Brighton Refuse Workers Are Striking Against Massive £4,000 A Head Pay Cuts!

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OVER 200 striking refuse workers, who have already endured three years of pay freezes, defiantly marched with their supporters through Brighton and Hove on Saturday against vicious council plans to impose massive £4,000-a-head wage cuts.

The march came the day after GMB members employed at Cityclean by Brighton and Hove City Council began a full week’s strike action last Friday.

The dispute began on 24th January when, at a meeting of the council’s Policy and Resources Committee, Green Party leader Jason Kitcat gave full authority to its £150,000 a year Chief Executive, Penny Thompson, to negotiate and implement a ‘modernised pay and conditions package’. This led to a ‘final offer’ being made on 29 April, which included cuts of up to £4,000 (£95 a week) a head for some of the council’s lowest paid employees.

In response, the refuse workers on May 8th began a two-day wildcat strike and occupation of their depot in Upper Hollingdean Road.

GMB members employed in refuse, recycling and street sweeping, rejected the ‘offer’ and voted 95.6% in favour of strike action.

Saturday’s march was to be headed by Paul Kenny, but the GMB leader was unable to come because of illness. Undeterred, the strikers marched forward with senior GMB Cityclean depot shop steward Rab McKenna taking the lead at the front.

Before setting off, McKenna told News Line: ‘The pay cuts that the council are trying to impose will have a disastrous effect on our members’ lives. These are the lowest paid staff on the council as it is, and to cut their pay further is something we cannot accept. Going on strike is the last thing we wanted. We’ve tried to negotiate with the council but they just won’t listen.

‘We are very determined and this is just the first strike action, and we’ll take more to protect our members. My position is we tell our trade union leaders what we want – they don’t tell us. Clearly, with all the other cuts that we are seeing, a general strike is what this country needs.

‘For far too long, the government have been taking from workers because of the banking crisis which we never created, so we shouldn’t have to pay for it. I’ve got four kids and I dread to think about what kind of future they’ll have under this system. We must get rid of capitalism and go forward to a workers government and socialism.’

Depot shop steward Neil Harding said: ‘The depth of feeling is shown by our ballot – we had an 86% turn-out of about 230 GMB members who voted over 95% to strike. Of course we lose a week’s money by striking, but if we didn’t then we would be losing a week’s money every month!

‘We have husbands and wives working here, so they would lose double. The support we’ve received from the public has been tremendous.

‘One woman donated a day’s pay, saying if we can lose a week’s money then she can afford to lose one day’s. That’s fantastic and inspiring. At the end of the day, Cameron is sucking us dry. They have been doing this to workers for centuries. People are being ground down and it’s definitely time to get rid of the coalition.’

Runa Pradey, who has been a dustman for nine years, said: ‘It’s ridiculous to take a pay cut like this.

‘I’ve still got 30 years of working life left and I want to spend it here. I love this job. I want to keep working here for the rest of my working life with decent pay and conditions, so I’m prepared to fight for this. Not one penny less will we accept, and we’ll fight until we win.’

Striker Karol Lichwa, who brought his two sons, six-year-old Phillip and 13-year-old Sebastan, to the march, told News Line: ‘It is not just about the pay, it’s all the cuts. I worked hard in Poland but there was no chance to support my family, so I came here to give them a better life. This country has given me more in eight years than Poland gave me my whole life. But now there are less jobs with less money. They are taking more and more from us and I can’t see it ending or getting better.

‘Like others at the depot, this pay cut means I will be getting £400 less, meaning I won’t be able to bring up my two kids. I am not prepared to accept this. They think they can do whatever they want but we are strong. Everyone has had enough of the cuts. We should stop them with a general strike. We just need a leadership because people will have no choice but to take to the streets. What we are seeing in Turkey and Greece, it is revolution for sure.’

Saturday’s march was headed by brass band Chicago Classique. Before it set off, George Brown, a member of the Musicians Union, told News Line: ‘We recently played on a march in Wandsworth against cuts to meals-on-wheels. The money is going to the wrong places and the wrong people.

‘It’s all about protecting these bankers and their bubble. They can’t be expected to be rewarded for the mess they’ve put us in. They should be made to give back the taxpayers’ money that was handed to them, seeing as we’re being told the country’s in a mess.

‘As for the trade union leadership, if you’re employed to do a job and you’re not prepared to do the job of defending your members, then you should clear off and let someone take over who does want to lead a fight.’

As strikers prepared to march, the GMB minibus blasted out the Strawbs ‘You Won’t Get Me I’m Part of the Union’, Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up (for your rights)’ and The Jam’s ‘Eton Rifles’.

The march won fantastic support from hooting motorists and clapping bystanders as it made its way from the depot and through the streets of the city. In a clear, defiant message to Brighton council’s chief executive Penny Thompson and leader Jason Kitcat, marchers shouted: ‘Penny, Penny, Penny — not a penny less!’ and ‘What do we want — Kitcat out!’

Local trade union banners on the march included UCU, Unison, NUJ, Brighton and Hove District Trades Council, NUT, as well as flag-carrying members from RMT, Unite and PCS and other GMB members, including from the Royal Sussex County Hospital.

Cityclean collection driver Martin Jeffries said: ‘This is like Detroit; basically, Thompson is imposing the pay cut without negotiating with our union. This is a world crisis and the working man is being downtrodden. We’ve got the real prospect of getting our pay cut so we don’t have any other option but to fight.’

Kevin Dale, PCS site rep at Brighton Jobcentre, said: ‘We are here in solidarity with these GMB members who supported our strikes over cuts to our pay and pensions. We’ve had a pay freeze and cuts for over five years, meaning we are earning 17% less in real terms. In the last three months we have been striking against the austerity cuts and we now need all the unions to link up to fight them.’

PCS Jobcentre colleague Serena Cheung was on the march with her nine and 11-year-old daughters Jasmine and Olivia. She told News Line: ‘When Cityclean workers first began their wildcat strike action and occupied their canteen, we brought all our members out in solidarity. When the GMB strikers heard this they immediately came down and joined us.

‘At the Jobcentre, the union rep’s facility time has been slashed. They are cutting down on trade union activity. We must stand up for our members. The Cityclean workers are some of the lowest paid and, yet, the Greens have announced an underspend and their answer is to cut the wages of their workers even further.’

Cheung was scathing over the news that former TUC leader Brendan Barber had received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours the day before

‘What has he been awarded that for – not calling a general strike!’ she noted. ‘People can’t wait any longer for the TUC to call a general strike. If necessary, we should go above their heads to get one.

‘It’s now a question of getting rid of capitalism and going forward to a workers government.’

Brighton and Hove RMT branch secretary Garry Hassell said: ‘We are completely in solidarity with the refuse cleaners. This is a scandalous attack on low-paid workers. The council should negotiate and meet these workers’ aspirations.’

Slamming Barber’s knighthood, Hassell said: ‘The TUC aren’t doing their job, and as for this knighthood for Barber – not in my name! It’s now necessary for (TUC General Council member and GMB leader Paul) Kenny and others to put pressure on the TUC to call a general strike. Otherwise it’s another year of heartache and downgrading people’s aspirations.

‘The RMT have consistently called for a general strike. My personal position is it should be indefinite and not 24 hours. We need a massive nationalisation programme under workers’ control – the whole lot, everything.’

Ron Gordon, Brighton and Hove NUT assistant branch secretary, said: ‘I’m particularly disappointed with this cut to the refuse workers’ pay. It is from a council controlled by a Green Party which got in on a ticket of resisting government cuts. We certainly didn’t expect them to be justifying pay cuts to the unions. This is a good turn-out for the strikers, and there’s great support from the public.’

Adam Powley, chair of Brighton and Sussex NUJ branch, said: We are here in support of fellow trade unionists in a justified fight against changing their pay, and terms and conditions.’

Brighton GMB member Don McLean said: I’m here to show my solidarity with fellow union members and to support them against draconian pay cuts. It’s time for a general strike to clean this government out and go forward to a workers government.’

At a rally on the green outside Kings House, Hove, Brian Strutton, GMB national secretary for public services, brought greetings from the national leadership and general secretary Paul Kenny. He saluted the strikers and the march, and said the pay cut was being imposed by an ‘unholy alliance of the Green Party and the Coalition’. He announced the GMB is pledging £100,000 to the Cityclean workers campaign.

Refuse collector and GMB rep Dave Russell said to loud cheers: ‘I’m standing here proud to be a member of the GMB. Most of all I’m proud to stand with my colleagues who have shown the guts to stand up and say: “No more!” We are standing firm and we’ll do whatever it takes to win this fight.’

Pip Tindall from Brighton Benefits Campaign said: ‘We support workers in struggle and today most people on benefits are working and it will get worse. The enemy is profit, not working people.’

Brighton University UCU rep Tom Hickey said: ‘If Brighton Council get away with 20% cuts to pay then all the other authorities will follow.

Unite official and shop steward Steve Guy from SE 397 Gatwick branch said: ‘We need to look at our own strength. Let’s get a general strike and get rid of this rotten government.’

Chair of Brighton and Hove Unison, Andy Richards, pledged money from his branch to the strike and added: ‘There must be no divisions in the trade union movement. Forward to victory.’

Beth brought greetings from students at Sussex University, and said the pop-up union on campus is balloting for strike action this week against the privatisation of support services. Phil Clarke, general secretary of Brighton Hove and District Trades Union Council also pledged support to the strike.

Well over 1,500 people have already signed GMB’s petition against the cuts, says the union.

Brighton & Hove City Council’s refuse collection service received an 89% satisfaction rating, in a 2012 survey of the public conducted by the Council.