Pseudo-left coverage for Unite in Coventry refuse collectors strike as industrial action erupts across UK

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Coventry drivers are about to start the fourth month of their pay strike against a labor council which has staged a major scab operation. Their fight has been hampered by attempts by the Unite union to reduce any political struggle against Labour.

Strikers on the garbage picket line at Whitley depot in Coventry (WSWS Media)

This week, Coventry council was forced to deny it was preparing to issue 90-day redundancy notices against the 70 strikers, saying ‘we remain committed to legally resolving the issues raised by Unite through bargaining’.

After 10 previous days of action, the drivers went on an all-out strike on January 31. They ask to be promoted on a pay scale that recognizes their qualified and safety-critical role as heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. Drivers at the Whitley Road depot are paid between £11.49 and £14.37 an hour on the lowest pay tier. Last year, the time to progression to the highest pay grade almost doubled, from six to 11 years.

The council launched a scab operation, hiring temporary labor through AFE Employment and deployed an independent but council-owned waste management company, Tom White Waste Ltd. The strike-breaking operation cost over £2.8million. Tom White Waste has announced a 12% increase in wages for its truck drivers 2.

Unite did not mount any direct challenge to the scab operation. It even took two months to organize a token picket at the Tom White Waste site, which won a response and stopped the movement of vehicles. This underscored the need for escalation, but Unite tied the workers to bargaining at the government’s ACAS arbitration service without even demanding a strikebreaker stoppage as a precondition for the talks.

ACAS ruled in favor of the council, the predictable result of an arbitration process based on labor-management cooperation in suppressing labor struggles. This was the real basis of Sharon Graham’s ‘back to work’ platform for her election as general secretary of Unite last year – a corporatist program to integrate the union into management structures.

Unite union leader Sharon Graham (second from left) at a rally of Coventry refuse workers. (Sharon Graham/Twitter)

As the conflict between the strikers and Labor escalated, Unite worked to prevent it turning into a political rebellion. Graham, backed by pseudo-left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), initially announced Unite would review its Labor Party funding over the Coventry dispute. Yet Unite increased its membership dues to Labor last year, up to £750,000 in the last two months of 2021 from £663,122 in the previous eight months.

Labor supports the Coventry Council’s nationwide scab operation. Party leader Sir Keir Starmer rejected Graham’s rhetorical call for Labor to be ‘the party of the working people’, saying: ‘The Labor Party which I lead will not be swayed by threats from anyone is.”

A few threats! Graham told a rally earlier this month alone that Unite would not fund Coventry Labor in the local elections in May, and that all Coventry Unite Labor councilors and the leader of the council would be suspended from the union “while we are investigating your behavior”. No action against the national party was mentioned.

To buttress the union’s “militant” credentials, Richard Milner of the SWP tried to shift responsibility for continued support for Labor onto local bureaucrats. Under the headline “Coventry bin strikers demand more action from regional union leaders”, Milner wrote that “parts of the regional bureaucracy seem uncomfortable with a strike against a labor council, which is seen as disrupting Unite’s relationship with Labour”.

He contrasted this with the “overwhelming” presence of bureaucrats from Unite’s organizing department, providing an impeccable bill of health for the union nationwide. He goes out of his way to praise Graham for being ‘clear in saying that the Labor-led council is ‘war on our union’”, and for suspending union councilors in Coventry, only adding that it is not enough.

While Graham was forced to approve a strike against a labor council, she worked hard to prevent it from unnecessarily disrupting the union’s broader relationship with labour. His main criticism of Coventry councilors was only that they have “no Labor principles that I recognise”.

Milner is barely able to mention the great strikebreaking operation, which deserves only one direct reference. A second comment on the ‘strike bust’ refers to a court case being launched against counsel for the victimization of Unite union representative Pete Randle over allegations of ‘gross misconduct’. But Randle’s victimization was an escalation of the council’s wholesale strike-breaking attack on the entire workforce.

When Graham speaks of the board “making war on our union,” she means Unite’s place at the corporate table in exchange for suppressing or policing disputes. Milner’s emphasis on ‘regional’ support and criticism of ‘regional officials’ for allegedly betraying the best intentions of Graham and the national leadership assumes a level of independence that does not exist in practice . If Graham disagreed with the actions of her local officials, she would have no difficulty in making her opposition clear. And that would be translated into headlines by the SWP et al.

The SWP also disguises Unite’s role in regionally separating strikes within the same sector. There have recently been waves of nationwide disputes among garbage collectors, partly sparked by the imposition of a 1.75% wage increase cap for local government workers negotiated last year by the National Joint Council (NJC) for local government services.

The NJC has 70 members—12 employers’ organizations and 58 trade unions. Just a year ago, RPI inflation stood at 2.9%, making the union-agreed “wage hike” a reduction in real terms. RPI is now nine percent.

Workers everywhere are struggling to survive such “rises,” but all are separated from each other. In Rugby, 15 miles from Coventry, Unite members this week began a two-week strike against a 1.75% rise. Unite reports that some members have to use food banks. Garbage collectors are among those on strike at Hackney Council in east London.

Other unions involved play a similar role. The GMB is in talks at ACAS after North Somerset Environment Company refuse workers rejected a revised wage offer, following the imposition of a 1.75 per cent wage deal last year. GMB regional organizer Tim Northover told reporters: ‘So far every offer has amounted to a pay cut in real terms amid a cost of living crisis. But the GMB is a member of the NJC and is responsible for this 1.75% compensation deal.

In Northern Ireland, Unite members went on a two-week strike against the 1.75% wage, which was accepted by the GMB and Unison.

Unions are not only responsible for isolating disputes over the same wage moderation, but even strikes in outsourced waste disposal services provided to councils by private contractors. In Manchester, outsourced waste service Biffa has only offered its employees the agreed 1.75% for local government workers. Far from trying to bring the workers together, Unite insisted that Biffa “is a private company, therefore not bound by the local government’s wage restraint policy”.

Unite has now reported that strikes due to start on May 3 in Manchester have been called off after workers agreed to a ‘significantly improved’ two-year deal giving the lowest earners a pay rise of more than 11 per cent and drivers heavy goods vehicles by 22%. This presumably translates to only 5.5% and 11% per year, well below inflation for all but heavy truck drivers and quite rapidly for them as well.

Biffa workers at Wealden District Council in Sussex have also gone on strike over an unacceptable pay deal. In Northampton, garbage collectors voted for action against a 2.5% offer from Veolia. Veolia workers in Croydon are voted for action. To unify these struggles, workers must build an interconnected network of rank-and-file workplace committees independent of pro-capitalist unions to defend their interests and carry the fight against the ruling class.

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