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SITA's a Parrot

Excerpted from
Published in Brighton [England]
by Justice? - Brighton's Direct Action collective
ISSUE 308/309, FRIDAY 15th June, 2001

"This unelected, unaccountable multinational is holding the City to ransom." Gary Smith, GMB Official

Within a week of Labour winning the election with the promise of privatising our public services, refuse collectors in their flagship city of Brighton are getting a taste of what Blair and co have in store - sackings, attacks on working conditions and profiteering as services get poorer. Or to put it another way...

After one of the largest votes of no confidence in politicians since 1918, Blair, his town-hall-cronies-by-the-sea and their mates in multinational companies are getting a taste of what they can expect when they take on public workers and our basic services - strike action, occupation and direct action in resistance to corporations' slow destruction of our public services.

Brighton's refuse workers went to work this Monday to find that SITA - the French multinational with the contract to clean Brighton's rubbish - had imposed increased workloads that the workers knew would be impossible to deliver. One typical run would involve one driver and two others sweeping a major part of the sea front, an entire estate and a bit more for luck. As one refuse worker told SchNEWS, "What would you do if you went into work and were told you had to clean 18 miles of streets a day?"

What 11 workers did was refuse to do these impossible rounds - and they were promptly suspended. When the rest of the 160-strong GMB workforce protested against this, SITA's management sacked the lot. It was the last straw - the workforce occupied the depot. They demanded that SITA, who have cost local people an extra £1.8m a year since they took over Brighton's street cleaning, get the sack and that they get back to the job of cleaning streets - instead of increasing some company's stock market value.

SITA brought in bin lorries to a nearby industrial park where they tried to get employment agency workers to scab against the strike. It didn't work. In an unusual political alliance, local Green Party councillors emerged as the only politicians in touch with the widespread local disgust at SITA's profiteering, while supporters of the Free Party - fresh from cheerful annihilation at the polls - persuaded employment agency workers that if they scabbed they wouldn't be welcome anymore at Brighton free parties. Party politics, Jim, but not as we know it. One local activist called "Jamie" got up at 5am to lock onto one of the trucks for five hours, preventing the rest from moving. As one striker put it, "This fellow is crazy but what he has done is much appreciated".

Faced with a determined strikeforce occupying its depot with enormous local support, SITA's bullying started to crack.. Employment agencies started refusing to have anything to do with them. SITA workers in neighbouring areas suddenly developed strange, short-term illnesses when asked to scab. The local council held hours of secret meetings with SITA but couldn't come up with a way to beat the strike.

By Thursday evening, SITA and the council had caved in. All the workers were reinstated, getting full pay for the time they were on strike. SITA were given 11 weeks notice that their contract was being terminated - and that they could forget their new work practices in the meantime.

GMB official Gary Smith told SchNEWS, "SITA deliberately provoked this dispute by trying to lock members out. Unfortunately for them, the workers decided to lock themselves in. We had enormous public support from the local unemployed centre, direct action people and loads of different communities who are fed up with their services being run for profit. We should take inspiration from this fight, because it shows that when people get together we can stop privatisation in its tracks."

SITA on it

We all know that recycling is the only good thing to do with our waste, but currently in this country we only manage a meagre 8 % while other European countries recycle over half. In Canberra, Australia, they're aiming for zero waste production by 2005. Recycling makes not only environmental but also economic sense. It would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, save energy and creates jobs- in Germany more people are employed in recycling than in steel and telecommunications. But building up a recycling scheme takes time and for short term, quick buck companies like SITA it is a simple inconvenience- cos' time is money.

Luckily not all organisations have the same approach as SITA. There are over 200 community recycling groups in this country who are constantly challenging attitudes to waste. Of the seven Beacon awards for innovation in waste management, 5 were awarded to councils who involved community recyclers. The town with the highest recycling levels in the country - Bath, has (you guessed it) community recyclers involved. Here in Brighton, the Magpie recycling co-operative has been operating for 10 years. From providing Brighton's first recycling bin in the Hanover Centre, they now provide domestic recycling for 5000 homes (using converted milk floats) and 400 businesses and pubs. They also run a furniture recycling scheme.

Bottled it

Despite the excellent record of the co-ops and community groups, they rarely get awarded the big municipal waste contracts. One of the main reasons is the way contracts are awarded - only companies with a large turnover are deemed "responsible" enough to handle a large contract. In Brighton this has meant that SITA won the contract to be in control of everything to do with waste- clean the streets, collect waste, and recycle it. From their short term view recycling doesn't make financial sense. They're bidding to run Sussex's proposed incinerators, and they'll have needed to set aside some rubbish to burn. Companies have sussed that there's no way they can loose with incinerator's cos they can sue the council if they don't get enough waste to burn. This will severely hold back recycling for the lifespan of the incinerator.

SITA on my face

SITA's failure to provide a good service is an important kick in the teeth to the privatisation of public services. The GMB, the union representing the sacked binmen are keen to explore the possibility in setting up a workers co-op to take over Brighton's waste contract. This will be owned by the workers and run for the benefit of the people of Brighton. If this did happen they would be the first co-op running an entire municipal refuse service in this country. As one Magpie worker told SchNEWS "The possibility of a workers' co-op running the contract instead of one big waste company opens up some very exciting opportunities to create a social enterprise with some very different approaches to our waste strategy."

This whole scenario is nothing new. In France when it became evident that multinationals were more interesting in recycling taxpayer's money than people's waste, local referendums were held and they were kicked out in favour of the original community groups.

* Magpie 01273 688022
* Community Recycling Network

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