Talks could be imminent to end the South Gloucestershire bin strikes after union reps revealed there had been a “breakthrough”. But opposition councillors have accused the local authority’s leaders of “misleading” residents and giving them false hope after they said Suez, which runs waste and recycling services for the council, is set to go back to the negotiating table.
About 150 members of Unite the union are taking industrial action throughout the summer until September 3 after rejecting the employer’s offer of an eight per cent pay rise. Only black bin kerbside collections are being made and South Gloucestershire Council has added extra locations for householders to leave food and recycling waste.
Opposition Conservatives have accused the new Lib-Lab administration of creating an “environmental and public health crisis” after pictures emerged of piles of rubbish left at overwhelmed “bring banks”. But Unite regional officer Ken Fish said talks could resume soon in a bid to end the deadlock.
He told the BBC: “It looks as though we may have a breakthrough. We were struggling to get the employer to engage with us and have meaningful dialogue.
“We've tried on a number of occasions. But I have been contacted by Suez and they are trying to table proposed dates for us to reconvene some form of pay negotiation, which I'm hoping will be a positive progression from where we are now.”
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An open letter published last week by the council’s co-leaders Cllr Claire Young (Lib Dem, Frampton Cotterell) and Cllr Ian Boulton (Labour, Staple Hill & Mangotsfield) called on both sides to find a solution and “explain what actions have been taken to date to settle the industrial action and to set out how [they] will resolve the dispute”. But it received an angry response from Unite which accused the authority of making “a pretend intervention to cover its back” while failing to use its influence over its waste contractor.
Suez replied with an open letter of its own in which south west regional director James Pike apologised to residents for the disruption. He wrote: “In terms of bringing this dispute to an amicable conclusion, we had ongoing regular meetings with Unite from January to April 2023, shortly before they announced their intention to strike.
“Since then, we have asked them to come back to the table with a revised offer, however, they remain fixed on a 15 per cent pay increase. In the absence of a revised offer, discussions have stalled.”
Mr Pike said that a seven per cent pay rise for loaders and Sort It centre staff and an 8.75 per cent increase for drivers was agreed in 2022 and that Suez had offered an eight per cent uplift for 2023. “We believe this far exceeds the pay increases seen in many other sectors over the past two years and it represents both a fair and competitive offer for our people,” he said.
“Obviously, I am hopeful that Unite will come back and resume negotiations to allow the service to return to normal.” South Gloucestershire Council leaders seized on the letter as proof that its intervention had paid off.
Cabinet member for communities and local place Cllr Leigh Ingham (Labour, Kingswood ) told a cabinet meeting on Monday, July 10: “We’re pleased Unite made a statement saying they are willing to go to the table and Suez came back to us today to say the same thing. So we are encouraging both parties to come to the table to try to get a resolution to this as soon as possible.”
But Tory group leader Cllr Sam Bromiley (Parkwall & Warmley) said after the meeting: “It’s hugely disappointing to see the Labour-Lib Dem coalition attempt to mislead the public by claiming that its ‘open letter’ was positively received by Unite and Suez. In truth, Unite’s public response to the coalition’s letter was withering, accusing the administration of issuing ‘a pretend intervention’ and calling on them to ‘get a grip’.
“While Suez said they hoped negotiations will continue, the company was clear that discussions have stalled. Residents are understandably concerned about the environmental and public health crisis that is being caused due to the coalition’s failure to ensure proper mitigation measures are in place, and misrepresenting the views of Unite and Suez will only further increase anxieties.”
Cllrs Young and Boulton said in a statement: “Local people are justifiably angry that the service is not being delivered. Prior to this industrial action, waste collections were among the most well regarded of council-funded services and residents worked with the service to reduce their waste, increase recycling and reduce landfill.
“Having made this very clear last week in our open letter, we are encouraged that both sides are saying that they are willing to talk, but now they need to sit down and find a solution urgently. We have no legal or contractual power to force Suez or Unite to the table, but it is not fair or reasonable for the council or local residents to be held hostage to negotiations that are not yet happening.
“We are calling on both sides to be true to their word and sit down to resolve their dispute now.”