The role of agency workers in the supreme war between Capital and Labour is not an especially noble one: they are mercenaries, shunted from battle to battle, and alternatively exploited and treasured by their capitalist commanders. Morale is always low and desertion and casualty rates are always heavy. Yet agency workers are not pacifists, and a period of harmony in industrial relations will mean that most of them are left waiting impatiently for the hostilities to resume again.
Four years ago, Edinburgh City Council declared itself to be in a state of war with the city’s bin men. There was a backlog of uncollected refuse and the Council was days away from having to announce to its voters that, “We give up. We can’t collect your rubbish. We just can’t do it.” At my own agency, the mobilisation was epic. Hundreds of workers had awoken expecting to spend the morning shivering in their apartments or plodding aimlessly around the shops, but they now found themselves agreeing to twelve hour shifts of intense and often filthy manual labour.
I am always overwhelmed and put on the spot when the phone rings. I feel guilty about my lack of spontaneous enthusiasm; work is a great luxury these days, and one should accept it with gratitude. “Biggy!” my boss bellowed over the sounds of office turmoil, somehow evoking the picture of a general in the midst of battle, co-ordinating waves of cavalry. “Can you work tonight and tomorrow?” I toyed wistfully with the idea of refusing, before my heart sank and I said yes.
In most of the industries we are sent to the employees do not realise that agency workers are essentially professional scabs, but unfortunately for us the bin men were a bit more clued up. We were glared at, sworn at ferociously from a judicious distance, and whenever we appeared, there would be the sudden electrical atmosphere of the poltergeist in the air. You would catch them coming out of the corners of your eye: pens that would clip the side of your head, drinks coasters that would deflect off your jaw and make your head spin with frantic paranoid calculations. It was even worse when the bin men pitied us. It was not our fault, they announced majestically. We were like orphaned chimney-sweeps, earning only a fraction of our own wages and with the rest going to our capitalist bosses. This friendliness would peter out once it became evident to the bin men that we were still not going to stop working.
One afternoon I was heading in the direction of the Powderhall depot when I came across Callum, this kid who sometimes creeps into my apartment to sleep with my wife. He was standing outside the Omni Centre giving out flyers. I accepted a flyer and for a whole one second of my existence absorbed its predictably energetic display of apparently random words and shapes. “Is this a nightclub?”
Callum was stumped. “Dinnae ken. But it must be.” I wondered without curiosity which of the random words on the flyer was the name of the club.
“You’re signed on to the agency, aren’t you? Come and work on a bin lorry with me this afternoon. They need anybody they can get.”
“Ah ah’m sorry man. I have to gie oot these flyers.”
I’ve never understood how the distributor can make sure that all of their flyers are handed out. “Whatever stops you from throwing them over somebody’s garden wall?”
Callum was pleased that he knew something which I did not. “I’ll tell yeh,” he decided, eying me knowingly. “They hae a satellite and they can monitor yeh through yeh phone.”
“They told you this, did they?”
“Aye. An it means that I cannae leave this position until faer o’clock.”
For a moment, I was going to walk away and leave Callum there, but I then resolved to take a pot shot at his satellite. “I’ll tell you a secret. I think someone once told me that there’s a way you can get around these satellite signals.”
Callum looked very sober, as if we were suddenly talking about drugs. “Really?”
I nodded earnestly. “Tin foil. It absorbs the signal so that the satellite remains locked overhead. And it just so happens…” I was rummaging in my bag, “… that today my baguette is wrapped in foil.”
I squatted down beside Callum. “Now lift your left leg…” For a precarious moment, Callum was wobbling on one leg. “And now your right…” Callum found himself looking down at the crumpled silver square beneath his boots. “Now step off the foil, but keep holding your phone over it… and now pull away your phone quick!”
Freed from Callum’s weight, the patch of foil started to crawl along the pavement in the breeze. “It’s blawing awae,” Callum broached.
“If it’s blowing around the Omni Centre, the satellite will think that you’re very busy – running about handing out all the flyers.”
At the depot, I made sure that I was the only person on our team who could drive. I was soon established comfortably at the wheel of our truck, Michal was sitting beside me reading the Sat-Nav, and Felip sat beside him keeping an ear out for the radio. Outside, Callum and Henry, an elderly Tory who had apparently joined us as a volunteer to “teach the Unions a lesson!” were both jogging alongside the truck and hauling the bins into position. Our route took us on a laborious trundle around a quiet part of the New Town and then up to the Ferry Road.
When we stopped for a tea break, Henry refused to sit down and he was then immediately pestering for us to continue. It was imperative that we keep going and show the Unions that things could manage perfectly well without them. At some level of consciousness, Michal, Felip and I had each decided not to get too friendly with Henry. His eyes were already wild and his face was a ghastly mottled purple. We did not wish to feel obliged to attend his funeral once he had died in the road trying to chase after our truck. On the other hand, none of us were disposed to forfeit our own seats in the cabin.
After we had resumed, a message flashed across the airwaves. Could the nearest truck collect a pair of sofas from the Queensferry Road by four o’clock?
I flung open the door of the cabin. “Get in the truck!” I roared, revving the engine extravagantly. “There’s a sofa.”
Callum scampered up into the cabin to find that there was nowhere for him to sit. Michal tersely indicated that Callum could sit in his lap.
Henry remained planted in the road and there was now fire in his eye. “We must stick to the route!”
“Get in the truck, old man.”
“This is not acceptable… I warn you that this shall not go unreported…” But Felip had climbed down and scooped up Henry under his arm. Back in the cabin, Henry found himself imprisoned in Felip’s lap as forlornly as a Pekingese.
The truck was now gliding through the suburbs with an unnerving, improbable swiftness. The radio barked and spluttered. “All trucks must stick to their routes unless they are in the vicinity of the sofas.” Henry’s eyes were huge and scared.
“Felip?” I called. A grunt issued from somewhere within the hot stack of bodies beside me. “There are a couple of trucks from Russell Road prowling around, aren’t there? Manned by council men?”
“Yes I was working there last week…” But I jumped a red light and Felip’s voice was drowned within a cacophony of outraged beeps. “… so I guess they’ll be approaching from Drum Brae or Clermiston.”
“Give me the radio…” Henry’s eyes bulged with panic as I overtook a racing ambulance. The paramedics were all waving their fists at us.
“This is Powderhall-West to HQ” I declared in my blandest, emptiest BBC voice. “We are proceeding to Queensferry Road. Could you clarify the whereabouts of other trucks in our vicinity?”
“Russell Road-South is approaching via Clermiston Road,” HQ replied frostily, doubtlessly not knowing which of us they disapproved of the most.
“Very well. Returning to route,” I lied. We were bumping up and down in the cabin and I had the brief, odd impression that I was sitting alongside a pair of sodomists. Rather than going around the roundabout, I had ploughed straight over it. We plunged back down into the scandalised traffic and an eruption of beeps, which met in a single prolonged note like an orchestra tuning.
I pulled up across the junction with Clermiston Road and without any signal from me, the cabin was promptly evacuated. I fished for Henry’s wrist before he was carried off as well.
I rattled Henry together to collect his wits. “I’m looking forward to this. It will be one in the eye for the Unions.”
Henry gulped and gripped my arm. “It will?”
The sounds of blaring car horns and voices raised in protest reached us from outside. I began to ease the truck away from the junction. “Now Henry, your job is to stay here and make sure that the council men do some work for once. Cross your arms and stand your ground. Keep watching them until they are finished.”
Henry was bundled out into the afternoon light to find that several tons of rubbish had been strewn across the Clermiston Road, leaving a slapdash but effective barricade. The wormhole to an alternative reality must have opened on the other side, for a mirror-image refuse truck was pulling up before the barricade and its own bin men were climbing out. They were now gazing at the lake of garbage with a sort of enraged, choking admiration. Henry felt very frail as he crossed his arms.
Two beige sofas, each as elaborately wrinkled as the hide of a tortoise, waited on the pavement some way down the Queensferry Road. There was an old knife in the cabin and everybody stood back as I made various deep incisions in the sofas’ backs and sides. When Felip and I lifted the first sofa up and began to shake it, a steady stream of coins danced like a brief, magical rainfall on the pavement. Coins poured out of the second sofa as if it was piggybank which had stood undisturbed since its owner’s childhood. We found a fiver in the second sofa, but there were otherwise no banknotes. Aside from the money, we unearthed several slyly-concealed used condoms, two ancient AA batteries, what looked like the skeleton of a herring, and a faded copy of the Radio Times from 1995.
The sofas were painstakingly dismantled and coins were brushed from every crease and crevice. Once the autopsies were complete, we were left with almost a tenner each. Sometimes such a sum can equal two hours of our working day.