Socialist Alternative

Labour exposes its true colour in Coventry City Council

We reported previously about the strike action being taken by bin HGV drivers in Coventry over pay and conditions. This has now been escalated to all-out action which will begin at the start of February. 

The Labour-run Council hasn’t been engaging in serious talks with Unite in order to resolve the ongoing dispute. Instead, it has attempted to turn working class residents of Coventry against the strikers through using deliberate misinformation about wages [find here an example of a wage slip of one of the workers and a vacancy advertised on the council website]. They also set up ‘mobile sites’ across the city where working class residents are expected to drop off their bins. This step is not just disregarding people with disabilities and mobility issues or those without a car, but an attack on our public services and an attempt to weaken and break the strike!

The council also uses the service of Tom White Waste, a private company owned by Coventry City Council, to weaken the strike. Just a few days ago an advertisement by a recruitment agency for a HGV Class 2 Driver vacancy on Indeed website offered a starting wage of £26 an hour. Another advertisement from recent days showed 40 bin loaders are being recruited and the council admitted it is bringing a private contractor to do the bin collections whilst the strike is on. This is not just strike breaking, but also possibly a preparation for long term plans of privatisation. If the council can afford paying all this money on operating eleven ‘drop off’ sites and paying a fortune to private companies to run what is supposed to be a public service, why can’t they pay the strikers a decent wage they can live on?  

Coventry Labour Council – ‘Labour by name, Tory by policy’

On January 14 George Duggins, the Labour leader of Coventry City Council, was interviewed on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire radio about the strike. 

When asked if he would rule out the council carrying out ‘Fire and Rehire’, he argued it’s not an issue for him to decide but that it’s up to the chief executive. Then when asked again whether it’s an ‘ethically sound’ measure for the council to carry out, he again avoided answering directly whether ‘fire and rehire’ is on or off the table.  

This is a shameful response, especially as Duggins himself is a Unite member and as Labour only recently went ‘all out’ in parliament, calling to outlaw ‘fire and rehire’.  Working class people faced enormous hardship during the pandemic; working whilst risking our health and safety; losing a significant amount of our wages if furloughed; some of us even lost our jobs, homes and even our loved ones. This was while corporations such as Amazon and the richest billionaires got even richer. This shameful and ungrateful attack by employers of ‘fire and rehire’;reducing pay and attacking working conditions should be unambiguously ruled out by the council along with the continuation of employing workers on casual contracts and without any job security. 

Whilst Duggin’s reply was evasive, Labour councils carrying out such exploitative tactics is not uncommon. Only a year ago, 4000 council workers in the Labour- run council of Tower Hamlets went on strike to stop plans  to sack them and then rehire them on worse pay, terms and conditions. Sandwell Leisure Trust, which runs the Sandwell Council leisure centres in Tipton, West Midlands, also used ‘fire and rehire’ tactics. The employer is cynically blaming the pandemic for damaging the leisure industry whilst some of the Commonwealth Games 2022 will take place in their new £73 million-worth centre. On December 14 last year, workers once again were picketing against this shameful attack. 

Duggins also misled the public about who actually runs the council. Is it the elected representatives like himself or the unelected, unscrutinised Senior Management employed by those elected representatives? 

In the interview George Duggins tried to deflect the blame onto the Tories, saying they face a Conservative opposition on the council that calls for ‘testing the market’ (i.e. to privatise the service). The interviewer rightly mentioned that the council itself runs Tom White Waste. 

Cracks appearing in the ruling Labour group?

The strike has put enormous pressure on the Council as it exposes their role in attacking their own workers. Unite posted on social media what they called the ‘Hall of Shame’, where they listed Labour councillors who didn’t support the strike. Up until the third week of the strike, not a single councillor came out in support. Last week, the industrial action forced 4 Councillors to say they supported it. Exposing Labour’s role in the council through Unite’s ‘Hall of Shame’ has been effective. It can and should be stepped up by leafleting areas represented by silent Councillors to let residents know that their local representative is failing to support workers. Unite have also set up a platform for Coventry residents to contact their local Labour Councillors to put pressure on them to support the workers and we encourage all of our readers in Coventry to do so. 

Zarah Sultana has also shown support by visiting one of the pickets. The four councillors and Zarah should use their public platforms including social media pages to help build support for the strike by distributing the facts about wages, conditions and the strike’s demands to their constituents. It could help in building support and expose the council’s misinformation to the wider public. Zarah’s high profile could give the strike greater national attention and put the Council under the spotlight.

How can we organise to fight back?

‘Fire and rehire’, privatisation of public services, zero hour contracts- these policies are not in the interest of workers or the labour movement, that the Labour Party allegedly is supposed to represent. Tactics like these serve only the exploitative and parasitic capitalist class, making more profit through a ‘race to the bottom’.  

The lack of support from the majority of the Labour group underlines again why we as Socialist Alternative, put forward that there needs to be an organised debate and discussion in Unite about working class political representation and organisation. This should include discussing ceasing of funding to right wing labour councillors, especially in the run up to the local elections. Within any such debate or discussion Socialist Alternative would argue for a new mass left party based on the struggles of working class people. Any debate should include, how we build a working class fight back within and beyond the trade union movement; how we build coordinated action for real living wages and against pro-capitalist policies adopted by both the Tory government and right wing Labour councils such as the council in Coventry; how we can concretely strengthen working class struggles. These are some of the issues that should be concretely discussed in Unite and beyond.