Diary of an engineer: Bin strike - “Someone must be bullshitting”

Submitted by AWL on 9 November, 2021 - 6:51
Engineering plant

The ERF [Energy Recovery Facility] where we work is fuelled and funded by bin waste. In a series of morning meetings, we’ve heard that the city’s refuse collection workers are taking strike action over pay and conditions. The first strike day [scheduled for 1 November] was called off after the company made a pay offer, but the GMB drivers’ branch rejected it. The following week, workers and managers at the ERF began discussing the effect on the plant.

Management estimate (or at least tell us that they estimate) a small reduction in waste. Other waste streams will be tipped at the plant as normal, including commercial collections from supermarkets and fast food chains. One of the Operations Assistants asks if he’ll need to work overtime on the weekend to process extra waste deliveries, and he is reassured that he won’t be needed. At the moment, the strike is only for half a day, meaning the workers will complete their collections later in the day, but ultimately the waste will get to the plant.

In addition to this, the ERF boiler has a leak, and management set the date to go offline at the same time as the strike. This minimises the chance that any shortage of waste will affect plant running times, and also allows us to get essential maintenance work done. You would think considering the minimal impact on plant workers that the strike would have broad support, but those who express opinions are dismissive and cynical, describing the drivers as reckless and stupid. Positive coverage from the local newspaper, “solidarity with the bin workers!”, gets some groans from my colleagues — “What do they know about what goes on here?” “I nearly drove over them on my way in this morning!”

After speaking to workers on the picket lines, and pooling information from the plant, I find that the company seem to have about as many agency refuse collection workers as they do inhouse. One driver tells me that his dad is agency, and being forced to work at the weekend to undermine his son’s strike action on the Monday. They’re angry about terms and conditions, but most tell me that they get on well with the plant operatives, and know the names of the workers who help them unload wagons and weigh their loads. However, these are the same plant operatives I’ve heard moaning about “stupid drivers” behind their backs. Someone must be bullshitting.

The picket lines on Monday [8 November] are enormous: 60-70 workers nearly blocking the road at 6.30 a.m. All the men (they are all men) wear high-vis and PPE, and the union reps and regional officials have staked banners and placards to the site entrance. The branch secretary stands on a box with a megaphone, and asks the crowd if they are prepared to escalate:

“Are we agreed to continue the strike action, from today, continuous action, until management concede?”

Workers from the crowd comment and respond, then he calls for a show of hands. Everyone on the picket votes in favour, no one visibly abstains. It’s very old school.

Talking to the drivers’ rep, I learn he’s an experienced organiser who’s been with the company a long time, and knew the old plant Unite and GMB reps before they retired. He tells me there are GMB members at the ERF who want to recruit, and names a few people I would never have suspected were quietly organising. I run this by one of the young operators, and he tells me that yes, pretty much everyone is ready to leave Prospect and join GMB, they just want the union to persuade them it’s in their interests. I suspect they want some attention from the branch, and are convinced only drivers will have any clout in the union. However GMB is recognised by the company, and is active, whereas Prospect is next to useless. “Get us in a meeting, and I reckon everyone will sign up.” I ask him if he’d be prepared to stand for ERF rep; he says he would.

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