Refuse workers across Brighton and Hove voted almost unanimously for strike action to start this week. The 300 strong work force of binmen, streetsweepers and mechanics employed by Brighton and Hove City Council‘s CityClean refuse department will walk out from Monday 9th to Sunday 15th November following a pay dispute.

Of the 76% to return a postal vote, an overwhelming 94% supported industrial action, the GMB union announced last week. The action follows months of unsuccessful negotiations between the union and council.

A bulletin on the GMB website said: “The action is taking place as a result of the Conservative run council’s attempts to cut the pay of GMB members by up to £8000 each. In total over 800 staff face pay cuts.”

The pay cuts were proposed to address gender equality issues after a governmental ruling on unequal pay structures, the council argues. A spokesman for the Brighton and Hove workers, Brad McKenna, said ‘around 30 to 35 million pounds’ has been promised in compensation claims to underpaid women by councils, to be paid by 1st January 2010.

GMB branch secretary Mark Turner said: “Our membership is determined to protect the terms and conditions of their employment and those of others within the council.”

He continued; “I’ve never seen such a solid group of workers and this shows that they, like GMB members in Leeds, will do whatever it takes to protect themselves from Conservative pay cuts.”

The GMB gave the council a week to respond to the intended strikes with a better offer but it seems the council failed to do so. It warned further action, involving even more staff, was likely to follow. Another trade union, Unison, who represent a further 3,500 members, is also involved in pay disputes with the council. Unison remains in talks but warns that it too could move to industrial action, forcing the closure of schools, libraries and other services.

McKenna supported the claims saying; “There’s a possibility it won’t last a week. But if the council doesn’t negotiate we can hold out until it comes back with an offer that is suitable to the union members.”

The cuts are intended to address a long-standing issue because some unskilled workers receive higher pay than others in different departments, the council says.

CityClean staff have said they believe their wages will be cut from current rates, which average £19,000 a year, to match the wages of other ‘unskilled workers’ such as teaching assistants, who earn less than £15,000. Leaked documents revealed they would be sacked if they did not accept the deal, The Argus reports.

Hundreds of thousands of bin bags will be left uncollected from Brighton and Hove’s 120,000 households. This has sparked fears of rat infestations in the city if strike action continues. Sussex professor, Jackie Cassell, chair in primary care and public health at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said infestation by rats and other creatures was likely if rubbish bags containing food waste were left to fester in the streets.

Professor Cassell’s warning comes as reports emerge of a 26% increase in rat populations in the South East from pest-controllers.

The strikes echo similar industrial action which has been taking place in Leeds, Yorkshire. Council refuse workers have been on strike there for over two-months now. The consequential rubbish piled in the streets has reached such an extent that it could be a public health danger. Leeds Metropolitan University microbiologist Chris Boothby has warned that the danger lies in bacteria from the waste piles becoming airborne.

Professor Cassell has said that it is vermin which will be a more significant problem in Brighton and Hove. She said: “Given that we still do dump large amounts of food waste in rubbish which goes out for collection around people’s houses, we are likely to get rat and mice infestations if it is left for any lengthy amount of time.

“Airborne bacteria is not particularly high risk but it is unpleasant. People can feel unwell when there are smells around from rubbish, they feel nauseated.”

Professor Cassell’s warnings, however, look likely to become reality as a compromise is yet to be reached. Leaders of the opposition, Labour’s Gill Mitchell and Green convenor Bill Randall, held emergency meetings with union representatives and new council chief executive John Barradell in an attempt to defuse the situation and propose solutions. Mark Turner of the GMB has said it is Mary Mears, leader of the council’s Conservative cabinet, who must become involved.

Mr. Turner said: “We’ve had meetings with Labour and the Greens which have been very positive for us. However, Mary Mears is not responding to emails or requests for a meeting. We are calling for the residents of Brighton & Hove to let Mary Mears know that she cannot stay in hiding and needs to bring a decent offer to the negotiating table or she will face the wrath of voters when the streets turn to chaos.”

A council spokesman responded, saying the council was disappointed about the GMB’s action. He said: “There will, undoubtedly, be some disruption to collections over the days of the strike if it goes ahead. We ask for residents’ patience and remain hopeful we can resume talks with the GMB.”

Rob Macey GMB Organiser responded saying: “GMB members don’t take this type of action lightly and we are conscious of the inconvenience it will bring to the residents of the city.”

A 2nd Year Sussex student agreed; “Not having rubbish collected makes our living environment much more unpleasant. Coming out on to the street to see pavements lined by trash is a really unpleasant way to start the day. Still, facing a pay cut is one of the most unpleasant things there is; I sympathise with their plight.”

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