that is presently in development and that Labour will soon burst apart with the formation of two parties. This we might hope for but can certainly not rely upon. We have seen from more than 100 years of the Labour party’s history that the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ have coexisted in practice pretty well.

The alternative conclusion is that the contradiction between the two wings is not a principled or fundamental one. The ‘radical’ wing represented by Labour’s present leader Jeremy Corbyn and the various Troto-revisionist groups supporting him (not to mention Momentum) are, in the final analysis, on the same page as that section which pursues a ruthless neoliberal agenda: neither proposes or envisages a fundamental break with capitalism.

At the end of the day, Labour’s radical and conservative wings are two sides of the same coin. When it comes down to it, as we are seeing in Birmingham, most prominent members of the Labour party are rabidly hostile to working-class interests. Since Corbyn and company have shown they will do anything, and swallow any humiliation, to avoid splitting the Labour party (as would most likely happen were it to deselect and eliminate the anti-working-class elements inside the party, who control its bureaucracy and more or less monopolise elected office), they can have no real hope or intention of ending the cuts, let alone of taking on capitalism itself.

For our part, we are telling the workers the simple truth: that, as Lenin long ago explained, the Labour party is a bourgeois party – that is, it serves the interests of the bourgeois, capitalist, class. Workers’ own experience of Labour local government (Corbyn’s leadership of the party notwithstanding), of the behaviour of Labour councillors, and of the actual record of Labour in government bears this out in practice and clearly illustrates that those who hope that the Corbyn era is about to bring about a new socialist dawn remain as distant from reality as ever.

The truth we must accept if we are to successfully liberate ourselves from capitalist rule is that there will be no socialism without a thoroughgoing socialist revolution, and no revolution without a disciplined working-class organisation guided by Marxist science.