Unite council worker pay row escalates as Labour says “threats won’t work”

Sienna Rodgers
© Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com
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Unite… or fight? Unite general secretary Sharon Graham warned at an online rally last night that “the remaining financial support” from the trade union to the Labour Party is “now under review”. She specified that both regional and national funding to Labour, including the affiliation fee, is at risk. “Our wallet is closed to bad employers,” Graham declared. The reaction from the Labour Party nationally, issued at 11pm, was strong. A spokesperson said: “We’re not going to get into the specifics of this dispute. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will always act in the public interest. These sort of threats won’t work in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party. We would have hoped that Unite would have got the message that the Labour Party is under new management.”

The confrontation was prompted by a dispute between Labour-run Coventry Council and its bin lorry drivers, who began a two-month strike last week. As one worker wrote on LabourList yesterday, “our rate starts just above £11 per hour and heads to just over £14 per hour after many years of service”, which he said is “well below” what agency HGV drivers being brought in to break the strike are paid. With the top council bosses being paid £2.9m last year, including the chief executive on £229,000 a year in pay and pension, the refuse workers rejected a 0% pay rise. The council told LabourList that it offered extra payment for Christmas work and to increase the pay of the lowest-paid HGV drivers. The strike continues.

Graham, famed for her pioneering leverage tactics, is using what Unite has at its disposal to fight for these workers: control of the huge donations given to Labour, which runs the council. It is no secret that Labour is struggling financially, with fewer members and higher legal fees. Can the party attract enough money from private donors (who are in many ways more complicated than union funders) to make up for the millions that Unite can contribute?

It was not only those in Unite or on the party’s left who were surprised by the tone of the spokesperson quote last night – others were concerned. After all, the dispute relates to low-paid key workers for whom we all clapped weekly during Covid. Those close to the leadership say the reaction was not about the merits of the industrial action, but the principle of the matter: it would be wrong to intervene in a dispute between an employer and employees based on threats to Labour funding. The party went further in its response, however, with mention of the “public interest” and being “under new management”.

In other Labour news pitched as a further rejection of the Jeremy Corbyn era, Keir Starmer will reaffirm the party’s commitment to NATO today. The Labour leader is travelling to Brussels to meet the NATO secretary general, as Boris Johnson goes to Brussels and Warsaw, while Liz Truss and Ben Wallace meet their counterparts in Moscow. Starmer will reiterate the line taken by David Lammy and John Healey, which is heavily supportive of the UK government’s policy of providing diplomatic and military support to Ukraine. Speaking to The Times ahead of the trip, Starmer said: “What was said by my predecessor in relation to issues like Salisbury was wrong, I spoke out at the time. The important thing was not then but now. This is very clearly me reasserting our position on NATO, and intentionally so.”

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