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Birmingham bin strike: why this time it could last almost a year

By Andy Bevan - ITV News Central Correspondent

Hear from the two sides in the dispute:

Refuse collection workers are set to strike for two days a week from February 19th – and the walkouts could last until January 2020.

Here’s why:

The current dispute has raged since Christmas 2018, and has seen a work-to-rule by around 300 members of Unite the Union, resulting in missed bin collections across the city.

The current dispute has been going on since Christmas 2018 Credit: ITV Central News

The argument is over payments made by Birmingham City Council to around 40 members of the GMB union - who did not strike during the long stoppages of summer 2017.

Unite claims those payments, of up to £3000 each, were a financial reward to GMB members for not striking.

The council and the GMB have both denied that, saying the money was compensation awarded by Acas after the council failed to consult the GMB over new working practices brought in after the 2017 strike.

Unite members on strike in 2017 Credit: ITV News Central

Acas settlements are often subject to confidentiality clauses but Unite has called the GMB payments “clandestine” and has accused the council of blacklisting its members because of the 2017 strike.

Unite has demanded parity, in other words it wants those same payments for its members. The council has refused and, along with the GMB, has publicly explained how and why the payments were made.

In December 2018, Unite balloted its members over strike action and won 95 per cent approval, however it stopped short of a full walkout and opted for a work-to-rule instead.

Bin bags built up in the city during strikes Credit: ITV News Central

That meant a self-imposed overtime ban and crews returning to their depots for breaks, resulting in fewer bins being emptied per shift and a backlog of uncollected rubbish on the streets.

The council responded by reducing weekly bin collections to fortnightly, and warned Unite it would seek a High Court injunction to end the work-to-rule, which it saw as unlawful.

That action prompted Councillor Majid Mahmood, the Cabinet Member who oversaw bin collections to resign, saying the injunction would go against his Labour principles.

Bin collections were reduced to fortnightly Credit: ITV News Central

In turn, Unite started litigation against the council for undermining its members’ union rights - but it’s emerged that the case can’t be heard at the Employment Tribunal until January 2020 at the earliest.

The council has calculated the current dispute is costing it £350,000 a week and if the work-to-rule escalates to a full strike, that figure will dramatically increase.

Weighing that up against a payment that might end the dispute and avert a full-blown strike, the council has made an undisclosed offer to Unite in return for it dropping its litigation.

The bins strike could go on to 2020 Credit: ITV News Central

However, Unite has turned down that offer and will now escalate industrial action from a work-to-rule into a series of walkouts. It can legally do this because the vote taken back in December was in favour of strike action.

Unite must give the council at least 14 days’ notice of any intended walkout, which it did on February 4th.

So, two-day stoppages are set to occur every week between February 19th and the end of March, which is when the three-month life-span of the December strike mandate expires.

If the two sides cannot resolve their differences at Acas before then, Unite could go back to its members to seek further strike mandates which, in theory, could last until that scheduled Employment Tribunal date in January 2020.