Britain: Coventry bin workers defeat strike-breaking Labour council

Coventry bin workers protest the suspension of rep Pete Randle. (Photo Coventry Socialist Party)

With a 12.9% pay increase and Coventry council agreeing that the bogus charges against Unite the Union’s senior shop steward Pete Randle would not be pursued, Coventry’s HGV drivers have achieved a significant win.

This pay rise equates to the Grade 6 that the drivers have been demanding. When workers stick together, this is what can be achieved.

After over 27 weeks of strike action, burning through two braziers and in temperatures ranging from -8C to +40C, workers have won a wage deal that the council could have paid from the start.

Instead, the Labour council made public attacks on the workforce, organised strike breaking through an ‘alternative’ workforce and suspended a union rep in an all-out attack on the workers’ union.

But the council seriously underestimated its workforce. Their win was made possible by the sheer determination of the HGV drivers, the complete backing of Unite the Union and the solidarity given to the drivers from people in Coventry and around the country. During the dispute Unite also stopped funding to the regional Labour Party and suspended over 20 city councillors from the union.

The HGV drivers’ dispute was a significant strike from a national perspective and it has both inspired and become part of a wave of disputes across Britain as workers fight back against the Tory war on workers, a war that seems to have been joined by Labour.

“It is the longest strike in Unite’s history”, say convenor Haydn Jones and Pete Randle, and during it refuse workers have won pay awards across the country.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham tweeted: “This win shows the new direction of Unite the Union. We will defend our members’ pay and conditions however long it takes. This continuous action has delivered real terms pay increases for our members”.

Unite national officer Onay Kasab said: “Unite members relied on the strength of collective action which has secured yet another win for workers. Congratulations to the Coventry HGV strikers!”

Starmer’s distancing

During the dispute, Labour leader Keir Starmer dismissed the Coventry dispute as part of his ‘standing up to unions’ symbolism. His ‘a dispute in Coventry’ remarks merely strengthened the workers’ resolve. He has recently doubled down on his failure to support workers, telling MPs not to attend picket lines and sacking MP Sam Tarry from Labour’s front bench.

Little wonder that as well as their union pride chant of “Unite, Unite, we stand up and we fight”, the workers’ main chant was “Labour by name, Tory by policy”.

The drivers have given support to numerous disputes in the area over recent weeks, attacking not so much a ‘standards of living crisis’ but what they call a ‘crisis of greed’ from the bosses as profits soar.

The workers have become a true band of brothers and sisters and having defeated the attack on them will return to work with heads held high. But they are aware that it’s not over – that what’s forced out of them today, bosses will try to get back tomorrow.

The same unity that they have shown will be needed, as will strengthening the union, because whoever becomes Tory leader will continue war on services, and Labour’s refusal to resist that means we remain under threat.

There are many lessons from the Coventry dispute and two, in particular, stand out.

They are about, first, what kind of trade union working people need. That is a fighting combative union. This needs to become the norm in Unite in its ‘new direction’, and in other unions. Drivers remain angry that the path to their deal was disrupted by another union.

And secondly, what kind of political representation do workers need? Following the attacks of a Labour council and Labour’s utter failure to respond to the crisis workers face, shop stewards have discussed asking the union to disaffiliate from it.

Unite and the trade union movement will have to draw all the necessary conclusions from the lessons of the Coventry HGV strike and what we have seen from Tory-lite ‘blue’ Labour.

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August 2022