Around 70 refuse collection drivers working for Coventry city council and organised in Unite the Union are out on strike over the issue of ‘poverty pay rates’. In the face of a hostile council, these drivers are determined to win.

Around 70 refuse collection drivers working for Coventry city council and organised in Unite the Union are out on strike over the issue of ‘poverty pay rates’. In the face of a hostile council, these drivers are determined to win.

Coventry city council refuse collection drivers voted overwhelmingly to support industrial action last December, with 98.5% in favour on a turnout of over 90%. The main issue is poor pay for the drivers – a problem that has been building for some time and unresolved by negotiations over the last two years.

The council’s drivers begin at the bottom of the pay scale at £22,183 per year, going through an 11-year climb just to get to the top at £27,741 per year. This means gross pay will increase over this time by about £500 each year – some £10 per week.

These pay rates have already driven over 14 drivers to leave to find better paid jobs in the private sector.

These grievances had already been raised before COVID. But as is now a familiar tale, the pandemic has exacerbated issues, with drivers having to isolate, leading to overwork for other drivers. A breaking point has been reached.

Shameful offer

Previously, the drivers have been through a job evaluation process to determine whether their pay was appropriate. Disgracefully, this concluded in the drivers being told that they were not being underpaid.

In fact, according to Unite convenor Hayden Jones, the council had the audacity to claim that the drivers were “overpaid and underworked”!

Rather than raising wages and training new skilled drivers to cover those that go off sick, the council offered only the nationally-agreed pay increase of 1.75%. This is the equivalent of an extra £7.70 per week for the lowest-paid drivers.

The justification of this shameful offer was that to offer more would mean other workers on the same pay scale level would also raise their own claims, which the council said it cannot afford. This ignores the over £170 million the council has in reserves, as well as the luxurious six-figure salaries that goes towards its directors.

Labour betrayal

Coventry bin strike placard

What has been the reaction of the Labour-controlled council? While 26 of the 39 Labour councillors are Unite members, they have treated their fellow union comrades with contempt.

For one, they have opened six rubbish collection sites across the city for residents to take their bins to. This disgraceful act is nothing more and nothing less than strike-breaking.

And despite controlling the council, Labour councillors have been advised by solicitors that they cannot intervene in the dispute, which is between the council as a legal entity and Unite members.

This shows not only how the legal system will be used to hamper working class solidarity, and that boldness is required to stand up for workers under attack – up-to-and-including potentially breaking the law.

Furthermore, rather than coming down to talk with the drivers, senior council officers have taken to attacking the strike in the press. They have claimed that the lowest-paid driver took home £28,148, and that the average pay was £34,143.

This has hardened the attitudes of the drivers, who know these publicised pay rates are inaccurate at best, and outright false at worst. In reaction to the council’s claims, the strikers are even prepared to publish anonymised payslips to show the truth.

For these figures to be accurate at all, they must include the 3.5 hours of contractual overtime drivers must do in order to check and prepare their lorries for service, as well as reporting any faults on returning to depot. This is essentially forcing workers to do excessive overtime in order to take home a decent paycheck.

But, in spite of the council’s actions and the slander they are facing in the media, morale on the picket lines has been very high. Passing cars often beep in support of the drivers, showing the solidarity from the community.

The strikers are prepared to extend the strike through to March – and even until June if necessary. It is clear that the drivers are set on taking their militant struggle to its completion to achieve a victory like those in Thurrock or Plymouth.

Fight the cuts, fight for socialism!

Coventry bin strike 2

Funding to councils has been cut by 60% since 2010 by successive Tory governments. And it is clear further cuts are on the way, given that the annual deficit from COVID is more than double that following the 2008 crisis.

Once again, the Tories will ensure that the working class – such as these drivers – are made to pay for this capitalist crisis. If we want to ensure the working class is not forced to pay through wage cuts, redundancies, and increasing costs of living, we must fight back.

The labour movement must link up and coordinate a one-day national public sector strike – and a generalised struggle to overthrow the Tory government.

This coordinated action must be linked to the struggle for a socialist programme, based on public ownership and democratic workers’ control, alongside the nationalisation of the banks and monopolies. Only then could we guarantee quality public services, with decent pay and conditions.

To support the drivers, send donations to their fund here:

Unity Trust Bank

Unite Wm/7116

Coventry local government account

Account: 2030 2665

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