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Photo: Jack Sherwood

Photo: Jack Sherwood

HGV bin drivers of the Unite union in Coventry vow to bring their employers to their knees in strike rally to demand fair pay, reports Kieran Crowe

On Saturday 26 March, Coventry’s heavily regenerated town center played host to a public rally called by Unite the Union in support of the long-running and high-profile strike by bin HGV drivers in the city, which is getting close to 100 days of action already.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has been vocally championing the Coventry strike, and in doing so coming into direct conflict with the Labour Party both locally and nationally. Coventry’s solidly Labour council is responsible for the entire dispute, despite its increasingly bizarre propaganda claiming that it would ‘illegal’ for them to get involved in negotiations between the union and the arms-length waste management company (a lie cheerfully and uncritically repeated by the local media) and not one councilor has spoken to the workers.

Tensions about this have gone right to the top of both the union and the party, with Keir Starmer publicly backing the council and saying that his ‘new management’ of Labour means that he does not have to listen to the arguments made by Unite or its members.

So, when Graham made her opening speech, it was not surprising that she some harsh words for Labour. A third of the council group are Unite members, and she announced that all of them have had their union memberships suspended while they are under investigation for:

– Spreading false claims about the workers’ pay, which Coventry Labour has laughably suggested is as high as £52,000 a year – a fantasy figure.

– Spending council tax payers’ cash on a high-cost scabbing operation to break the strike, which sees them paying out more than the union is even claiming.

– The victimisation of Unite representative Pete Randall on a range of made-up allegations.

“One in our pockets, and another up our backs will no longer be tolerated!” she announced, to significant cheering and chants of “Coventry Council, pay the rate!” from the bin workers’ at the front of the audience.

Video: Jack Sherwood

Anger against Labour in this dispute is very real, and Graham’s combative stance chimes with what the workforce feels. The only politician to address the rally was a Labour MP, but not a local. Ian Lavery, the member for Wansbeck and a veteran of the miners’ strike, struck a fighting tone with the line "This isn't a dispute about pay, this is an attempt to smash Unite the Union and it must be resisted." and proceeded to compare the situation to the P&O mass-sacking crisis that is, of course, still unfolding.

Lavery is not wrong.  All signs to point to this council seeking to significantly and permanent reduce the bargaining power and conditions of the workforce by pushing them out to a fully privatised service (that they will still control, despite it making private profits). But again, he is saying this of a Labour council.

There were several other speakers, many of whom were very good, particularly those that were talking about their own experiences of how this dispute is affecting them. One most impressive was easily the striker workers’ own actual convenor, Hayden Jones. The crowd also responded strongly to calls for personal support for Pete Randall, who the council are seeking to make an example of. His situation is only the most public example of a real personal contempt that the Labour group has shown to the strikers. This conflict is bitter.

Video: Jack Sherwood

There has been real growth of industrial action among bin workers throughout Britain in the past two years, involving both the Unite and GMB unions, from Glasgow all the way down to the south coast. In some respects, it’s not too surprising. These are people performing a service essential to both public health and the environment, upon whom we all relied heavily during two hard years of COVID-19 lockdowns, and who are being asked now, like so many others, to shoulder an entirely unjust burden of reduced living standards as their reward.

They have several strategic advantages that they have been able to use to deliver effective industrial action, and there are real victories getting notched up in multiple parts of the country and winning pay increases that at least keep pace, if not actually beat, the current crazy levels of inflation.

The Coventry dispute, though, has become the iconic one. It’s difficult not to see that as being because it has become the physical expression of the deep and potentially catastrophic conflict between the Labour Party and the trade union movement. We are used to periods of Labour opposition seeing the unions attempt to close ranks with it, and that was certainly true for the entire previous decade. It is historically unusual for a Labour opposition to have such terrible and declining relations with the union leaderships, but it also is offering nothing to trade union members and seems increasingly to have developed an invented history of the Tony Blair government being electorally successful without loyal support from the unions, which is false.

From the union side, the bin workers’ industrial action has avoided talk of “getting a left council elected” in favour of a very raw industrial strategy of using strike action to force councils of all kinds to give the workers their due.

The rally ended with upbeat chants and calls for the public to support the strikers in any way they can – writing to the council, giving money, or coming to the picket lines. It would be difficult not to be a bit enthused by the very real courage and determination that they’ve shown, and we shouldn’t ever lose sight of the fact that, at the end of the day, this is about a bunch of people just trying to maintain a decent standard of living in the face of a crisis they’ve been working hard to deal with.

It does also need to be said, however, that this is also a dispute that exposes the complete failure of our political system to do anything positive in response to the general economic and social emergency in our society. Its outcome is going to affect a lot of what comes next as the crisis deepens.

Video: Jack Sherwood

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