Strike action, snow and the regular Christmas increase in waste food and packaging has left Birmingham’s refuse collection service overwhelmed with piles of black bags in the streets, the city council has said.
The authority’s fleet and waste management bosses blamed an unprecedented combination of events for the delays, but promised to get the streets cleared by Monday, January 3, with an army of strike-breaking casual staff working over the New Year weekend.
Assistant director of fleet and waste management Kevin Mitchell said: “It is a triple whammy. We had planned for the strike and work to rule, planned for Christmas as we do every year and also for severe weather. It is an unprecedented series of events.
“All areas have been affected by the snow, not just Birmingham.”
He said the authority could not have risked 26-tonne lorries skidding in the snow or dustmen laden with heavy bags on icy paths.
“This all happened during Christmas, with three Bank Holidays and 420,000 turkey carcasses to collect. There is a 30 per cent increase in household waste this week. Our priority now is to get the streets clear of bags.”
It recognised that the unions, Unite, GMB, Unison and UCATT, had timed their one-day strike and work to rule to perfection with the Bank Holidays to cause maximum disruption to household collections.
“The unions’ action was strategically spot-on,” he said. He was speaking at a briefing along with service director Tommy Wallace and assistant director Matt Kelly, all at work during the traditional council holiday period to deal with the crisis.
They explained that the work to rule means that all Bank Holiday, weekend and sickness absence cover shifts have stopped.
And as a result of the one-day strike on December 20 and subsequent Bank Holidays anyone with a regular Monday collection has been inconvenienced for a month with their black bags picked up by the casuals later in the week.
Householders have been told not to put out recycling bins this week leading to bottle and paper banks being over filled.
Council managers had planned to start training and using casual staff last week, but this was put back due to the snow – it was felt to be both a safety hazard with novice crews out in severe conditions and a waste of taxpayers money if they were confined to the depot.
They found that the pool of 200 casual staff lacked enough fully trained drivers so highly paid managerial staff were sent out with the new staff. By Monday and Tuesday 19 casual crews, about half the regular fleet, were out collecting. They will work through to Monday.
In the longer term the council says it is talking to the unions, but at the moment there is little prospect of a resolution to the dispute. The dustmen are losing up £4,000 each from their salaries, following an equal pay ruling by an employment tribunal.
The council says it risks millions in legal compensation cost if it does not bring their wages into line with other staff and both sides are holding firm.