Saturday, June 18, 2011

On rubbish strikes


If you are a resident of Southampton, you will know that the bin-men have been on strike for the last couple of weeks and that some of us could be without a collection for more than a month in total (in fact, for recycling, the gap between collections is likely to top six weeks).  So it’s like Naples, but less trendy because we can’t actually blame the Mafia.  And it’s not as hot.  And the food here isn’t as nice.

Anyway, it goes without saying that I have no sympathy with the Unions who are behind the strike action.  The official Southampton City Council position is detailed here and although I do have sympathy with those who are facing a pay cut - never ideal - we have to realise that we are in a recession (and remember that there are many who have lost their jobs completely).  However, the Unions have apparently refused to negotiate (no surprises there then), and the Labour Party are offering no constructive help or solutions.  Sadly, using the opportunity to play political games rather than working to find a positive outcome for all is what I have come to expect from Labour’s brand of ‘socialism’ but as I was sensible enough not to vote for them I guess I can’t really complain.  One day the world will wake up to the fact that we can’t all be like Union bosses and rake it in, and realise that being denied a pay-rise is not a legitimate excuse to throw a tantrum

I wish.  Mind you, I can’t help wondering how many of the workers are in agreement with the strikes, or even fully understand the reasons behind them.  We’ve seen a lot of Union action over the last year where the many and varied reasons given lead to a lack of authenticity; I fear that the main motivation has been the personal and political gain of the Union leaders, who are good at stirring trouble, rather than the genuine dissatisfaction of the workers themselves. This has only served to cement my lack of sympathy in this particular case – maybe it’s like the ‘boy who cried wolf.’

That said, after the encounter I had with the bin-man the other day, I’d still struggle to muster much sympathy in any case.  After the initial week of strikes, collections were temporarily resumed and the bin-man happened to see me forcing the black sacks in to the top of my bin.  He stopped and folded his arms, and stared at me.  So I stopped, folded my arms, and stared at him.

“You can’t complain at the amount of rubbish,” I said, “there was no collection last week.”

“We were on strike last week,” he said, as though a) I was ignorant enough not to know and b) I would see this as a valid excuse.  Maybe he had even expected each household to reduce the amount of rubbish as well.

Thankfully, because I had just about got all of the sacks in the bin he did take them all. For which I was duly grateful.  Then whilst I was thanking him, a neighbour came running down the street to complain that not all of his rubbish had been taken.  It turns out that if the rubbish is in the bin, it will get taken, but that if it is in bags by the side then the bin men are “obliged to leave it.”

Now, it is only fair that any rubbish outside the bin is taken at the discretion of the bin-men (otherwise who knows what some idiots will try and dump).  But making excuses and “being obliged to leave it” in this case?  We’re talking about a couple of black sacks, at a time of disruption.  Surely the health and safety implications of leaving them festering for another month in the street are worse than anything the Unions could whinge about? 

My point is that this wasn’t exactly an example of being “hard working” as politicians like to champion.  Neither was it an example of thinking of others, or of putting effort in to a job.  To my mind, it was lazy.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of supporting “hard working individuals” but being “hard working” isn’t a title one enjoys by rights.  If I had failed to live up to expectations in my previous job, a ‘pay review’ might have ensued – and I wouldn’t have gone on strike.   Maybe I shouldn’t judge all bin-men on the basis of this encounter, but I do nonetheless wonder what makes them any different from the rest of us.







Anonymous said...

It is very easy for you to sit on your sofa sipping a nice Chardonnay and pontificate about the recession and how the good little workers at the council should doff their caps and accept their lot.

I put it to you that you are not trying to bring up a young family on low wages with household budgets on a knife edge. The loss of 5% of household income coupled hikes in pension costs, utility bills, petrol, VAT and national insurance will literally drive some of these families into destitution. Is that right proper and fair for people providing necessary vital *public* service ?

Anonymous said...

"The loss of 5% of household income coupled hikes in pension costs, utility bills, petrol, VAT and national insurance will literally drive some of these families into destitution" - EVERYONE in this country has to deal with all of the above, with pay freezes and redundancies. Why should bin men be exempt?

"Is that right proper and fair for people providing necessary vital *public* service?" - if the service is vital, surely that's just selfish to go on strike (ie: only thinking of yourself and not the thousands of people you are inconveniencing?).

The strikers in Southampton are selfish, power hungry whingers. Stop being so lazy and get back to work!

JP... said...

I'm enjoying the comments and the chance for discussion - thanks.

In response to the first comment, it's nice of you to stereotype me there. For the record, I'm more of a Merlot man :p

Anyway, I will throw it back to you and ask if you think it is right for Bob Crow, Dave Prentis and other Union bosses to take home a six figure sum. I also refer you to the point about a 'boy who cried wolf.' I have seen enough Union action in recent months to realise that there is a lot of lies, a lot of trouble-making and a lot of playing politics. Maybe the plight of the bin-men is different, but I've already reached the point of being cynical.

I'd also like to ask you how you think those who have been made redundant are expected to cope with such price rises. I do, obviously, feel for them and their families, and am glad that the axe hasn't been wielded near me. But when we are in an unsustainable situation we face tough choices and I'd take a pay cut over redundancy any day.

It's also worth noting that a) some of the workers are actually getting a pay rise and b) other council workers have been happy to take the hit. I may not have a family to support at the moment, but equally I don't get paid as much as some of the people we are talking about. However, I have learned to live with the fact that I can't afford everything I want, and I have to make choices with my money. For example, I choose to spend more on food and a holiday but I choose not to have an iPhone or Sky TV. Yes there are people for whom life is very tough at the moment, and I am sympathetic towards that. However, I also believe that a lot of people don't actually know what true poverty really is.

The second commenter makes a good point about being selfish...

Anonymous said...

Ah the old attempt to divide and conquer the working class on grounds of pay. This is of a nonsense it makes no more sense to claim well paid union bosses cannot advocate for those on low wages than it would to criticise the aspirational poor for lauding capitalism's ability to raise people out of poverty. It is a cheap divisive argument that seeks to stifle debate.

There is nothing particularly special about refuse collectors beyond their dedication to full time public service. I could make similar points for minimum wage care workers in our nursing homes. The basic point is the same, classes of vulnerable workers doing tasks vital for society on marginal wages. We have a responsibility to pay them a living wage and allow them to support their families and themselves in their old age.

I expect the counter argument will be based on inevitability of the need for deficit reduction. Two points to close with therefore on the broader political argument. First as a nation we have a choice to make between reducing the deficit by shrinking our spending and our overall GDP managing a more or less graceful decline of our great nation ceding influence and power to the nations of the east. The alternative is to invest and grow our economy and repay the deficit and debt through taxes paid on enhanced economic activity. This of course difficult as a small nation requiring identification of appropriate niches in the new technologies and marketplaces with skilled workers to match.

The second point is one on how to make cuts if cuts must be made. Again it is a political choice to salami slice wages as the local Tories have chosen to do. This is lazy politics in my mind. I would prefer them to evaluate what services are vital and which nice to have. We can all identify and distinguish services we could do without I think. These should be cut and resources allocated to pay those such as bin men fairly and properly.

JP... said...

I'm not attempting to divide and conquer anything, and I stick by my point. Namely that anyone who believes that a lot of the Union action is purely "for the interests of the workers" is probably sadly mistaken.

I think that it is important that people know that the Union leaders 'earn' so much. They may play it down, but it is then nonetheless completely hypocritical of them when they stab at the earnings of those in the private sector. Bob Crow may be a Communist but I don't see much evidence of him practicing what he preaches. If ever there was a good example of some animals being more equal than others then he is it.

When it comes to the bin-men, how patronising of you to refer to them as "vulnerable." I am probably in the same wage bracket - does this make me vulnerable?

On the strength of the encounter I had the other day (which may or may not be representative, admittedly) I'm afraid I saw no "dedication to public service." This begrudging attitude which is so prevalent in many public-facing roles is not an example of being "hard working" or "dedicated." The word I would use is "jobsworth."

I'm interested in the comment that "we can all identify and distinguish services we can do without" - the obvious question is what would you cut?

As it happens, there are some good environmental arguments as well as economic ones for cutting down on refuse collections. Landfill is at a premium and we need to be encouraged to become a less 'disposable' society for all sorts of reasons. Retailers are already beginning to wise-up to the fact that minimising packaging is a good idea - and along with a continued promotion of recycling the end result should eventually be a reduced need for weekly bin collections. I know that if you are a bin-man then that's not ideal, but we all have to learn to embrace change.

Anonymous said...

"The basic point is the same, classes of vulnerable workers doing tasks vital for society on marginal wages. We have a responsibility to pay them a living wage and allow them to support their families and themselves in their old age. " - they do get paid a living wage.... just like everyone else!

"The alternative is to invest and grow our economy and repay the deficit and debt through taxes paid on enhanced economic activity" - Socialists need to learn that throwing money at things is not the answer. Your strategy is exactly what Labour did between 1997 and 2010 (spend, spend and spend). The result? An enormous deficit.

Anonymous said...

You could make the green argument for less refuse collections. This would result in needing less refuse collectors, it still doesn't justify cutting their pay.

Since you ask I would do a number of things to balance the budget

- cancel the 10% tax reduction given to all pensioners regardless of income or savings
- I would consider raising additional revenue by increasing council tax on large expensive dwellings.
- I would subsidies to the leisure and arts budgets. In harsh times these worthwhile services perhaps cannot be justified if the result is cuts to education and social care.
- I would look to the potential for additional revenue from means tested services based on ability to pay.
- As a last resort I would look at the headcount of council employees reducing numbers inline with the budget. In the final analysis council isn't a job creation scheme but exists as a contractor funded by electorate to deliver services agreed as necessary by means of a mandate granted at local elections based on a manefesto. If the electorate isn't prepared to offer more funds then service provided must be adjusted to match.

Anonymous said...

The workers are vulnerable in that most of them earn less than 20k which makes their discretionary spending very low. Thus the impact of unplanned loss of income is much bigger than say mine when I earn 50k or so.

JP... said...

With such a high level of anonymity going on, it's difficult to know how to target my responses.

I'll start by saying that I couldn't agree more with whoever noted that "Socialists need to learn that throwing money at things is not the answer. Your strategy is exactly what Labour did between 1997 and 2010 (spend, spend and spend). The result? An enormous deficit."

When it comes to the alternative suggestions for balancing the budget, I have to say that I thought some of them highlight some inconsistencies.

Why, for example, is it unjustifiable to cut someone's pay, but apparently OK to make them redundant? On the assumption that you support the strike-action taken by the bin-men I am particularly concerned by the fact that you would find it acceptable to cut jobs elsewhere in the council. You may be right that some jobs are unnecessary and could (or even should) be cut, but it seems strange to bleat on about "vulnerable" bin-men and then deprive someone else of their job. Why is the job of a bin-man so sacred?

Whilst we're talking about "vulnerable" people, there has been a lot of press in recent years about vulnerable pensioners who cannot afford to heat their homes. But yet you seem perfectly happy to tighten their purse strings even more. Such people arguably justify financial support far more than a young lad emptying bins does - so again, why are the bin-men so special?

Finally, although I don't disagree that there are cases where it is fair to make those who can afford it pay more, your points about increased tax on large dwellings and means testing based on ability to pay concern me. Why, if I spend my money on a house rather than SkyTV, cigarettes or an iPhone should I be fleeced more than you? Why, if I didn't squander my money (and contribute to the recession by borrowing beyond my means) should my resulting "ability to pay" count against me?

Although I think that some of the ideals of socialism are fair, socialists often look jealously at those with more money than them (even if that is simply because they have been more prudent). Sometimes we have to take responsibility for ourselves rather than assume that someone richer than us can pay for the mess.

Anonymous said...

I am self employed, have no pension no sick pay and can't go on strike cos I won't get paid, you guys have very little public opinion on your side and the unions are setting you up for a big fall!

I live in a block of flats in the middle of Southampton and I took a morning of work today unpaid to sort our bin store out because you will not take the bags that have been building up for 4 weeks cos your on strike!

You will never win because your overpaid in the first place