Coventry Bin strike row escalates as council disputes Unite’s claims on councillors not attending talks

The dispute threatens to cause major problems for Keir Starmer’s Labour, after Unite threatened to reviews its funding to the party

A row between a leading trade union and a Labour-run local authority continues to escalate, as the union has accused council leaders of “showing nothing but disrespect” to workers by failing to attend negotiating talks.

But Coventry City Council hit back at Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham over the comments, saying it would ‘expect her to know’ that legislation prevents council leadership from involvement in the talks.

What is the Coventry bin strike about?

Striking refuse workers in Coventry will march on the council’s offices today as part of the ongoing pay dispute.

Bin lorry drivers are currently on strike in Coventry over what they say is a pay offer below the regional average for HGV drivers.

Unite, which represents the drivers, has accused the council of wasting taxpayer money by spending an estimated £1.8m on the dispute so far, when it could have been resolved for £250,000 according to Graham.

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Coventry council has said that the authority is “one of the highest-paying in the West Midlands when comparing pay for bin lorry drivers”.

Unite has criticised the council after it said no councillors have been in attendance during more than 25 hours of negotiations between Unite and council civil servants.

Sharon Graham said: “By failing to attend a single minute of the key negotiations to resolve this dispute, Coventry council’s leadership is showing nothing but disrespect for this workforce and the people of this city.

“Unite is working day and night to get justice for this workforce but it appears that rolling up their sleeves to resolve an issue that is causing misery for residents and significant stress for more than 70 low paid employees is beneath the council’s senior elected leadership.”

However, the council has disputed this criticism, saying the council’s leadership is not able to attend these kinds of negotiations for legal reasons, and accused Unite of declining talks with ACAS, the arbitration service.

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A spokesperson for Coventry City Council told NationalWorld that the council “would have expected the general secretary of Unite to be aware that Local Government legislation prevents the City Council’s political leadership from being involved in decisions on employees pay or terms and conditions”.

They said: “This is why they are not directly involved in the negotiations or decisions to resolve this dispute lawfully.

“However, in addition to regular briefings from senior officers, to ensure that they are fully aware of arguments in the dispute, the City Council’s political leadership held talks with regional officials of Unite on 24th January 2022 and 14th February 2022.

“The second of these included the regional general secretary of Unite, Annmarie Kilcline.”

They added: “It is also very disappointing that again Unite have turned down an invite to further talks at ACAS on Wednesday of this week.”

Council and Unite clash over figures

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Graham has also hit out at the council over the alleged cost of the dispute to the taxpayer so far.

The Unite boss has said the bill for “prolonging the dispute” stands at almost £3m, which she said is “madness, given that it would cost £250,000 to settle this matter with a fair pay deal.”

Unite says that temporary waste collection sites for the dispute have cost £1.6 million, new arrangements for two weekly refuse collections have cost £400,000 and the loss of commercial waste income has cost £900,000.

A spokesperson for Coventry City Council said “The net cost of mitigating the industrial action being taken by members of Unite is £1.8m until the 31st March 2022.”

The council claims it must carry out an independent job evaluation to ensure it meets its legal equality duties before it can increase the drivers’ pay by one grade.

They said: “An independent job evaluation is being undertaken, and the City Council and Unite have agreed to be bound by the outcome; this is the right thing to do to make sure we are legally compliant and being fair to all our workforce.

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“To increase pay, without going through the above process would be unlawful.

“To remain lawful, the city council would need to increase all employees’ pay on this grade by the same amount. The cost of doing this is initially £9.7m per year rising to £30.1m per year over time. This is equivalent to 274 jobs initially rising to 831 jobs, either of which would have a massive impact on the services across our City.

“It’s also important to note that the Council has been impacted by the loss of its commercial waste contract amounting to £1.2m – and this may also involve job losses if the business is not retrieved.”

The dispute is having an impact on Labour

The strike has taken on national significance after Graham suggested Unite could withdraw financial support from Labour as a result of the dispute, as it involves a Labour-led council.

Labour hit back following Graham’s comments, with a party spokesperson saying “threats won’t work in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party”.

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There have been recent reports that the party is under pressure financially as a result of legal costs and declining membership.

Graham, who was elected as head of the UK’s largest trade union last year, has previously warned that the union will not provide the party with ‘a blank cheque’.

Labour receives a large proportion of its funding through trade union affiliates, of which Unite is currently the largest - making it the party’s largest single donor. This is despite the union voting in 2020 to reduce its support by 10%.