‘Never give up’

Heart Unions Week: UniteLive looks back at Coventry bins victory

Reading time: 8 min

Last year, Unite members employed as HGV bin drivers by Coventry council took more than six months of strike action in one of the longest-running disputes in Unite history – and they won. During Heart Unions week this week, we look back at this key victory.

It’s hard to put into words what more than six months of all-out strike action – one that eventually ends in all-out victory – actually feels like, Unite shop steward Pete Randle explains.

“It’s like a balloon releasing air, if that makes sense?” he tells UniteLive. “It’s just complete and utter euphoria. It’s relief. It’s incredibly emotional. You can’t describe it.”

Pete wasn’t alone in feeling on top of the world. Last July, he and his colleagues, HGV bin drivers employed by Coventry council, voted unanimously to accept a pay deal that ended one of the longest strikes in Unite’s history.

As part of the deal, the striking Unite members, who bravely held on since January last year in their fight for fair wages, have seen their pay rise by up to an inflation-busting 12.9 per cent, worth around £3,600 per year in their pay packets. They were also rewarded with Christmas bonuses worth £4,000.

‘Complete and utter euphoria’

And for Pete, the waking nightmare of having been suspended on trumped up charges during the dispute ended – also as part of the deal, all charges against him were dropped.

As ecstatic as the striking Unite members were, their victory was never inevitable. It took hard, strategic work and an uncompromising belief in their cause.

“There were times when we thought, ‘How long is this going to go on for?’ There were times I doubted myself every night when I came home,” Pete noted. “But when people ask me what won this, my answer is simple – it was resilience. We never gave up.”

Their resilience is all the more remarkable in the face of intransigent Coventry council bosses who refused for months to even consider coming to the negotiating table. And what made the dispute all the more galling was that it was a Labour-controlled council they were up against – not a single politician supported their cause.

Their employer threw everything in the book at them to break the striking workers’ wills. They spread falsehoods in the press about what the striking workers earned in the hopes they could turn public opinion against them; they set up a strike-breaking, rogue alternative bin collection service through a shady subsidiary; and in a sinister turn three months into the dispute, they suspended lead rep Pete Randle on bogus charges.

But management woefully underestimated the determination and solidarity of the workers, explained Unite national officer Onay Kasab.

Turning point

“The turning point in this dispute was the huge impact that the on-going strike had,” he noted. “The council was hemorrhaging money – they ultimately admitted they spent £4m trying to break the strike, although we estimate it was even more than that.

“And it was then it began to dawn on the council that our members were simply not going to return to work without an agreement that we were happy with. They realised that Unite was going to continue to back its members for as long as it took. They had no option but to come to the negotiating table.”

Both Onay and Pete agreed that it was this wider support of Unite – whose industrial might is now as strong as it is agile under the leadership of general secretary Sharon Graham – that played an essential role in their victory.

Combines, networks of reps from the same sector, are a new innovation for Unite, which were established shortly after Sharon Graham was elected general secretary in August 2021. Onay said the local government combine was an indispensable part of the Coventry HGV bin drivers’ victory.

“Through the combine meetings, we could all get together and discuss strategy and tactics,” Onay explained. “We could see what support we could get from the disputes unit, which really helped us by looking at the council’s accounts, at their strike-breaking subsidiary, at executive salaries and other details that we could use as leverage.

“With the combines and other new structures we have in place, we can now be flexible with our strategy and tactics, and it also empowers members to take charge. This was a genuinely member-led campaign where communication was brilliant. At every stage of the process members knew exactly what was going on and what we were collectively planning to do next.”

Pete spoke of the various elements that helped keep morale up and the strike going, from the multiple rallies they organised in support of the strike, to engaging with the local community and getting their families involved as well.

“We had picket lines going from five in the morning every single day,” Pete said. “We organised social events with our partners and children – a bit of a disco with food and drink – that helped build our unity. We made sure when we were leafleting that we were going out into our communities and talking to people. We were getting solidarity messages sent through to us from other workers across the UK. All of that together made a huge difference.”

Another decisive factor in this incredible victory, Pete noted, was the strong leadership shown at all levels of the union.

‘They stood with us all the way’

“With people like Onay and [Unite organiser] Willie Howard for example, we had leaders that were willing to fight for us. We put our full trust and belief in them because they inspired that belief. They stood with us all the way.”

Pete added that Unite general secretary Sharon Graham was “a breath of fresh air for us”, who, he said, has rightfully refocused the union on industrial matters and away from politics, at a time when many politicians of all stripes simply don’t care. 

“She actually cares – she actually gives a damn about what members think and how they are suffering,” he said. “She believes in members and backs them to the hilt. We’re so grateful to be in a union like Unite that took our fight all the way – there were no limits. We couldn’t have won this dispute on our own.”

As momentous as the Coventry victory was, it cannot be seen as an isolated instance. It will – and indeed already is – serving as blueprint for many more victories to come. During the combine meetings, when reps from the local government sector came together, refuse workers from Rugby council took direct inspiration from the striking Coventry HGV bin drivers.

“They said, ‘Well we’ll have some of that as well’,” Onay explained. “They ended up taking strike action and winning. This dispute also shows the huge scope we have for negotiating pay with councils on a local level. While we absolutely support national-level bargaining in public services, we can make extra gains locally over and above those national negotiations. We’ve proved it can be done.”

For Pete, although the strike is over, he and all his colleagues said they’ll miss the camaraderie of the picket lines.

“We built an incredible level of solidarity on those picket lines,” he said. “People who didn’t even know each other before have now become solid friends. We grew together on those picket lines and we’re going to take that fighting spirit with us beyond the strike.”

Unwavering support for all Unite members

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham hailed that fighting spirit and vowed her unwavering support for all Unite members.

“This win shows the new direction of Unite,” she said last August after their victory. “We will defend our members pay and conditions, however long it takes. This continuous action has delivered real terms pay increases for our members.

“It is quite frankly wrong that our members were forced to take this action against a Labour Council, but Unite will always back its members against any employer who refuses to negotiate. I am very proud of our reps and members.”

By Hajera Blagg