Bin workers in Coventry remain defiant against the Labour Council's underhanded tactics, report Kieran Crowe and Jack Sherwood
Coventry bin drivers (HGV drivers) are escalating their struggle against increasing aggression by the Labour-led council. We visited the picket line on Thursday and Friday this week and found a buoyant and determined mood among the large group of strikers (73 of the 88 drivers employed are in Unite union) who have moved to an all-out strike.
Passing traffic, including lorries and buses, honked horns in solidarity with the workers, who raised their fists and waved their Unite union flags. Coventry City Council is yet to offer any new pay deal to the workers, despite claiming it would do so by 28 January, and workers are ready to continue strike action in the coming weeks, with the current ballot extending through February and March.
The council has always conducted the confrontation with the bin drivers in bad faith, since the dispute began one year ago, but things have worsened. They have misrepresented both the workers’ concerns – claiming that they only want more money – as well vastly misrepresenting the amount bin drivers are paid. These HGV drivers are paid significantly less than market rate for their jobs, particularly considering the paid-for qualifications they must obtain to operate heavy refuse vehicles.
The employer has also increased its attacks on shift patterns and rosters, as well as claiming that bin workers must carry out tasks that are specifically outside their duties, such as collecting improperly left refuse from private properties.
The Labour council, whose members all refused to meet with bin workers even when a delegation of them went to the town hall, has shockingly employed strike-breakers at inflated pay rates – greater than the pay claim made by Unite the Union – to try and undermine the strike, in addition to diffusing misleading propaganda. What much of the workforce now suspect is that their agenda goes beyond an attack on the union, but an attack on the street services themselves, with a potentially sinister agenda.
There are key links between powerful individuals working for the council and private waste collection companies, that at the very least raise the question of conflicts of interest. One man named as a director at the council is Andrew James Walster who, according to both companies house and his own LinkedIn profile, is also an officer of a company called ‘Tom White Waste’, which is advertised online as being a “family run business… now owned by Coventry Council”. Is Coventry council deliberately running down the in-house collection service in order to shift the whole operation into a so-called arms-length company to conduct stealth privatisation as some of the workers now fear?
Coventry, one of the last authorities with a proper in-house refuse service, does not need to adopt any of the various failed and exploitative subcontracting models used elsewhere, not least because workers’ rights are going to take a hit. It is crucial that there be mobilisations to defend public service workers in the city.
On the national picture, strikers we spoke to said that the low levels of pay that many of them experience cannot be allowed to continue in the context of a rising cost of living. Several cited inspiration from successful strikes by refuse workers in other parts of the country, specifically mentioning Brighton. There was also a recognition on the picket that when senior executives at Coventry city council continue to receive salaries reaching £220,000 or more, there is certainly money that can be found to offer decent pay to skilled workers.
Find out more info on supporting the Coventry bin drivers strike here.
Striking workers from disputes around the country will be speaking at Counterfire's News from the Frontline: The Strikers Speak rally on Wednesday 9 February at 7pm. Register on Zoom here.
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