Victory claims under scrutiny - Weekly Worker

Date: unknown

Location: weeklyworker.co.uk

24.11.2022

Why hide the truth? Vernon Price discusses an unusual contribution in the latest Pre-Conference Bulletin

Socialist Workers Party comrades who have been sent their Pre-Conference Bulletin No2 (November 2022) might have skipped the ‘Lessons from an unnecessary rank and file defeat’ submission from “Richard (Coventry)” - full names are withheld.1 That would have been a mistake. His article is actually worthwhile. Unlike the bog standard fare, he is not out to peddle official optimism and give the usual litany of how many paper recruits have been made, how many turned out for the next branch meeting on racism, etc. Instead he dares to question.

He writes about the Unite Coventry bin drivers’ dispute, which began in January 2022 and was concluded at the end of July, with Unite proclaiming a stunning victory.2 The strikers’ demand was for a re-grading of the drivers, to bring parity with those employed by other local authorities. Coventry city council is a Labour-run authority and Richard estimates that in trying to defeat the strike it spent more than a dozen times the amount it would have cost to have settled in full: the council spent £4 million whereas a full settlement would have cost £300,000. During the strike the council also suspended one of the strike’s leaders, Unite deputy-convenor Pete Randle.

Echoes

Comrade Richard contends that the “good victory” celebrated in July by Socialist Worker as an “excellent example of class action” has, in fact, turned out to be hollow. Of course, it was not only the SWP which echoed the line coming from Unite HQ: SPEW’s The Socialist and the Morning Star did exactly the same.3 Now, though, having voted for the deal 73:2, the Coventry bin drivers are angry about how things have turned out:

The strike ended with all disciplinary sanctions against deputy-convenor Pete Randle being removed with “no case to answer” and with Unite claiming a 12.9% pay rise for all the HGV2 drivers. This rise was not the upgrading that the drivers demanded, but was financially similar. It was an agreement that for in principle agreeing to work weekends all the drivers would receive an increase on the salaries, which averaged out at 12.9%.

The “in principle” was understood by the Unite officials (and presented to the members as such) as being entirely voluntary in practice - everyone could say they weren’t available - ie, presented as a mechanism to allow the council to claim it hadn’t conceded the union’s claim, whilst in monetary terms the members would get the rise they wanted. In addition the council asked for and got voluntary redundancies (VR) from the council workforce, which the agreement accepted resulted from the dispute.

The council currently is:

(1) ignoring the union’s interpretation of the agreement;

(2) paying the 12.9%, but not on the hourly rate as agreed (so no knock-on effect for overtime or pensions);

(3) insisting that drivers have to work weekends to qualify for this money (and if they don’t then the 12.9% will be withdrawn in January);

(4) excluding the HGV2 drivers who do the winter gritting from the 12.9%, as legally they cannot work all the required weekends.

The depot which previously had one full-time convenor and one full-time deputy convenor now has only two reps, none of them full-time. The union branch leadership is no longer in the hands of the drivers. The drivers’ candidate lost to an existing full-time rep who supports the council’s interpretation of the agreement.

Those drivers who took VR but are still members of the same union branch were advised that they could not attend their own branch meeting to vote in these elections.

Four of the six-strong strike committee, including both the convenor and deputy convenor, took VR. Three of the four who took VR said that part of the reason for leaving was that they feared the employer would seek to attack them at a later date.

Richard observes: “None of this looks like a victory, does it?”

He then goes deeper into the roles of various protagonists. He explains how Coventry city council was able to use its own skip waste-handling company, TWW, to facilitate a major scabbing operation during the dispute. The council also spread lies about pay levels. They claimed the drivers were earning £52,000 annually, when in reality the maximum a driver could achieve was £27,741. Richard warns: “This was union-busting and nothing less. Be clear - this is what a Labour government will mean in a similar situation.”

Turning to the local Labour Party, Richard is critical of the minimal visible support provided by the local MP, Zarah Sultana. Although she is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group and a prominent supporter of Enough is Enough, she only attended the picket line once during the seven months of the dispute. Labour members excused this on the grounds that she had to avoid Corbyn’s fate of losing the Labour whip. Richard is dismissive of the role of this so-called workers’ representative:

We put the principle that the class struggle at work is the fundamental agency of change, and winning that struggle supersedes tactical issues about who wins what on various institutions of the labour movement, including which Labour Party person represents us in parliament.

However, he informs us that Labour Party members were instrumental in ensuring Unite branches supported the strike fund.

Richard is scathing when it comes to Unite’s regional full-timers, who advised against effective picketing. The regional secretary attended the picket line just once, and the office did little more than send out emails to branches, seeking donations to the strike fund. Richard picks up on the tension between Unite general secretary Sharon Graham, who was happy to see the scab councillors expelled from the union, and the pro-Labour regional bureaucrats:

The region seemed more embarrassed by the conflict with the Labour Party than with making sure the bin strikers won. At the March Unite rally the Unite West Midlands regional secretary publicly disagreed with Graham’s attacks on the Labour Party. Given what is happening now in the branch and with the regional official backing the council’s interpretation of the agreement, it seems likely that the pro-Labour Party officialdom will use the failure of the dispute to attack Graham’s leadership of Unite.

In contrast Richard has some praise for the efforts of the Unite national HQ staff, who “threw stacks of resources into this dispute. They wanted to win it, worked hard to win it and were completely unphased by the fallout with Labour.”

However, he is critical of the efforts of the Unite staff being channelled into door-to-door campaigning rather than visiting workplaces with Unite branches to drum up effective support for the dispute. This was carried out using the front ‘independent community group’, Coventry Confidential. Shaming the councillors in this way did not lead to their defeat in the May local elections - Richard illustrates this with the derisory votes obtained by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition in all 11 Coventry wards it contested.

He also calls out Unite for preventing the strikers from joining other picket lines, and for refusing to call on other local government branches to join the bin drivers’ picket line. Avoiding legal action is a top priority for union bureaucrats.

Picket lines

Naturally Richard is full of praise for the involvement of the SWP in the dispute, both nationally and locally. He explains how they argued to extend the dispute to include the bin collectors and the TWW staff, and to organise other workers in solidarity action, disregarding any possible legal transgressions.

Then we come to Richard’s reflections on the dispute, and its unsatisfactory outcome. First, he asks if the SWP was correct to actively participate in the ‘substitutionist’ campaigns like Coventry Confidential. You get the impression that his answer is no. Perhaps he disapproves of standing in local and national elections?

Secondly, he asks if the SWP should have argued for other workers to take unofficial action in support of the strike. He claims: “We never openly argued for unofficial action, because to do so puts the emphasis on the confidence of the rank and file rather than on the union to build that confidence.” However, I think the real reason is that advocating unofficial walk-outs would damage the friendly relationships SWPers now have with some trade union full-timers. Decades ago the SWP would not have needed to ask this question.

Finally, he asks if the SWP should have spoken out against Unite’s strategy for winning the dispute. He notes: “We never said that Unite’s strategy would fail. Because to people on strike arguing that the current strategy will lose will look defeatist and risk lowering morale.” Revolutionaries should be constantly questioning tactics, looking for better ways to strengthen the forces on our side and to weaken the enemy. And hiding things from the rank and file to keep up morale is guaranteed to come back and bite you, as the post-strike outcome here illustrates.

The addendum to Richard’s article informs us that the council has requested a new meeting with the bin drivers’ reps, and he hopes this is a positive development. He praises the reps, “who have never wavered on their confident insistence that the council’s interpretation of the agreement is completely wrong”.Earlier in the article Richard draws some good conclusions:

The basic lesson of the dispute is that, no matter how much effort and hard work the best of the bureaucracy put into a dispute, if that effort is not used to empower, involve and increase the workplace activity of the rank and file then any so-called victory is built on thin ice. This lesson is as old as trade unionism.

Any experienced trade unionist knows that the successful implementation of any collective bargaining agreement is ultimately dependent upon the strength of workplace organisation.

In writing his contribution Richard has shed light on aspects of strikes that should be discussed openly, but are usually hidden from the movement. His observations are of benefit to all trade unionists, especially in the current strike wave. Therefore it is criminal that the only place his article can be read is in the SWP’s Pre-conference bulletin, which declares at the top of page 3: “This bulletin is for members of the SWP only. It should not be distributed or forwarded to others.” Why on earth is this contribution not available for all to read and debate in Socialist Worker?

But we all know that Socialist Worker is not a serious working class newspaper that promotes debate and discussion within its pages. Maybe Richard submitted it to the paper, but it was rejected, so his only option was to send it to the Pre-Conference Bulletin. But hiding it away there can only serve the narrow aims of the SWP leaders in their quest to be better strike followers.


  1. The full article is available here: weeklyworker.co.uk/assets/ww/docs/Coventry Bin Strike SWP PCB2 2022.pdf.↩︎

  2. www.unitetheunion.org/news-events/news/2022/july/six-month-continuous-strike-action-ends-in-victory-for-coventry-bin-drivers.↩︎

  3. See socialistworker.co.uk/news/all-out-bins-strike-wins-good-victory-in-coventry; www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/99715/29-07-2022/coventry-bin-workers-defeat-strike-breaking-labour-council and morningstaronline.co.uk/article/b/coventry-bin-strikers-win-pay-rise-after-6-months-of-strikes.↩︎