Mark Whitehead 15 February 2019

Birmingham's winter of discontent

We may live in the age of the internet, contactless payment and the gig economy, but in a little bit of England the 1970s lives on.

In its own miniature winter of discontent, Birmingham is about to see the rubbish piling high in the streets again as its bin men walk out on strike.

In the latest twist, the Unite union has lost its high court bid to stop Birmingham City Council sending out 'mop up crews' to deal with the effects of the current work to rule without, as they see it, a full complement of staff.

The union had argued that the crews should be sent out with a person bearing the job title 'Grade 3 Leading Hands' to stand at the back of the refuse trucks and make sure everything is done properly.

But the council argues the role disappeared under the agreement that ended a previous three-month strike in late 2017.

The judge concluded that granting the injunction would put public health and safety at risk and 'at least to some degree, even if only temporarily, make a bad situation worse'.

So the court case failed to produce a solution and a series of one-day strikes are set to go ahead, with Unison, another union involved in the dispute, also planning to join the action.

However, the question of the extra pair of hands is only one issue involved in the current battle which has been fought out in the streets and, in vain it would seem, at the Acas conciliation service.

Unite is also furious over extra payments made to members of its rival union, the GMB, who did not take part in the last strike. The council says this was to compensate them because they were not consulted over the settlement.

The union claimed restructuring plans threatened the jobs of more than 120 staff, while the council said it was failing to meet national productivity standards and had to modernise the service to save £5m a year.

The council and GMB said the payment was a settlement because GMB was not consulted during the talks that ended the action. The union argues it was a reward for not striking which in effect 'blacklists' those who did take part.

It is difficult to identify the rights and wrongs in this labyrinth of argument and counter-argument.

It certainly looks as though the council, under intense pressure from central government and facing dwindling budgets, is desperately trying to save money. It has a duty to the community to spend their council tax wisely and clearly decided some time ago that the refuse collection services was costing too much.

But it means the council's refuse collectors are among those bearing the brunt in terms of their workforce numbers, in an echo of the various rail disputes over guards on trains. For their part, they can be forgiven for believing their work will be made more onerous and that they are fighting, the way they see it, to protect jobs. Some may see the council's actions as an attack on their collective industrial strength.

In the court ruling this week the union can enjoy one small ray of sunshine. The judge, while rejecting their case for an immediate interim injunction against the council, held out hope that, in this particular legal battle, they may not have lost altogether. When it comes to full trial, Judge Jason Coppel said, Unite was 'likely to have the better of the arguments'.

It bears all the hallmarks of a classic industrial dispute involving two opposing forces, neither of which will budge and which could descend into a Dickensian legal battle or an industrial battle of wills on either side. Or both.

As they head towards a potentially disastrous situation for the people of Birmingham, common sense would suggest that both sides must take stock and ask how their public will react if the rubbish starts piling up again. And, crucially, who will get the blame – the council or the unions.

Hopefully that thought could force them to put heads together and come up with a solution acceptable to all. The council's reputation as an employer capable of providing an effective refuse collection service – probably the most important of its functions in the public mind – is at stake.

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