Socialist Alternative

Unite members vote to strike: Solidarity with bin workers in Coventry!

Drivers of the bin lorries in Coventry have returned a huge majority for industrial action in a dispute over pay and the Council’s plan to make staff work through Christmas. 

The level of feeling amongst members of Unite is reflected in the huge margin in favour of industrial action: 98.5 per cent in support of striking on a turnout of 90 per cent. 

Action is due to begin on Tuesday 21st December for three days, with more strikes planned. 

Labour-controlled Coventry City Council have refused to increase the pay for drivers to an acceptable level at a time when the cost of living is spiralling and workers with HGV licences can get much higher pay elsewhere. Pay for drivers at Coventry City Council is just £22,000, whilst reports show that elsewhere drivers can earn between £35,000 and £50,000. 

As Unite general secretary Sharon Graham explained in a Unite press release:

“A 98 per cent vote in favour of industrial action shows the bin lorry drivers are fed up with low rates of pay. Especially when they see what they could earn elsewhere nowadays. The council can resolve this dispute if it wants to. It is not of our making. 

 “Unite is the union which prioritises the jobs, pay and conditions of its members. So we will be ensuring that our members at Coventry council receive the union’s full and total support until this dispute is satisfactorily resolved.”

Council try and cut Christmas for bin workers

That the Council have refused to move on this is bad enough. To make matters even worse, they are attempting to force bin workers to work all the way through Christmas. In previous years bin collections have not continued through Christmas allowing workers to have a break. 

This comes at a time when staff across the Council have been under huge pressure to deliver vital services and this has been even more so for bin collections. Coventry City Council talks a lot about ‘wellbeing’ and ‘mindfulness’ – but in practice they are attempting to take away a crucial and valuable time of rest for hard working staff. 

A tough job made even more difficult

Bin workers carry out their job in all weathers and conditions, with their tasks made harder due to the failures of senior management. 

As a Socialist Alternative member wrote earlier this year when it was mooted by a Tory councillor that the bins should be privatised:

Instead of fighting government cuts in 2017, Coventry Labour Council decided to cut green-lidded bin collections down to once a fortnight, increasing pressure on workers whilst also negatively impacting working class Coventry citizens.”

“As one bin worker stated in a press report: “Since the introduction of fortnightly household bin collections and the voluntary redundancy offered, daily targets have increased whilst the workforce has decreased, leading to bin crews being given impossible tasks to complete and the health and safety of the employees being put further at risk.”

“It was recently revealed that workers often feel they have to ignore health and safety measures if they are to achieve their workload targets. Disgustingly, last month the council tried to blame workers who were following health and safety guidelines for disruption to the waste collection service – accusing crews of “continuing with their action” as though they were undertaking industrial action and not just being unable to work safely and complete their workload.”

What ‘One Coventry’ means

One of the key slogans of senior management and the political leadership of the Council is ‘One Coventry’. However, an organisation should not be judged on the colourful platitudes on posters placed inside its buildings, but how it actually treats its staff. Workers at Whitley Depot have often felt like they are treated differently and the latest escalation by the Council does nothing to change that feeling. 

Don’t let the Council divide workers

In response to Unite announcing the ballot result a Council statement said ‘We have to be fair to all our workforce and we cannot make exceptions.’ This implies that Unite is asking for something unfair. But actually what is being asked for is basic respect for the workforce and measures that could actually improve retention and staffing levels. 

The Council spends huge amounts each year on agency staff in different departments, as well as having accumulated huge financial reserves. 

The propaganda from the employer will need to be countered amongst staff across the Local Authority. Information about what the dispute is about needs to be circulated not only by Unite, but by GMB, UNISON and the teaching unions. Any victory for Unite on the bins would give huge confidence to every council worker in the fight for decent pay and working conditions. The other unions can come to the aid of Unite by loudly stating support for their action and showing solidarity. This could galvanise all union members for what is coming down the line. 

Impact on the fight to win the national pay claim

All three council unions submitted a claim of 10 per cent for the 2021/2022 pay round. The Local Government Employers offered a derisory 1.75 per cent, in the context of inflation running at over 4 per cent! The pay of council workers has dropped by up to 20 per cent in real terms since 2010. This is not acceptable! The three unions are at different stages of the balloting process – for example UNISON have just begun a ballot for industrial action. Locally the unions could link up and have joint meetings on both the national pay campaign and the dispute on the bins. It is important that shop stewards and reps start linking up within and across the different unions, increase joint working to win our pay claim and to fight against any attacks on terms and conditions. 

Labour again attacking its own workforce and refusing to stand up to Tory central government

Once again we have the situation where Coventry Labour council is attacking its own workforce. There have been many examples of the Council turning its fire on its own staff. In 2015 Labour tried to undermine the ability of unions to represent members by cutting facility time for union reps. After a successful campaign this attack was defeated. In 2016 bin workers were forced to strike to defend a Unite convenor who had been suspended – he won reinstatement. 

Under Sharon Graham Unite has cut funding to the Labour Party. There needs to be an organised discussion throughout the trade union movement about what form working class political organisation should take in the context of attacks by Labour councils and Starmer’s driving out of the left in the Labour Party. Labour have dutifully carried out cuts on behalf of central government, and Coventry has been no exception to this. Unite has national policy on setting of council budgets that meet the needs of working class communities and there should be a union wide discussion about how this can be fought for. 

Gaining public support

Working-class people are being hammered by huge increases in the cost of living and big problems of burnout and fatigue, having worked so hard through the pandemic. No ordinary person is immune from this. Benefit claimants have had their Universal Credit cut by £20 per week whilst the number of billionaires has increased since the start of the pandemic. Locally our Council Tax is being increased yet again, with it going up from April 2022. The motto of the Council should be ‘pay more, get less services!’ It will be entirely possible for Unite to get huge public support in this dispute – the fight for better pay and conditions is one that could really resonate with people across our city. The employer and local right wing politicians will try to divide bin workers and the rest of the city. This can be cut across with the active support of trade unions and community organisations around the city. 

Socialist Alternative stands in solidarity with Unite and the bin workers. We say:

  • The Council should withdraw changes to Christmas working and agree pay enhancements with the union. 
  • Build support for the strikes! All working class people in the city should get behind the Unite members. A victory for Unite will give confidence to all workers in Coventry
  • All council workers should reject the 1.75 per cent national pay offer and support industrial action for a pay increase of 10 per cent. Union action can win our pay claim!
  • More staff are clearly needed; the Council should employ them on permanent, secure contracts.
  • The Labour Council should actively fight for more funding from central government and stop passing on Tory cuts. 
  • Unions should look to link up disputes and coordinate action. 

If you agree with what we are fighting for, get in touch with Socialist Alternative!