A very militant strike of refuse collectors has broken out in Denmark, which has become a focal point of class struggle in the whole country. What the bosses are attempting to achieve in this strike is a major attack on trade union rights in general. The aim is to break the strike and then launch a wider attack on workers in other sectors. A lot is at stake for Danish workers.
This article was originally written in late October about a strike among refuse collectors in the Copenhagen suburban area. The strike has become a point of reference for active workers all over Denmark, although the strikers have been abandoned by their union leadership.
In the Danish workplaces massive discontent is brewing. The bosses have launched vicious attacks since the beginning of the crisis. The struggle at HCS represents an early expression of the underlying frustrations within the working class. It also represents the beginning of a greater differentiation in the class. The most dynamic sections of the working class, and the ones least bound by past traditions, are rapidly drawing quite radical conclusions.
The Danish Marxists, gathered around the journal Socialistisk Standpunkt, are intervening in the strike. Comrades have produced two special editions of the journal. Also, a talented young hip-hop artist and known supporter of the Marxist tendency, made a music CD in support of the strikers. An indication of the success of this modest intervention can be seen in the fact that the strikers are taking the journal as “their own” and selling it on. They have also reproduced the following article on the front page of their own website. (Click here to listen to the song.)
Copenhagen, 5 November 2009
Wherever we look, employers are taking advantage of the crisis for the purpose of attacking workers' wages and conditions with the threat of sackings. The attacks on wages and working conditions carried out by the HCS refuse collection company have ended in a strike lasting more than 3 weeks. The events around the refuse collectors’ conflict are obviously part of a coordinated effort by employers to break the workers' confidence. There should be no doubts about what the next period offers: even harder attacks on workers' conditions and wages.
HCS represents what employers wish for: the ability to employ workers without any collective bargaining agreements while ignoring health and safety regulations. This is what the struggle is actually about; defending the rights which the labour movement has fought for since its inception! If the employers succeed in breaking the struggle of these workers, it will only be the first step. They will attempt to use the same methods in one workplace after another. Therefore, the struggle has relevance for all workers.
For decent working conditions
The current conflict has been a long time coming. The refuse collectors have for many years been concerned with their safety at work. Lack of safety-shoes, decent clothing and equipment for cleaning the garbage trucks were the order of the day. "It really is toxic, all this garbage", explains one of the workers. "It seeps out of the trucks, which are quite leaky". In order to clean the inside of the trucks, the workers have been provided with clothing that is not water resistant, thus they end up soaking in filth.
The work in itself is unhealthy, and it does not get much better when the workers return to their homes. According to the Danish health and safety regulations, the employers must provide separate lockers for the refuse collectors' work clothes and private clothing. This is, however, completely ignored by HCS, and the workers have to keep their dirty work clothes alongside the clothes they wear when picking up their children from school or nursery. This is just one out of many cases where HCS violates the law. At this moment, about 40 legal cases have been brought against the company in the Danish labour court and around 200 have been presented to the Working Environment Authority.
HCS management has never been interested in complying with the rules. Usually the refuse collectors have to carry several sacks of trash on their trolleys. But then they decided on a work-to-rule by only transporting a single sack at a time. The management then told them to work overtime in order to cover their entire route. The workers were in fact told that if the company did not break the rules, it would not be competitive.
Respect and dialogue
In the end, what made the refuse collectors say enough is enough was, according to the workers, the direct way in which the management lied to them. As the workers in struggle write in their press release, "The employees have reached a point where there is absolutely no confidence in the management. They find it difficult to see how this whole thing can be made to function properly."
The management informed the refuse collectors that an agreement saying that accepting hazardous work was okay had been reached between them and the shop steward. There has never been such an agreement, and shop steward Ronni Larsen had to send word out to his colleagues that this had never happened. The workers then held a meeting, in which they asked the management to explain why it had made false statements. "Had the management just explained why, then this conflict would never have broken out", says Ronni Larsen. The management chose not to engage in dialogue with the strikers, and instead told them that it had already been announced that the stoppage was going against the agreement.
The fact that these conditions had not provoked a conflict at a much earlier stage is due to the lack of organisation, which previously was the case. If anyone protested back then, they would certainly be harassed or sacked. However, since the breaking out of this conflict, the importance of organising has become very clear for the refuse collectors involved, and all of them have joined the United Federation of Danish Workers Unions. (3F)
The employers at HCS have talked a lot about this strike being against the collective agreement, and should have been stopped because of that. This has never been denied by the strikers. But it is also against the agreement when the employer does not comply with health and safety regulations, which is exactly what made the whole conflict erupt in the first place.
It is not just the refuse collectors that are being tricked by HCS, but also the local councils. The company gets them to pay more for the waste removal than they are supposed to, involving greater expense for the taxpayers. On top of this, the refuse collectors we have spoken to have told us that the owner of HCS sets up and closes down companies all the time. Many of these have not made a profit, at least on paper. In reality, however, the situation is completely different, as the money has gone straight into the employers’ pockets. HCS management have shown themselves completely incapable of operating a company, and as such they should lose their right to do business in Denmark.
Scabbing undermines the agreement
The refuse collectors have now been fired and another enterprise has taken over their routes. Three local councils have hired this company to rid them of three weeks’ worth of accumulated trash. The problem is that this company is a HCS subcontractor firm, employing scabs from a temporary work agency.
"In this way, it is still HCS that is collecting the garbage, and that is totally unacceptable", says Ronni Larsen. "It seems like there has been a secret deal which we obviously cannot accept. We also know that workers in the subcontractor firm are underpaid and that the company does not operate on collective bargaining terms".
"This is totally crazy. Anything we have fought for, they are not given, whether it is safety shoes, working clothes... nothing. All they get when meeting at work is a vest, and then they are told to get in the truck", says another one of the refuse collectors. And here we are talking about a vehicle designed for two people, into which four people are squeezed. "Two people sit on the seats, and then two others sit in the back. There are no seatbelts back there. It’s really dangerous".
In the beginning, the strike was "only" about the HCS company. But now that the workers have been fired, the conflict has gained a much broader significance. If the labour movement accepts that employers can just sack protesting workers and replace them with subcontractors who disregard collective agreements and health and safety regulations, then everything the labour movement has fought for is undermined. The employers are using the HCS conflict as a test. If they can achieve their aims in this conflict, they can succeed elsewhere.
What we see here are attacks against all workers. If the capitalists are successful in their assault on the former HCS workers, then they will apply the same methods in every workplace in the country, one by one. The entire labour movement must join together in the struggle against the attacks on collective bargaining agreements.
Shop steward Ronni Larsen being arrested by the police in front of the Vestforbrændingen incinerator plant.The refuse collectors have chosen to start a blockade of two incinerator plants in Copenhagen, refusing garbage trucks from the subcontractor firm access to the facilities. The workers, guarding the entrances to the plants, ask the truck drivers to turn around and drive the other way. Most of them do so. The police have been assigned to make sure that at least some of the trucks are able to pass through. Most of the times the officers have remained calm, and there were only a few episodes of close contact with the workers, as police tried to push them away from the road. But then on Friday, October 23, shop steward Ronni Larsen and another refuse collector were arrested in front of the Vestforbrændingen incinerator plant. The arrest was quite brutal and completely unfounded. It is an outrage that an elected shop steward is arrested because of talking to workers, who are acting as scabs.
The Danish parliament abolished the right to engage in blockades during labour conflicts back in the 1970s, but this has not stopped the labour movement from using this weapon against the employers. Strike action is the only true power the workers possess, and the blockade is in many cases the only way to secure an effective strike. The bourgeois government is currently engaged in helping their friends, the employers, by means of the so-called "thug-package". One of the new policies in this package is raising five-fold the fine for "obstructing police-work". This is going to include labour blockades. The workers' parties must expose the “thug-package” as part of the employers' offensive against wages and working conditions, and fight against its adoption. If the labour movement accepts attacks on labour blockades, it will mean a complete opening of the gates for employers to use strikebreaking methods.
As far as we know, the 3F union is organising meetings protesting the arrests, as we write these lines. This is absolutely the only correct decision. A national day of strike action, in solidarity with the refuse collectors and in defence of labour rights must be held. However, not just the workers of 3F, but members of the entire Danish Confederation of Trade Unions must be involved. Attacks on the right to strike and setting up blockades are of concern to all workers, not just the members of 3F.
The conflict is part of a broader struggle
It is so obvious that these events are not merely a conflict between the HCS management and their employees. The refuse collectors are pawns in a bigger game. When they originally called for a meeting, the HCS management contacted the Confederation of Danish Industries (DI - a major employers' organization of the largest companies in Denmark) before announcing that the workers could accept their miserable conditions or go home. In other words, the employers are seeking confrontation.
The employers have taken advantage of the crisis to attack wages and working conditions within all fields of labour. The threat of being sacked has led many workers to take temporarily a step back. The employers of the DI wants to show the workers once and for all that it is no good complaining about poor working conditions, and that strikes are useless. They wish to use the refuse collector conflict as a warning to the rest of the working class. It is no coincidence that this conflict has arisen four months before the opening of collective bargaining and the local wage negotiations that follow on from that. What we see here is a display of force by the employers, in preparing their demands for wage-freezes (which will mean real wage reductions) or out-and-out wages cuts.
This makes winning the conflict even more important. The employers are aware of the fact that people have only given in temporarily to the imposition of poor conditions. If they can crush the worst "troublemakers" now, and close down the workplaces with the highest levels of organisation, then they will be in a stronger position in future conflicts.
Let there be no doubts about the fact that this is just the first wave of attacks on wages and working conditions. The employers constantly talk of "restoring competitiveness". The conflict of the HCS workers shows exactly what the bosses are really aiming at: the scrapping of the collective bargaining agreements and health and safety regulations which the workers have fought for.
Tremors in the unions
Workers from all across the country are closely watching the struggle of the HCS refuse collectors. Shortly before the strike, a shop steward was elected at HCS for the first time ever. The strike, and the blockade that followed, is of importance for the confidence of the entire working class. In many places there is a feeling that enough is enough, but there is also a fear of getting sacked if one stands up against attacks from the employers.
By standing together, the refuse collectors at HCS have shown the way forward. Unity is the only option, not just in individual workplaces, but in the entire working class. More young people are being elected as workers' representatives and we see the rise of a new mood within the labour movement, a will to struggle. We welcome this process with open arms.
What we are dealing with here are attacks on all members of the labour movement, and that is why supporting the conflict must be addressed in all unions and workplaces. The 3F union must support the struggling workers, on a local as well as a national level. They must contact the big workplaces, invite the refuse collectors to talk about their struggle, collect money and call for people to come out and assist with the blockade.
If the struggle remains isolated, it will inevitably suffer defeat. The only way the working class can win rights is by mobilizing. The outstanding example of the HCS refuse collectors must be followed by the rest of the workers’ movement. This fight is not won by attending expensive dinners with the employers; it is won in the streets, through strikes, blockades and pickets. When the entire basis of the working class movement is under assault, as is the case with the former HCS workers, then it is the task of the entire workers’ movement to mobilise in defence of fundamental rights of the working class.
That is why the 3F must initiate a solidarity strike within the entire field of waste management, as soon as possible. A national meeting of shop stewards should be held where the struggle can be discussed and where a further plan of action and escalation can be decided on, by means of solidarity strikes in the industry and transport sectors. The Confederation of Trade Unions should be the organizer of such meetings, but it becomes the task of the shop stewards in the biggest workplaces if they do not take on this responsibility. Employers fear only one thing: a united working class. And with good reason! If the leaders of the labour movement dare to go forward and mobilize the enormous strength of the working class, then victory is within reach.
The Socialist Peoples' Party must work for municipal in-sourcing of waste management
HCS is contracted as a private enterprise by four local councils, who are also the owners of the Vestforbrændingen incinerator plant. In connection with the council elections on November 17, a deal has been made between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the workers’ parties - the Social Democrats, the Socialist Peoples' Party and the Red-Green Alliance. An important part of the agreement deals with local councils stopping further privatizations, and considering some areas to be "in-sourced", e.g. rolling back earlier privatizations and outsourcings, and leave the handling of these areas to the councils.
It is well known that privatizations lead to attacks on wages and working conditions, because all of a sudden someone has to make a profit. We can see this effect in the case of HCS. The councils must take over the running of waste management, and thereby secure jobs and decent conditions for the sacked refuse collectors, as well as the removal of the accumulated trash.
All local branches of the three workers’ parties, especially in the councils affected, need to discuss the struggle of the refuse collectors and make the in-sourcing of waste management part of their electoral programme at the municipal elections. Social Democratic mayors are heading all the affected councils. That adds to the importance of the Social Democrat party members (as well as of the SPP and the Red-Green Alliance) putting pressure on the municipal councils. No mayor from a workers’ party should ever call in the police against workers taking strike action. On the contrary, it is the duty of the workers’ parties to be at the forefront in supporting workers engaged in strikes or other conflicts.
The bourgeois government is responsible
The outsourcings can be easily reversed. But it is a well known fact that the municipalities lack financial resources. Each year of rule by the bourgeois government has seen cuts in these resources. That is why this conflict is also indirectly caused by the government’s policies of cuts in public spending. And that is also why this labour dispute is implicitly political. Outsourcings, and the consequent worsening of working conditions, form part of the bourgeois agenda.
The workers’ movement must unite in the struggle for the overthrow the bourgeois government as soon as possible, and for the creation of a workers’ government - a government that dares to challenge the capitalist class and reclaim all that has been lost for the working class.
The Socialist Peoples' Party has previously supported workers in struggle, as seen among other examples in the strike of the civil servants. This success must be repeated. The place of the SPP is at the forefront in the struggle for the rights of the refuse collectors and the entire working class. A plan to support the struggle must be carried out by the party leadership and the branches. They could organise collections, public meetings with the aim of gaining broader support for the workers involved, and so on. The Danish Marxists of Socialistisk Standpunkt call for the refuse collectors and anyone else who supports their struggle to join the SPP, and fight for the party to present a plan for in-sourcing the waste management in all local councils, in cooperation with the Social Democrats and the Red-Green Alliance.
- Support the struggle of the refuse collectors!
- Defend collective agreements - the 3F and the Confederation of Trade Unions must actively support the workers’ blockade!
- Spread the strike - call for a national meeting of shop stewards!
- "In-source" waste management and all other privatizations!