A victory for common sense and fairness was heralded in Leeds this week. On the cusp of the bin strike’s twelfth week, refuse workers in Leeds have accepted a pay offer which protects their income and rules out privatisation.
The strike started back in early September, when refuse workers walked out after the Tory/Lib-Dem council inexcusably used equal pay legislation to cut the pay of bin men by £4,500 from an £18,000 salary – to bring their pay in to line with low paid women working for the city council. In reality, the council ‘leaders’ were hoping to privatise an essential public service, motivated by ideology rather than the best interests of the city or its workers.
Rubbish piled up for four weeks before the council would even begin negotiations with the GMB and Unison – if the council had been willing to talk and to listen, this dispute would have been resolved weeks ago. The council leadership’s attitude to the strike was demonstrated when Councillor Richard Brett described a £4,500 pay cut as “notional”. For bin men and their families a 30% cut is not notional and Brett’s comments show how out of touch this council is.
That it has taken twelve weeks to reach a settlement is appalling – and reflects the deafness of council leaders to calls from across the city to get a grip on the situation.
In Leeds we want a council that can stand up and support people in the recession and provide decent public services for tax-payers. And that includes those people living in poorer areas of the city – who were largely ignored by the contracted bin replacements in favour of easier-to-navigate affluent suburbs.
As the binmen return to work this week, we should reflect on the costs of the strike. The virtual failure to collect recycling waste at all will expose the council to additional costs for the use of landfill as residents stopped recycling. There is a risk that our recycling habit as a city will have been set back by the interruption. The council’s policy has cost them credibility and cost the taxpayer money.
The stance taken by Leeds City Council towards this strike should be heeded as a warning that a Tory or Tory/Lib-Dem government would seek to exploit such central pillars of legislation as equal pay for cost-cutting schemes and ideological zeal that affect the lowest paid. It also shows that there is no public appetite for such crude political ploys.
George Osborne said at the Tory Party conference that he wanted a pay freeze for the top public sector workers. But in Leeds, what we have seen from the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition is an attack on the lowest paid. Osborne’s ‘Age of Austerity’ in reality means austerity for low paid, public sector workers, not austerity for his friends in the City or the board room.
Whatever cost cutting measures the next government must make, a Labour administration would not allow low-paid workers to bear the brunt of balancing the budget. Equal pay means fair pay, not a race to the bottom.