Unite warns funding to Labour “under review” amid dispute with council

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@UniteSharon

Sharon Graham has declared that “the remaining financial support” provided by Unite the Union to the Labour Party is “now under review” amid an ongoing industrial dispute between a Labour council and its bin lorry drivers.

Addressing a virtual rally in support of the workers in the dispute, which saw refuse collection HGV drivers begin a two-month strike last week, Graham warned that “mistreatment of our members will not be accepted”, adding: “It’s time to act like Labour, be the party for workers.”

Graham told the rally that both regional and national funding to Labour – including its affiliation fee – will be under review. She urged the party to get the dispute sorted and described the conduct of the council in the row as “utterly disgusting”.

The general secretary declared that “if we have to escalate, we will escalate” and she “personally will be getting involved here”. She said the union is prepared to “go door-to-door” in the area with the truth about the dispute.

“Our wallet is closed to bad employers,” Graham added. She referred to Labour as a “bad employer” and said the council as had “gone to war with these drivers” with a “lie” about the pay of the striking workers.

Update: A Labour 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 executive council of Unite voted in October 2020 to reduce its affiliation fee to the Labour Party by 10%, or 50,000 affiliates, which is a significant move. Despite the reduction in financial support, the union remains the largest affiliate.

Graham, first elected as general secretary last year, made clear in her campaign for the job that Labour could not take Unite funding for granted, saying that there would be “no blank cheque” for the opposition party.

“If the Labour Party does things that are good for workers, they’ll have no problem with me. But if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do with workers, then they will have a problem with me,” she said at the time.

70 Coventry City Council refuse collection HGV drivers are participating in the industrial action. They are currently paid between £11.49 and £14.37 per hour, which Unite said is below comparable rates of pay for HGV drivers in the region.

The general secretary said last week that her trade union would be “unwavering” in getting a “fair deal” for its members, as she criticised the “shameful” Labour council for failing to deliver on promises to make a fresh offer.

Union representatives said they met with Coventry council’s leadership at the end of last month and were promised a new offer would be made by the authority, on more than one occasion ahead of the strike, but that no deal was suggested.

Coventry City Council told LabourList that it made two offers, which were a tax-free payment of £4,000 for working the week of Christmas and to increase pay for HGV drivers at the lower end so that no driver starts on less than £12.45 per hour.

A council spokesperson said it is “therefore untrue to say that we have reneged on a promise to make a revised offer” and the authority is “one of the highest-paying in the West Midlands when comparing pay for bin lorry drivers”.

Striking workers have rejected the claim by the council. One told LabourList: “Our rate starts just above £11 per hour and heads to just over £14 per hour after many years of service.

“It’s a far cry from what the council claims we’re paid – at one point, the council was claiming we were earning £52,163 a year! – and well below what is being paid to workers brought in, disgracefully, to break the strike.”

Temporary waste collection sites have been opened across Coventry City, allowing residents to drop off refuse. Unite accused the authority of “ignoring the law” to undermine the industrial action by also bringing in agency workers.

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