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Voices of Scotland Striking for justice during Cop26

As the world’s leaders met in Glasgow to talk lots and do little to save the environment, we cleansing workers stole the show by uniting at last and taking action against poverty and bullying, writes BARRY McAREAVEY

ON November 1 just as the Cop26 climate summit was getting underway, 1,000 cleansing workers took the decision to strike for better pay and working conditions.

The decision to launch eight days of action was not taken lightly — it was against the backdrop of a smoke-and-mirrors supposed increased offer from Cosla.

They thought they’d found a way to thwart our dastardly plans. They were mistaken and the workers aren’t daft. The initial £850 increase was rejected: this offer was only classified as an increase, because they extended the back payments on it to January instead of April. Still the same £850 increase on your P60.

We even had SNP-controlled Glasgow City Council, who are kept in power with the support of the Scottish Green councillors using Tory anti-trade union laws, spending tens of thousands on a court action late into the night. This action was subsequently withdrawn with yet more public money wasted.

During this campaign, myself along with convenor Chris Mitchell and the other shop stewards were frequently accused of politicising Cop26 and using the GMB as stooges for Scottish Labour.

Nothing could be further from the truth — I have never been involved in a more member-led decision. We now have a unity in Glasgow cleansing that’s been a long time in coming. Years of cutbacks to the service are finally coming home to roost, forcing these workers into action.

People don’t strike for no good reason. Our members could see the other efforts and campaigning work we do was falling on deaf ears. We have a political class of snobs whose only interest seems to be maintaining the big-money jobs at the top. Meanwhile jobs aren’t filled or replaced at the bottom where the work is actually done.

Workloads continue to increase while at the same time staff numbers for the front line are getting smaller every year. A toxic bullying culture from management exists, whereby overtime is used as a reward for good behaviour and withdrawn for being bad.

Depots and facilities are not fit for purpose and we are forced to use an ageing fleet of vehicles you couldn’t give away. Training budgets and career pathways are non-existent. Long-term agency workers get used and abused on zero-hours contracts with no hope of ever getting a full-time job.

These people deserve better — and they have been queueing up to become union members.

During the pandemic we were called essential workers, people clapped for our endeavours along with those of many others on Thursday nights. However when it came to rewarding these key workers, the goal posts suddenly changed.

Our chief executive actually stated, “We need to look again at the definitions of ‘key’ and ‘essential’,” when asked about a bonus payment which most other industries rightly received.

Our picket lines were a massive success in terms of both workers’ turnout and public support. From across Britain we have had solidarity and support from other trade unions, tenant’s union Living Rent and Friends of the Earth.Our stand has empowered lots of other trade union members and campaigns, energised by our steadfastness and the way we put Glasgow cleansing workers on the map.

The absolute cheek of us trade unionists using the leverage of Cop26 was the cry from those in power. But why should low-paid key workers be bullied into pretending everything is OK in their city while the eyes of the world are watching?

Finally after five days of strike action, council leaders were forced to call a bargaining meeting and progress was made on many of the issues — which we of course took back to the shop floor for appraisal by our members.

The council’s 14-point plan is heavily reliant on the council receiving additional finance from the government. Our members are confident that this will happen and make our action worthwhile.

We are still officially in dispute, with a consultative ballot currently underway asking the members if they’ll accept the proposals. So far the feeling is that there are to many ifs, buts and maybes. If and when they  put some actual hard cash into a deal that would lift our road sweepers and refuse collectors out of working poverty, then that would be a deal we could recommend support for.

Until then, these upstart cleansing workers aren’t going to go away quietly. Thanks for the support from all, you know who you are — and solidarity always from GMB Branch 40.

Barry McAreavey is a shop steward and a cleansing worker.

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