Stop the scabs, defend union reps!
The seventy HGV drivers striking against Coventry City Council since 31 January remain determined as ever. It is a scandal that the city’s Labour councillors strike-breaking tactics have included employing scab labour – at much higher rates than the demands of the strikers – as well as suspending Unite rep Pete Randle on trumped-up charges.
Unite responded to this by suspending Coventry Labour councillors from the union and threatening to cut further funding for the Labour Party. It also held a rally in support of the bin workers.
But emboldened by the local election results, where Coventry Labour retained its majority, losing no seats despite the strike continuing throughout, have seen them double down in their efforts to break the strike, announcing a 12% pay increase for scabs employed by Tom White Ltd, the company hired to break the strike.
The striking drivers have fought an exemplary campaign, this shows the limits of Unite’s leverage tactics. Although Sharon Graham’s leadership campaign centred on a turn away from parliamentary and Labour Party politics and towards workplace activity, her tactics towards local authorities have often focussed in large part on the use of “leverage” – campaigning directed at councillors, threats of political sanction and withdrawal of support – to force negotiations.
With no political alternative on offer, either inside or outside the local Labour Party, working-class people sympathetic to the bin workers wouldn’t – and shouldn’t – vote Tory, the second largest party in Coventry, much less expect a better deal from a Tory council. So the scab Labour councillors probably now feel more confident in pursuing their attempts to smash the strike without consequence.
The council doesn’t look like backing down, so the only way for the bin workers to end the conflict is to escalate it. There have been spontaneous actions by bin workers and their supporters aimed at shutting down the council and Tom White Ltd’s scab operation. These should be continued, organised, and sustained with Unite backing.
“Shaming” the scab councillors for this operation clearly has not worked, so Unite should now direct its energies towards preventing the scab operation from working at all, mobilising supporters from across the country in mass pickets aimed at keeping the scabs from leaving their base and conducting collections. The workers can use Unite sectoral meetings to organise this or reach out with their own appeal. They can strengthen their position by launching a grassroots Cost of Living campaign in Coventry, open to all local community initiatives, union bodies and the left, in order to deepen the solidarity effort and lay the ground for such tactics.
If Sharon Graham and the Unite leadership are truly serious about direct workers’ action instead of legalistic political activity, they should put their money where their mouth is and support whatever action is necessary to defeat the scab Coventry council. The workers should not wait and use every lever, inside Unites official structures or reaching out beyond them to build their own direct rank and file network, to build the action that can win their struggle.