Refuse collection drivers in Coventry, organised in Unite, are nearing the end of their seventh week of strike action. And with the council going to great efforts to break the strike, the mood amongst the workers is growing increasingly militant.
A perfect storm of rising prices and low wages – following on from the nightmare of COVID – has led to a wave of strikes, especially in public services. These workers have been forced to take action just to put food on the table for themselves and their families.
An example of this is currently underway in Coventry, where lorry drivers working for Coventry city council have been on strike since 5 January, fighting for a living wage.
The background to the dispute involves about seventy refuse collection drivers, who voted by 98.5% – on more than a 90% turnout – for industrial action in pursuit of their demands.
The Labour-controlled council has refused to budge, however. Instead, it has chosen to spend over £3 million so far to try and break the strike. This includes paying unskilled scab labour to undermine the bin workers.
The strike has escalated and the mood has hardened. The strikers have made it clear that £250,000 would have been enough to settle the dispute.
Despite a steady drip-feed of lies put out to the media and the public by the council, the workers – organised in Unite the Union – are determined to win their just claim. They are learning lessons day by day as the fight continues.
Backs against the wall
To get a picture of the mood on the picket line, we spoke to some of the drivers about their aims, and about how the strike is affecting them and their families.
Against a background of passing traffic with many vehicles ‘hooting’ in support, we spoke to one striker, who told us how he arrived at the depot gates at 5.30am every day, setting up the picket line.
They have a brazier for warmth, tarpaulin for the rain, and plenty of red Unite flags to announce their cause.
The brother explained that despite the fact that his wife is shortly due to have open-heart surgery, he remains totally committed and is backed by his family.
“It’s important that I’m here,” he said. “I want to be paid for my skilled work.”
He explained how driving a bin lorry was no easy task, involving many safety issues, especially around school children, and that it merited a decent wage.
He was keen to get back to work, and loves serving the public. But rising living costs have given him no alternative.
This was a sentiment expressed by many on the picket line, who feel that they have their backs up against the wall.
Another striker explained that, after appearing on a union video tweet that was shown on a mainstream news website, he found his partner’s car tyres slashed. But he was undeterred, saying:“It’s hard but it doesn’t matter – I do what’s right and stay on the picket.”
In fact, he continued, “it is morale boosting being on the line; more so perhaps than when we’re at work.”
He echoed the feelings of other bin workers: that they have to stand up for their rights; but at the same time, he was “sick to the back teeth” with a Labour council acting “like Tories”.
There is real bitterness about this, in particular. As many have said, Labour is supposed to be for working people.
A Unite full-timer, regularly on the line supporting his members, was furious about the use of agency workers as scab labour by the council. He stated that he is on the verge of tearing up his Labour Party card, if things don’t change.
He is not the only Labour supporter angered by this turn of events. Councillors will need to do a lot of work to persuade the drivers to give them their vote in the upcoming May elections.
Solidarity and support
As a scab bin lorry rumbles past, it is greeted with jeers and anger by those on the picket line. Nevertheless, the strikers remain in good humour, despite the cold. One of them told us it was like a “brotherhood”, and that the “solidarity“ between the brothers and sisters “picked you up”, in his words.
While many passing vehicles hoot or give a thumbs up, the occasional anti-strike merchant will speed past, swearing or shouting some original line like “get back to work!”
Such comments are insignificant, however, and are easily ignored.
Why do they never stop to discuss their ‘beef’ with the strikers? “They’ve not got the guts!” one of the flag-wavers commented; though I sensed it can rankle, because some of the public have bought the lies that are deliberately being disseminated by the council.
Donuts from the local Asda are handed out, and the brazier is stoked. Friendly chats with other depot drivers are held. Sympathetic council workers who are not on strike smile, wave, or exchange a joke.
Spirits are high for a lot of the time, despite the real hardship faced by many on the line. The fight is very real for those on strike.
Impact and inspiration
Perhaps one thing not fully realised is the emotional impact experienced by the strikers. There is a cost beyond the obvious financial one, they tell me. They have families; they have their own bins uncollected; and they have bills that are due.
Unite has made this dispute a priority, however. At a recent inspiring virtual rally, general secretary Sharon Graham promised to “wrap the union’s arms around the strikers”.
Several strikers discussed another aspect that’s maybe not fully appreciated: the lack of structure in your day when picketing – very different from the work patterns and pressures normally faced. There is definitely a difficult side to all of this in terms of the impact on mental health.
From time to time, there’s the diversion of a TV crew arriving to interview someone from the strike committee or an individual union member, which then appears on local news later on.
This serves to break up the day. And it’s a chance for the strikers to get their message across against the powerful machine of the press and the council opposing them. Recently, for example, left-wing journalist Owen Jones came to interview the strikers and express solidarity.
Stand up and fight
It is a privilege to support these men and women who are fighting – not just for themselves, but as a beacon to other low-paid workers.
As several have told us, they were called “heroes” during the pandemic. Now they are being vilified by the council and the media.
They have explained that, as lorry drivers, they helped in special ways throughout the coronavirus crisis, and never turned down a request.
But now it seems as if Coventry city council wants to forget about that – mirroring the way that Boris Johnson and his Tory cronies choose to forget the selfless contribution made by shop workers, nurses, drivers, teachers, and so many others, when these workers simply ask for pay that keeps their heads above water. Meanwhile, the rich get richer!
We leave the last words to one striker, who turned to us and said: This is a “David and Goliath battle…they’ve had their foot on our necks for so long, but it’s time to stand up.”
Well said! Solidarity to the Coventry bin workers in the fight they are waging!