Monday, 11 February 2013

Food workers strike action leaves good taste

Strike action by 1,400 Unite members at the 2 Sisters Food Group in the West Midlands has won an inflationary busting wage rise, paid time off for workers injured at work and major concessions on holidays and car parking charges.

It’s a remarkable achievement that shows the benefits of workers sticking together within Britain’s biggest union. Now the struggle is on to ensure workers are properly represented at one of the UK’s largest food suppliers.

The chicken meat processing company has grown considerably in recent years after acquiring Fox’s Biscuits, Matthew Walker Christmas Puddings, Holland’s Pies, Goodfella’s pizzas and cake manufacturers Brookes Avana. With 35 manufacturing sites in the UK and Ireland, six in Holland and one in Poland the company employs around 18,000 people with annual sales now exceeding £2.3 billion.

Advertising on their website the company states: ‘Our business philosophy puts the customer at the heart of everything……in order to deliver a product of the highest quality and integrity. We strive to achieve this through a motivated and well trained workforce.’

Such warm words were not though working out in practice with pay rates of just £6.22 for many workers across four sites in Smethwick and Wolverhampton. Industrial accidents – especially from knife injuries to hands - were a major problem, temperatures at work were often cold, bullying and malicious allegations against staff was rife and 2 Sisters were even proposing charging £10 a week to park in the work’s car park.

With many workers having originally hailed from the Indian sub-continent or Eastern Europe the refusal by the company to grant extended holiday leave to visit relatives was also a bone of contention. Agency staff was also being forced to stand outside factories on a daily basis in the hope that production managers would come out and select them for work.

With under half the workforce unionised, Unite officials began extensively working last summer with newly elected stewards and convenors in taking up cases individually important to different shifts, sites and nationalities. Stewards gave up many hours of their own time to persuade their fellow workers to join Unite.

“We were here there and everywhere, taking up cases and telling everyone we would stand up for them and that by joining the union we could pressurise management into agreeing improvements in pay and working conditions for all” explains works convenor Raghvinder Pooni, who today has the backing of 32 shop stewards including his deputy convenor, Daoud Khan. Stewards are elected across the four sites by the 80% plus of workers that are now Unite members.

This combined strength meant in August 2012, when 2 Sisters management offered in return for proposed changes in working practices a derisory pay rise and no concessions on a list of legitimate complaints, that 15-minute protests were organised outside factories at shift change over periods between 2pm and 2.30pm. 

Unite regional officer Des Quinn had stressed, “members anger at their treatment should not be ignored.” When management chose to do just that, a secret ballot drew 98.5% in favour of strikes.

Friday December 14, the first day in which workers withdrew their labour, was an unexpectedly happy one for Daoud Khan, who rushed from the birth of his fifth child to join hundreds of noisy, well-behaved pickets whose actions made the regional news and television. (*) Workers from other local workplaces and trade unions joined strikers, whilst many in the local community were supportive. “I think everyone was very proud of their efforts in standing up for our needs and rights,” says Daoud.

A company approach to resolve the dispute led to the calling off of a second strike  date as negotiations got underway. 

“Pay went up by 28 pence an hour (4.6%) and if we can resolve issues around childcare and travel arrangements then it should be possible to agree changes in working practices that will make further increases in pay. We want all workers to be on a living wage. This includes agency staff, who management have agreed will now be hired by human resources, who will also examine allegations of bullying and intimidation,” says Des Quinn. 

“They have scrapped the car parking charges and agreed to longer holiday breaks as well as paid sick leave for workers who can demonstrate they were injured at work. We still have work to do before agreeing everything, but negotiations with management are ongoing,” says Raghvinder.

As convenor and deputy convenor, Raghvinder and Daoud, currently have facility paid time away from their knife and hygiene supervisor posts only for appeals and disciplinary hearings. Des Quinn believes this is “not sufficient.” He is seeking from 2 Sisters management additional facility time so that Unite’s hundreds of members can be assured in the future of enjoying a more secure, safe working environment with even better pay. 

Well done to everyone at 2 Sisters. 

Union video’s

Unite also produced its own youtube video on the strike. 

Unite began making short news videos to try and combat the bias against trade unions in the mainstream media and ensure the union presented a balanced portrait to the outside world.

These short-films are used to put the worker and union’s point of view across. When used correctly and in conjunction with social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, it can be a relatively quick way of keeping those involved in a campaign or dispute up-to-date with the latest developments in a form that is easy to digest.

As part of Unite’s developing social media and e-comms strategy, the union is hoping to increase the use of videos to keep members informed. This can range from how Unite is supporting its members, disputes, marches and rallies, but it is also a great vehicle to drive members as to what they can do to support the union.

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