COVENTRY BIN workers struck for 48 hours on 5-6 January and a further four-day strike from Tuesday 11 January to Friday 14 January. Although originally planned for 21-24 December, the union postponed action over the Christmas period. A further 19 days of action are scheduled up to the end of March.
The strikes are over low pay and were called after Coventry Council refused to improve its pay offer. Bin workers in Coventry are currently paid just over £22,000 a year. The Labour council is also attempting to change workers’ contracts through a buy-out option that would make working over the Christmas period compulsory.
The action in Coventry is the latest stage in an organising drive by Unite among bin workers, who are a significantly underpaid, underappreciated workforce. Bin services were particularly affected by privatisation, which increased rapidly after the 2008 economic crisis.
There have been a series of disputes throughout the country, particularly in London, with notable successes such as the seven-week strike in the London borough of Bexley. This strike, which began on 21 March last year, focused on low pay and lack of sick pay, as well as a culture of bullying by management, and ended with a clear victory.
Unite, in these disputes, has utilised its ‘leverage’ tactics, focusing on the local councillors rather than the private contractors, which have been particularly effective when used against Labour politicians. Such tactics include going door-to-door talking to local residents and encouraging them to put pressure on their representatives.
The recruitment drive among bin workers is an example of Unite’s organising strategy, where it focuses on a strategically important group of workers and using strike action and leverage tactics aims to achieve key victories that can be replicated elsewhere.
Limited and localised
This approach has its merits, but it is largely reliant upon the central apparatus focusing its resources on a particular industry and workforce, winning a victory, then moving on elsewhere. This has the effect of producing a series of localised, isolated disputes, despite pay and conditions being poor everywhere.
The Unite leadership should use the (impressive) wins it has gained in areas such as Bexley to kick-start a national struggle amongst bin workers nationally, and call a national meeting of rank-and-file bin workers to formulate national demands.