Blacktown City Council workers in western Sydney have walked off the job after refusing to use Roundup, a glyphosate-containing weed killer linked to cancer.

On 3 July, six staff members were told by management either to continue using the spray or to find another job after concerns were raised about the chemical’s safety. More than 500 outdoor workers immediately struck in response to the ultimatum, meeting again the next morning to vote to continue the strike.

Concessions were won within days, as more than 40,000 garbage bins stood uncollected across Blacktown. The council has committed to trialling alternative weed killers, although some teams will continue using Roundup during the five-month trial.

Roundup is owned by notorious agrochemical company Monsanto (recently bought out by Bayer) and has made global headlines over the past year due to a series of successful legal challenges from US cancer patients.

There is a growing scientific consensus that non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, pancreatic cancer and leukaemia can be caused by repeated exposure to glyphosate. 

Monsanto launched the herbicide in 1973, proclaiming it a miracle substance that destroys weeds without affecting crops. Over the past four decades, the company has insisted it is safe for human use – a claim it maintains – but the truth has emerged nevertheless.  

Internal documents, dubbed the Monsanto Papers, have been released in the legal proceedings. The documents show that Monsanto has consistently doctored the scientific evidence about glyphosate by avoiding research it suspects might produce negative results, ghost-writing journal articles that purport to be independent and attacking scientists whose research threatens its profits.

State regulatory bodies have parroted the company’s safety claims since the 1970s. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) issued a statement earlier this year insisting “products containing glyphosate can continue to be used safely according to label directions”, despite recognising that the Independent Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic for humans”. 

Blacktown City Council have justified their use of Roundup by citing APVMA’s ruling, although the striking workers have pointed out they are tested for signs of cancer every four years.

Glyphosate is ubiquitous in large scale agriculture because it is the most cost-effective way of preventing weeds. Corporate lobbyists have fought hard to retain the legal standing of the chemical, threatening mass food shortages should it be outlawed. 

An organic alternative to Roundup will be three times more expensive, according to Blacktown City Council. One worker hit back at this concern on Channel 10 saying, “Our lives are more important than cost, don’t you think?”

Last August, a landmark case in the US found that exposure to Roundup was a substantial factor in causing the terminal cancer of a school groundskeeper, and that the company had not done enough to warn of the potential dangers. 

In May Bayer was ordered to pay US$2 billion to a US couple who contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after using Roundup for 30 years. The company is currently facing more than 13,400 such cases.

Many local councils across Australia are being pressured to discontinue use of Roundup. The strike by Blacktown council workers appears to be the first recorded industrial action taken against the use of glyphosate. More such action will be necessary if government agencies continue to protect the carcinogenic product.