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Bin strikes spread with more refuse workers taking to picket lines to protest over pay

Strikers at the picket line in Inverurie this morning. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson.
Strikers at the picket line in Inverurie this morning. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson.

More refuse staff across the north and north-east have taken to the picket line today as the national dispute over pay continues.

Bin workers are striking in Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, the Highlands and Orkney this week and again in September.

It comes as local government body Cosla failed to reach agreement with unions over pay for local government workers, after a 5% pay increase was rejected.

Today’s protests are taking place on the day energy regulator Ofgem announced an 80% rise in the price gap.

This means the typical British household’s energy bill will hit £3,549 a year from October 1, up from the current rate at £1,971.

First day of Aberdeenshire bin strikes

The Aberdeenshire protest took place outside Inverurie recycling centre. Cars tooted their horns in support of the workers as they drove by.

One Aberdeenshire Council refuse worker on the picket said he could not work while other trade unionists were striking and wanted to show “solidarity” with his colleagues, telling his boss that he was going home for the day.

Strikers were in high spirits this morning. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson.

Council worker Marie Johnstone, a project leader for waste management, and Nom Wright, who works as a community waste officer at the recycling centre in Inverurie, were both out showing their support on the picket line this morning.

Mrs Johnstone said she felt “conflicted” to be there, saying: “I’ve been in a union nearly 30 years and this is the first time I’ve ever got to strike action, it’s always usually resolved before that.”

Protestors talk to Aberdeenshire Council refuse workers. Picture by Kami Thomson / DC Thomson.

However, she attended the protest as she is “fed up” of not having a pay rise.

Mr Wright added: “The public seems to forget the country was closed down for months but these guys were still here.

“They were battling the same arguments and the same issues as everybody else had, but they didn’t have the luxury of sitting at home or working from home, their job has to be out there.

“There was an appreciation there (during lockdown from the public), but as soon as the world opened up and the litter started appearing, apparently that was our fault.”

‘Choose between eating and heating’

Co-chairwoman of Unison’s Aberdeenshire branch, Kate Ramsden said: “Enough is enough for our members. Most of our members earn under £25,000 a year and with inflation spiralling, now we’re hearing inflation is going to top 18%, we can’t afford to be having paltry pay rises that will just never meet the cost of food and fuel.

“We are really worried about our members, because we really think they’re going to struggle to choose between eating and heating. We are taking action today for all our members, but also for society as a whole.”

Simon Watson, a regional organiser for Unison and a Labour councillor in Aberdeen, added: “Local authority members have been underpaid for far too long, it’s been year after year when pay rises haven’t met inflation and there’s a cost of living crisis going on at the moment.

“Members are going to foodbanks because they can’t afford to get food for their families and enough is enough, we need a decent pay rise.”

He also thanked the public, adding: “We know we’ve got support from the public. We know we’ve got support from other trade unions who are fighting alongside and thank the public for that support, but we actually need the Scottish Government and the councils to listen to us.”

Council workers in Aberdeen also took their plea for “fair and better” pay to the city streets – saying the strike action has been “long-time coming”.

Mishelle Gray, Unite the Union convener, said the “huge support” from locals – all of whom understand their worries and struggles – makes all the difference this time.

Unite the Union members (L-R) Ronnie Duncan, Mishelle Gray and Neil Dow at the picket line in Aberdeen. Image by DC Thomson.

She said: “The spirit and motivation from members – but also the public – has been great.

“People are coming with donuts, tea and home-made sandwiches to support us. And I think the reason for that is because they are also affected by this – they are workers as well and they also feel the strain of the cost of living crisis.

“And in the same way, we are part of the public too. All of these guys at the picket line here have their bins filling up as well.

“We realise the inconvenience and this decision wasn’t taken lightly. We want to get back to work and provide this service – but we want to be paid fairly for the work we are doing.”

What’s the situation in the Highlands?

Strike action is also ongoing across the Highlands, impacting the largest geographical area in the country.

Unite workers have already been on strike in places like Alness and Dingwall since Wednesday and are now joined by their GMB co-workers.

GMB is staging walk-outs at five locations across the Highlands at Alness, Dingwall, Inverness, Nairn and Thurso.

GMB members outside the Balblair depot in Nairn. Picture by John McCartney.

Members had set up chairs and a local cafe brought the strikers some rolls and cups of tea to keep them going.

In Dingwall, GMB members set a barbecue to give them sustenance while they protested outside the waste and recycling site.

Many are frustrated over the recognition of refuse workers during the pandemic and feel undervalued for the work they have put in as a vital council service.

Many of the workers feel a flat rate pay is the best option as it is more beneficial to the lowest paid workers, who are being disproportionately impacted by the cost of living crisis.

‘Willing to take that necessary sacrifice’

At the picket line in Inverness, Paul MacPherson, GMB branch secretary for Highland Council said: “It has been a good turnout, better than we thought. It has been 10 years since we last had any industrial action out in the Highlands.

“The cost of living is sitting at about 13%, we’re only being offered 5%, so in real terms it’s still a pay cut. It would be good if the Scottish Government and Cosla sorted out the deal.

“We’d like some acknowledgement, the guys worked all the way through the pandemic and got no recognition whatsoever, the NHS all got a bonus, we got nothing.”

Refuse workers take strike action in Thurso. Picture supplied by John McCartney.

John McCartney, GMB regional organiser for the Highlands, said the new price cap will push many of the members further into fuel poverty.

He said many of the workers are currently working two jobs to pay their way with some moonlighting as a delivery drivers for Deliveroo and JustEat.

There is also competition across the region with private companies in the retail and hospitality sectors like McDonalds and Tesco, who offer more pay than the council.

Mr McCartney say that workers choose to stay with the council for benefits such as sick pay and pensions, which is not always a guarantee with the private sector.

He said: “The real effects could be disastrous for communities in the Highlands. The local authorities continue to lag behind the retail sector, where some workers have seen two wages increases in the last year.

“I think the message that has been shown this week is that the people that work in the Highlands are willing to take that necessary sacrifice and take strike action.”

Mr McCartney says he was pleased to see the “joyous camaraderie” between Unite and GMB members at sites across the region, where everyone has shown support for the cause.