Is Leeds rubbish war a sign of things to come for Britain?

Rotting waste piles up on streets as binmen's strike turns nasty over council cutbacks
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ten days into a strike by the city's bin men and the dispute over Leeds' rubbish collection was already proving a dirty affair. With bin bags steadily piling up outside homes and businesses and dire warnings of streets "awash with wrappers and rotting food" the only winners were likely to be the booming local rat population.

But the passions brought out by the bitter stand off between 600 striking bin men and the city council leader, a conflict which comes as more than 120,000 fellow workers in the postal, steel and engineering construction industries voted on possible action yesterday, have taken a more sinister turn.

Yesterday West Yorkshire Police were continuing to question six people arrested in connection with an attack on the home of Leeds City Council leader Richard Brett, the man who has become the public face of opposition to the workers' demands.

Fourteen bags of rubbish were dumped on the doorstep of the Liberal Democrat's home in the north of the city all bearing posters declaring solidarity with the striking refuse staff who have staged an indefinite walkout in protest at plans which they say will see their pay cut by up to £6,000 reducing some to take home just £12,000 a year.

Detectives are also investigating a threatening message left on Councillor Brett's answer phone. The anonymous caller accused the council chief of lying and warned "be ready Mr Brett". Security has been stepped up outside the house. The incidents follow claims by Councillor Brett that unions are using intimidation tactics to garner support for their cause. But the most controversial decision has been to use the wages of the striking bin men to bring in private companies in attempt to clear the backlog of rubbish and an aggressive public relations campaign to convince the people of Leeds, who until now have shown considerable support for the plight of the strikers, that the opponents are out of step with the stringent economic realities of the times.

He dismissed the rubbish attack as an "inconvenience" but said there was little doubt the dispute had turned nasty. "I am not claiming that everyone on the other side is involved in dirty tricks but there is a minority involved. We don't know who it is – whether they are in the union or not. I am most worried about people still working. They are being put under a lot of verbal pressure and they will have to work alongside each other once this dispute is resolved," he said.

The city council, which is run by a co-alition of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives, says its hands are tied by legislation which required them to re-grade each job within the local authority to ensure women were paid the same as men for comparable tasks.

The result was 10,500 winners and 2,500 losers they claim and that the suggestion that bin men stand to lose £6,000 a year is a deliberate over-exaggeration. Both sides meanwhile are accusing each other of walking away from the table and of blocking the way to returning to talks.

Tony Pearson, the regional negotiator of the public sector workers union Unison, has been quick to condemn the attacks on Councillor Brett but he is riled at allegations of misbehaviour on the picket lines and what he claims are council smears over the pulicising of absence rates among his members.

He believes a resurgent Thatcherite ideology on the behalf of management is blocking progress toward finding a solution to the dispute.

"It is not like the old days when all these workers lived on council estates. They have mortgages now and will not be able to pay them. Houses are not easy to sell at the moment but some have already put them on the market. They are literally fighting to keep the roof over their head," he said.

"Councillor Brett is acting like the biggest Thatcherite in West Yorkshire since Eric Pickles," he added. "This is blatently about having a fight with the unions, getting the wages down and the privatising the service. They are at the limits of the law in trying to break this strike."