As the world’s elite flew into Glasgow in a cavalry of private jets last Friday for Cop26, refuse workers in the city began a strike action to call for better pay, working conditions and infrastructure, shining a light on the vital role they play in the fight to protect our environment.
Street cleaners, bin men and women and lorry drivers – most of whom are represented by the union GMB – came together to demand a wage increase of £2,000, enough to reflect their value as essential workers. Their other demands include resolving staff shortages by adding a new lorry and crew to each depot, improving infrastructure and introducing electric vehicles.
The action, which ended on Thursday, followed 14 months of negotiations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), an umbrella body that represents each of Scotland’s local authorities. The workers wanted an annual pay increase of £2,000, but Cosla refused to go any higher than £850. In an effort to stop the strike, Cosla countered with an “improved offer” of around £1,062, according to Barry McAreavey, a bin lorry driver and GMB union rep in Shieldhall. Backdating and accounting tricks, however, meant the offer actually remained at £850 a year.
Despite the strike having come to an end, the dispute is still ongoing, with workers set to ballot for a fresh mandate and “possibly city-wide strike action”, says Sean Baillie, a GMB Scotland organiser.
While this is an important industrial struggle in its own right, what’s happening in Glasgow has wider implications. Indeed, the timing of the action serves to emphasise the importance of refuse workers in the fight for climate justice, given they deal with one of the biggest polluters on our planet: litter.
“The fight for a better climate is definitely something that should go hand in hand with a well-funded cleansing service,” says McAreavey.
‘We didn’t have face masks, but we got it done.’
Industrial action has been a long time coming, according to McAreavey. Cutbacks to the service, a lack of training, “constructive mismanagement” and a constantly increasing workload – lost workers aren’t replaced – have all left a sour taste in workers’ mouths. “It’s been 12 years in the making,” he says, “and that’s me being generous.”
The coronavirus pandemic has only served to exacerbate these issues, underscoring the dire treatment of Glasgow’s refuse workers, who are among the lowest-paid in the country, some qualifying for in-work poverty status. Indeed, workers in Glasgow are paid up to £2,000 less than those in neighbouring councils.
A Glasgow City Council spokesperson refuted these claims, saying: “Only two out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities pay refuse collectors more than Glasgow and only three local authorities pay street cleansing staff more than Glasgow while many other authorities pay less than Glasgow.”
“At the start of the pandemic we all got letters calling us essential workers, which we needed [in order] to leave the house [during lockdown],” explains McAreavey. He recalls how he and his colleagues were made to endure unsafe working conditions during this time: “We didn’t have face masks, there was no social distancing at the depot, but we got it done.”
Despite this dangerous work, McAreavey says he and his colleagues received no additional compensation. “When it came to valuing us financially, one of the chief executives suggested the meaning of ‘essential workers’ may need to be revisited.”
Of course, pay isn’t the only problem for these workers. The city’s refuse service is riddled with infrastructure issues that hinder workers’ ability to do their jobs, says McAreavery. “There’s a bin lorry that’s not getting used with about half a million kilometres on it, it’s just not fit for purpose anymore,” he explains, adding that money has been wasted on “technology that doesn’t work how it’s meant to”.
‘Litter is extremely damaging for the environment.’
Another irony that’s not lost on the strikers is that their action was timed perfectly with Cop26. Although GMB has denied purposefully timing the strike with the climate conference, it has undoubtedly added leverage to the negotiations.
Overflowing bin bags lined the streets of Glasgow as the world’s elites met up for dinner following long days discussing solutions to the climate crisis. Meanwhile, climate campaigners joined the picket line to support the city’s refuse workers.
One of those campaigners, Sara Shaw, the climate justice and energy programme co-coordinator for Friends of the Earth International, says, “We are proud to stand alongside workers fighting for fair pay and decent working conditions. Refuse workers in Glasgow are demonstrating the power we must build everywhere to tackle the climate crisis at its roots.”
Heather McFarlane, a project manager at the environmental charity Fidra, agrees. “Litter is extremely damaging for the environment and improper disposal can be a real issue,” she says. “We see plastic items washing up on beaches. This, along with other materials like polystyrene and paper, can cause a build-up of harmful chemicals in the environment.
“Litter in the environment can also cause entanglement and if it’s ingested by animals it can cause starvation,” she explains, adding that it can also cause air, water and soil pollution, and increases the risk of fires starting.
If rubbish is left to pile up on our streets, the threat to wildlife is deadly. The RSPCA, for example, says it receives an average of 14 calls a day about wildlife harmed by litter – although the number of animals affected is likely to be much higher.
In this context, improving workers’ pay and conditions is only part of the battle. Without proper investment, cleansing services will continue to fall short in preventing the pollution of our natural environment.
“I think a lot of the guys know how we could make things better,” says McAreavey. “Even the vehicles we use, they’re still running off diesel – surely they should be electric by now.”
A spokesperson for the council responded, saying, it is “in the process of updating our fleet of refuse vehicles as part of the council’s plan to have a zero-emissions transport division by 2029”.
The city’s recycling system also requires urgent improvement, according to McAreavey, who argues that the local recycling plant “isn’t fit for purpose.
“We can’t take anything bigger than a shoebox,” he continues, “which, for a city of Glasgow’s size, means a lot of that cardboard is going to landfill”.
A spokesperson for the council said, “Due to the amount of material currently collected from household bins for dry, mixed recycling in Glasgow, the plant currently only operates at half capacity.”
“Only material contaminated or spoiled by general waste will go into the general waste stream and then it is sent to the Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre for conversion into electricity rather than being sent to landfill.
“Plans to upgrade our recycling facility are being developed to match the effort to increase the number of recyclables collected from household recycling bins.”
‘Our members are ready to do it all again.’
While the current strike action has come to an end, Glasgow’s refuse workers are not ready to give up their fight.
When refuse workers strike, they aren’t just striking for themselves, but for a service that is vital in protecting Britain’s ecology. As McAreavey says, “A properly funded cleansing service should play a major part in a clean, green, sustainable future.”
The council’s end-of-strike offer was to review the value of pay for all workers on the lowest paygrade of £20,000 a year and look at investing in infrastructure. It was rejected “on the basis that it was all ifs, buts and maybes,” says McAreavey.
The workers will vote on whether to strike again next week, raising the prospect of a second wave of strikes in the run-up to Christmas.
McAreavey is defiant. “Our members are ready to do it all again.”
Ella Glover is a news and features journalist reporting on labour, activism, social affairs and lifestyle.