Glasgow’s bin men mostly manage to avoid being drawn into international relations but that could be about to change. The city’s refuse workers have voted 96.9 per cent in favour of industrial action in response to a pay offer that would have seen local government employees on less than £25,000 gain an extra £850. Unless there is an improved offer, members of the GMB Glasgow branch could go ahead with industrial action, including during the first two weeks of November.
That is, of course, when world leaders from the Prime Minister to President Biden will be in town for COP26. As I wrote about in the magazine earlier this month, Glasgow is in the middle of a waste crisis that has made scenes of overflowing bins and fly-tipping a common sight across the city. Much of the blame has fallen on the shoulders of Susan Aitken, the first ever SNP leader of Glasgow City Council.
On her watch, Glasgow has gone from fortnightly to bin collections every three weeks and introduced uplift charges for household items. Opposition politicians and the GMB union want both of those decisions reversed, as well as additional investment in cleaning services. City bin men are particularly aggrieved: four of them have been attacked by rats so far this year.
Aitken has not helped her cause with a series of unforced errors. Questioned on the evermore-visible cleaning crisis, she suggested the city simply needed a ‘spruce up’. When Sir Keir Starmer criticised the SNP council’s handling of the problem during a visit to Glasgow, Aitken said the Labour leader was ‘on pretty shaky ground as a London MP, coming up and telling Glasgow that we’re filthy’. She has even suggested the GMB is echoing the language of ‘far-right organisations’.
Presidents, prime ministers, scientists and business leaders will soon arrive in Glasgow, with the world’s media in tow, to address our derelict custodianship of the planet. If the Glasgow that serves as the backdrop to this summit is perceived to be a rundown metropolis, with delegates forced to tiptoe through swirling litter and strewn garbage, it will not only be devastating to the city’s self-image but acutely embarrassing to the Prime Minister as the host of the event. Glasgow, and by extension the UK, could become a symbol of the sort of environmental damage COP26 was arranged to counter.
The GMB is not issuing idle threats. As this video statement from Glasgow organiser Chris Mitchell demonstrates, the workers feel strongly about how well they are paid and valued. (Readers are advised to lower their volume before playing the clip. If you’re wondering why Mitchell is shouting, he’s not. He’s Glaswegian.)
— Glasgow GMB (@GMBGlasgowCC) October 14, 2021
In Glasgow we have reached the legal threshold in our Industrial Action Ballot.96.9% voted in favour of Industrial Action in response to the latest pay offer from @COSLAUnless there is an improved offer on Monday we will be taking action in Glasgow during COP 26 pic.twitter.com/rEXapaGYHL
His point about the need for the Scottish government and others to follow through on pandemic rhetoric about bin men being ‘heroes’ and ‘essential workers’ is a reasonable one. Clapping for workers who kept the country going during a pandemic is a nice thought but paying them better is a much more tangible measure of esteem. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the umbrella body that negotiates council pay north of the border, tells me:
“We appreciate everything that local government workers have been doing, and continue to do, to support people and communities during the pandemic and as we begin to recover. We continue with on-going constructive negotiations.
For its part, Glasgow City Council tells me ‘it’s impossible to say what the impact will be’, with a spokesperson adding:
“COP will undoubtedly be a busy and difficult time for the city and its residents. Holding this action only in Glasgow at this time will have a disproportionate and unfair local impact in pursuit of a national campaign. We urge them to think again about the timing of this.
Unless more money is forthcoming, which would presumably have to involve the Scottish government putting its hand in its pocket, an industrial dispute in Glasgow could take on a much larger significance.
How likely is the Scottish government to intervene, though? This afternoon, they have told me SNP finance secretary Kate Forbes ‘is in no doubt about the crucial role that local government staff play’ but add that the government is not a party to the pay talks and they are ‘not a matter it can intervene in’. ‘It will be for trade union colleagues to reach a negotiated settlement with COSLA,’ the spokesperson told me.
Whether that line can be held the closer we get to 31 October is an open question, but for now the SNP government seems determined not to get involved. The pressure will only be heightened by the announcement of a second front of industrial action. This afternoon, the RMT announced that staff of ScotRail, Scotland’s national rail service, will be going on strike for the duration of the summit. Garbage in the streets, no trains on the tracks. COP26 is shaping up to be quite the global advertisement for Glasgow, Scotland and Britain