Unite boss Sharon Graham says union could withdraw funding from Labour over Coventry bin workers strike

Photo: Unite
Labour leader Keir Starmer hit back saying he will ‘not have the Labour Party threatened by anybody’

An industrial dispute between refuse workers in Coventry and the local Labour-run council could lead to the party’s main financial backers withdrawing funding.

The General Secretary of trade union Unite, which represents bin workers currently on an all-out strike over low-pay, has said the union’s financial support of Labour is “under review”.

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At a glance: the key points

  • Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has warned that the union could withdraw its significant financial support for the Labour Party over a pay dispute between Unite refuse workers and Coventry City Council, which is Labour-run
  • Labour has hit back following Graham’s comments, with a party spokesperson saying “threats won’t work in Keir Starmer’s Labour Party”, while 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%
  • The union says workers in Coventry are being paid less than the regional average for HGV drivers, and 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
  • Coventry council has said that the authority is “one of the highest-paying in the West Midlands when comparing pay for bin lorry drivers” and denied claims that it failed to make a new offer prior to the strike as promised in talks with the union 
  • Both sides of the dispute have bitterly contested the other’s claims about rates of pay, with workers accusing the council of misrepresenting the numbers

What’s been said?

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Let me be very clear - the remaining financial support of the Labour Party is now under review.

“Your behaviour and mistreatment of our members will not be accepted. It’s time to act like labour, be the party for workers.

A Labour Party spokesperson told LabourList: “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.”

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Later, in an interview with the BBC, Starmer said: “I’m not going to have the Labour Party I lead threatened by anybody, and that’s the long and the short of it. The merits of individual disputes I’ll debate all day, uphill and down dale, but I’m not going to be challenged. We’re not going to be influenced by those who say we’ll only provide money if you do ‘X’. No.”

Unite regional officer Simon O’Keeffe said: “Unite remains committed to seeking a resolution to this dispute and is meeting the council on a regular basis as we have done throughout the dispute.”

A spokesperson for Coventry City Council said: “We remain committed to talks to resolve the ongoing dispute and provide a service to the residents we serve. We urge Unite to do the same and consider our offers to end the strike.

“In recent weeks we have made what we believe are generous offers to break the deadlock on the two issues they are striking on.

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“We have addressed all of the concerns that Unite has raised and made offers in an attempt to lawfully resolve the issues raised. We therefore remain disappointed Unite has refused to suspend strike action or allow exemptions to provide a service for the most vulnerable residents of our city such as those in care homes.”

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