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Midlands binmen have gone on strike

Bin lorry drivers in Coventry are refusing to collect rubbish until the local council ups their wages.

On average, English households throw away 7.5kg of waste a week. If nobody comes to collect it, that’s quickly going to add up to a rather unpleasant mess. But many binmen in the Midlands don’t believe that the essential service they provide is being properly compensated. Since January, those that are part of the union Unite have been on strike, i.e. they have been refusing to do their jobs until their employer, the Labour-run local council, agrees to increase their pay and improve their working conditions.

The council disagrees with the binmens assessment. They say they are one of the highest-paying local authorities in the West Midlands, and that rubbish collectors take home an average pay of £30,000. That’s about on par with the UK's average wage. However, the binmen have pointed out that the council's wage figure has been skewed upwards because it includes things like overtime pay. They say their real average salary is closer to £25k.

The situation raises questions about who should decide how much people get paid and what criteria should be used to make these decisions. For a long time, the underlying assumption of our economy has been that wages should rise along with how valuable the worker is. But how we determine that value is an open question. Economics has long argued that the answer is ‘the law of supply and demand’. Basically, if the demand for a type of work is higher than the supply of people willing and able to do the work, wages go up. If the opposite is the case, wages go down.

Wage-setters often focus on the ‘able’ part when it comes to labour supply. Rubbish collection is often considered an example of low-skilled work, with low barriers to entry. That means large numbers of people could do it and it doesn’t require extensive training or qualifications. The conclusion is often that wages for this type of work should be on a lower end of the scale. But let’s look at the other bits of the equation. There is a significant demand for the binmens' service - we all throw a lot of stuff away, and if rubbish isn’t collected it becomes an eyesore and a health hazard, impacting our wellbeing. And there aren’t actually that many people willing to do the work. So we have high demand and low supply, which according to the formula should translate to higher wages.

So why hasn’t that happened in Coventry (at least not yet)? Well, the thing about the supply and demand formula is that all the parts of it can - and do - change quickly in response to an evolving situation. When the binmen went on strike it removed a lot of the existing supply. But Coventry council then responded in two ways. Firstly, they decreased demand by switching to fortnightly rather than weekly collection and by allowing residents access to tips so they could get rid of their own rubbish. Secondly, they topped the supply back up by hiring private agency workers to do the bin-collecting. This is much easier to do for jobs that aren’t specialised or high-skilled, which partly explains why it’s harder for those types of workers to get pay rises.

Interestingly, however, this does not seem to be a financially sound decision. The rubbish collector’s union says that resolving their dispute would cost £250,000. In the few weeks the strike has been happening, the cost to the council has already exceeded £1.8 million.  But there could be a few reasons why the council is making this choice. They could think it’ll be cheaper in the long run to hold out, on the basis that winning concessions now would make binmen and other council workers more likely to strike again in the future. Or it could be that councils, unlike many other bosses, are less beholden to their profit margins and more beholden to what local people think. In general, locals do not seem to be supportive of the strike or the binmen’s request for extra money. So the council may worry that giving in to the request will hurt their chances of being re-elected in the future.

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