Jarrow-London marchers in Sheffield last year. Now the city's waste disposal staff say that less pay and fewer hours make their jobs scarcely worth doing. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Pity the gardeners of Sheffield if they wanted to take their household waste to one of the city's five recycling centres last weekend. Workers there spent Saturday and Sunday, 1 and 2 September, manning picket lines - a fresh round of stoppages in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.
All the usual elements of an industrial dispute are in place: a grievance about low pay, poor working conditions and allegations of unresponsive management. But this is a very modern strike too.
It also involves a local authority struggling to make the scale of cuts required by the government's massive public spending reductions while being hemmed-in by a long-term private waste contract that it didn't negotiate, can't change and has another 25 years left to run.
The recycling centre workers are among Sheffield City Council's lowest paid, with most operatives scraping the minimum wage. They complain they are the poor relation of the council's binmen who earn around £9.40 an hour.
If their site achieved a 65 per cent recycling rate they receive a bonus payments to top-up their wages. These payments are worth several hundred pounds a month to each worker. But their recycling targets have now been raised to 90 per cent, making it nearly impossible for them to achieve, they claim.
Management of the council's waste service is contracted out to the large waste company Veolia which in turn sub-contracts the management of the recycling sites to Sova Recycling Ltd. This took over the management of the five sites last December and has spent the year dealing with a series of stoppages.
Nick Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency. Photograph: Dan Chung for the Guardian
A previous round of industrial action saw the men win a concession to receive a time-and-a half payment for working on Bank Holidays, but they get no special allowance for routinely working weekends and say that their holiday pay is not even paid at a full-day rate. The dispute also centres on the threat of reduced hours, as the council scales back the opening hours of the recycling centres as part of shaving £57 million from its budget this year to absorb government funding cuts.
This, says the workers, would be the final straw, cutting their take-home pay to the point it is not worth bothering to go to work. Peter Davies from the GMB union which represents the men says:
Low pay and reduced hours simply doesn't work. You need the hours to make up for the fact you are low paid.
Many of the men are also already reeling from an equal pay ruling that has affected councils across the country and has seen some of the men working at the sites already lose thousands of pounds a year from their pay packets. Davies says:
What the council is not telling the public is that these cuts are on top of cuts. The guys here feel they have absolutely nothing to lose.
The Labour council is frank about the Hobson's choice it has to make.Coun Jack Scott, cabinet member responsible for waste services, says:
We have made a number of improvements to the service over the last few months that we thought would help to resolve this problem. However, the basic problem is that Sheffield is facing massive government cuts. Of course, if there was an alternative to making this cut, we would take it, but the reality is that this is the consequence of the scale of the cuts.
Some town hall figures mutter darkly about Veolia and Sova but recognise they are powerless to do much about it. The Liberal Democrats who ran the city until two years ago agree, but are also calling for Scott to "consider his position" in light of the latest bout of strikes – which may see the recycling centres shut every weekend in September.
He in turn accuses them of "scoring political points" saying the reason the council has to make tough decisions is because "Nick Clegg sold Sheffield out to go into government with the Tories".
The men on the picket line aren't bothered where the buck stops. They just want to work enough hours to make a living.
Kevin Meagher chaired the Mayor4Sheffield campaign and was a strategist in the Yes for the North West regional assembly campaign in 2004