On Alma Road, black sacks of refuse spill out of their green plastic wheelie bins and onto the pavement, lining the streets with assorted household debris. Outside a cluster of restaurants on The Avenue where office workers sip quiet early evening pints after a long day, litter is also growing, not along the street but upwards, literally piling higher and higher with little sign of stopping soon. Waste collection trucks have not been seen here for the best part of a month.
As the third week of industrial action by Southampton City Council workers begins over proposed pay cuts, the prognosis is disappointingly bleak. Strikes, led by Unite and Unison, are set to continue until the 22 June, the mounting piles of rubbish a constant visual reminder of a vital workforce at loggerheads with local government, namely, plans by Royston Smith, the Conservative leader of Southampton’s City Council.
On his personal Twitter account, the strike action clearly plays heavily on Cllr Smith’s mind. He posts: ‘Unison delivering more personally abusive leaflets in Southampton. They have no interest in ending the strikes,’ later linking followers to a Facebook group intended to dispel myths about exactly who is to blame for the current deadlock, fingers pointed squarely at the other side.
Both camps are right to be anxious. The people on strike are not limited to rubbish collectors. Yesterday hundreds of Southampton council workers, including traffic wardens and street cleaners, took to the streets in protest against Cllr Smith’s plans. His council has handed 90-day dismissal notices to striking employees, promising them redundancy if they do not bow to pressure and sign up to new contracts by July 11 – an act which will result in their salaries being cut on a sliding scale by between 2 and 5.5 per cent, depending on earnings. In a statement, Southampton City Council maintains that ‘these changes are essential to avoid a further 400 job losses and to protect public services.’
It is, in both senses of the phrase, a dirty business. Unite have asked Hampshire Police launch an investigation after leaflets were stuck on residents’ bins with the deliberate intention of smearing the workers during the first week of industrial action. The leaflets, which seem to originate from a third party, are clearly designed to stir up antagonism. They bear the Conservative party logo, but with no mention of their authorship this is in fact an infringement of electoral law as outlined in the Representation of the People Act 1983.
Among some of Southampton’s affected population whose bins remain uncollected, patience is wearing thin. Full-time students who live in private rented accommodation are of course exempt from paying council tax; but for the majority of those who do pay thousands for council services every year, the sight of refuse piling up on their doorsteps is likely a slap in the face. On the ever-increasing messageboard on the Daily Echo website, one commentator provides his resolution for dealing with the stalemate:
‘Sack the lot of them and start again…… even easier’
Clearly, essential workers like those currently striking in Southampton tread a difficult line – finding the balance between making a point to employers and seriously disrupting the day-to-day lives of the public at large is tricky, many would argue impossible, given the usual unwillingness of either side to compromise in such disputes. The unions themselves are not known for their subtlety. One only needs mention the name of RMT leader Bob Crow within the M25 to evoke reactions ranging from mild grumbles to spitting fury from central London commuters.
In the city centre, public bins such as those in parks and at bus stops are not being emptied either. Yet Southampton City Council has its own method for making sure they are not being filled either. Many street bins have been sealed up with signs declaring the depressingly obvious: ‘Out of use due to industrial action’. In Above Bar, outside West Quay shopping centre, the pedestrianised streets are still buzzing with foot traffic, but with literally nowhere to hygienically discard litter, the effects of the industrial action are beginning to show. Where to bin your rubbish when there simply are no bins? Anywhere, it seems, on or around them. For Southampton’s burgeoning population of rats and pigeons, it is Christmas in June.
This comes in the week when the government has admitted that it cannot enforce weekly refuse collection in local councils. Though the majority the government believes that fortnightly collections encourage wider household recycling and avoid hefty disposal costs, but a glimpse at the current rubbish situation in Southampton, and it is easy to see why people would oppose anything other than weekly collections. However, Bristol City Council, which launched fortnightly rubbish collections back in 2006, stands out as an apparent success story, although food and recyclable waste are still collected every week.
In smaller houses that have produced less household waste over the last few weeks, one would be forgiven for thinking that there was no strike in progress at all. The wheelie-bins remain outside, but they are not overflowing… yet. However, in the case of small businesses and student properties, the latter of which are often 3 or 4 bedroom houses converted into accommodation for 7 or 8 people, the idea of the bins being collected twice a month is an ugly prospect.
Southampton City Council’s own advice on how to beat the disruption is lacklustre to say the least, but of course their hands are tied on the matter. They are encouraging residents to make use of the city’s household waste recycling centre if possible, urging them to consider using disinfectant to deal with unpleasant smells and to help maintain hygiene. A meeting to further negotiations between the Council and the unions is set for Thursday 16 June. For the majority of Southampton’s residents, it seems as though any form of breakthrough cannot come soon enough.