Saturday 26 March saw hundreds of local residents and activists gather in Coventry city centre in solidarity with the council’s refuse lorry drivers, who have been striking for over 10 weeks in a bitter dispute over pay.
The mood at the protest was electric, with speeches from members of Unite, Coventry TUC, and the pickets resonating with the crowd.
The mood amongst the drivers has hardened since the beginning of the strike, as shown by the militant words and tone of the strikers.
One pointed out that the situation would only get worse under capitalism, while another explicitly stated that the strike action had hammered home the need for socialism as the only solution.
The council recently suspended the lorry drivers’ deputy convenor, Pete Randle, on bogus, trumped-up charges of intimidation. In reality, however, it is the council management that has been bullying and disrespecting their staff.
In the space of a few days, a petition calling for Pete’s reinstatement got over 11,000 signatures, showing the support behind him.
Thank you for Solidarity ✊🏼 A labour council...A labour council! pic.twitter.com/aNXT9ecb1d— Pete Randle (@randle_pete) March 10, 2022
The strikers have made it clear that this strong-arming, union-busting activity cannot be allowed, and that, until Pete is reinstated, they will refuse to negotiate with the council.
A local group of campaigners called Coventry Confidential has been door knocking around the city, explaining the truth about the strike to residents, and asking those sympathetic to put up placards in support of the drivers.
The council has been forcing its employees to take down these placards, however, explained one Unite rep to our comrades. As a striker pointed out: “It takes them months to fix potholes, but they instantly acted to take down these placards in support of our strike.”
At the same time, the council has been advertising to residents that there will be newly-trained drivers to continue bin services. Yet the strikers are being forced to train these scab workers!
All of this has sharpened the hatred that the strikers feel against the officials running the council.
Local Labour councillors, meanwhile, continue to try and wash their hands of any blame by claiming that they cannot legally be involved in negotiations. Yet Unite’s legal team has found nothing to support this claim.
Unite and Labour
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham – and the union more widely – have continued to offer unflinching support for the workers in this dispute, and for others who are taking similar militant action across the country.
During her speech at Saturday’s rally, Graham announced that Unite is currently employing accountants to undertake a forensic examination of the council’s finances. The results of this will be made public, so that workers and residents can see where their money is going.
Graham also stated that those Labour councillors in Coventry who are Unite members – 11 out of 24 – will be put on notice and suspended if they do not support the strike.
These bold promises received enormous cheers of approval from the crowd. It is thanks to this strong support and fighting stance from the union that the strikers remain enthused and determined in the face of the council’s machinations.
Upping the ante
The current strike ballot mandate was due to end on 23 March, but the strikers have recently re-balloted, as required by law, with 94% voting for further strike action over the next three months.
To succeed, however, the union will now need to up the ante even further.
The demand to open up the books of the council is 100% correct. The money being spent on scab labour and on the council directors’ six-figure salaries must be brought to light.
These strike-breaking scoundrels have already spent £2.9 million on undermining the workers, in a dispute that could have been resolved for £300,000.
Similarly, Unite is correct to utilise its political weight to take action against those councillors who are not supporting striking workers.
Above all, it is necessary for the strike to spread to other workers. Already, for example, the bin carriers are restless, as they are being forced to work with poorly-trained scab drivers, while doing unsafe collections on long routes.
And beyond waste management, there are hundreds of other workers employed by the council whom the strikers and the union could reach out to, leaflet, and organise, with the aim of bringing the council’s activity to a standstill.
As the council uses every dirty trick in the book to attack the strikers, the workers will be forced to use whatever means necessary to win their fight for decent pay.
Local activists have already taken the initiative in this respect. On the morning of 30 March, supporters of the strike blockaded a depot belonging to Tom White Ltd, the Coventry city council-owned waste disposal company that is being used in an attempt to break the strike.
#Covbinstrike supporters blockade Tom White, the Coventry City Council owned company that the council are using to try to break the strike (spending £2.8 million, when it would only cost £300,000 to resolve the dispute) - not a single refuse lorry has left the depot this morning pic.twitter.com/NvZ5Gqtt30— Reel News (@ReelNewsLondon) March 30, 2022
Union members should take inspiration from such militant action. Every option should now be put on the table – including solidarity strikes and other steps that would smash through draconian anti-trade union laws.
However this struggle develops, it is vital that the entire labour movement stands in full support behind the striking lorry drivers until the very end.
Fight for socialism
The question remains: what is the solution for council workers up-and-down the country?
Unite is correctly calling for a ‘needs-based, no-cuts budget’. But the money for such a budget must come from somewhere. The real question, then, is: who pays?
The austerity and attacks raining down on local government are the result of the deep crisis of capitalism, with the Tories demanding that working-class communities pay the bill for the 2008 crash, and now for the pandemic.
From the beginning, however, Labour councils have fundamentally accepted the need for cuts, adopting a ‘dented shield’ approach, instead of organising a mass campaign to fight austerity.
In the absence of such a campaign, the only alternative for councils was to cut jobs and services, and to attack the wages and conditions of their own workers.
Yet the money is out there to pay all workers a living wage; and to provide fully-funded schools, youth centres, and good quality social housing for all. But this wealth sits in the hands of the billionaires and bosses, who hoard it for their own gain.
The labour movement must therefore fight for a bold socialist programme, demanding the expropriation of the big banks and major monopolies, so as to put this accumulated wealth in the hands of the working-class.
As a first step, the trade unions should organise coordinated mass action across the country, including a public sector wide strike, with the aim of kicking out the Tories – and kicking out capitalism.
It is the bankers and the super-rich, not the working class, who must be made to pay for this crisis.