A slightly edited version of this article appeared on unite live.org on Friday.
Unite members on strike at prestigious jacket maker Barbour in Gateshead today (Friday 9 January) held a highly successful solidarity march and rally. It came at the end of the first of four weeks planned stoppages and follows six days strike action in December.
All of which has led to the company requesting ACAS talks on Monday. (12 January) With it comes the prospect of a negotiated settlement to a dispute over forced changes to warehouse staff contracts. These include removing unsocial hours payments and introducing new shift patterns, including starting at 6.30am and working as late as 11pm. This will impact on anyone caring for elderly relatives, childcare and travel arrangements.
“I support my father, Ralph, aged 94. Quite honestly I can’t just leave him on his own
so early or late,” said Ralph Nichol junior. Meanwhile, Dawn Hallcro fears being forced to leave her two teenager children alone for lengthy periods.
Workers, who handle around 70,000 items weekly, have until 30 January to sign new contracts or face being sacked. Jobs are not exactly plentiful on Tyne and Wear. Yet the self-confidence and organisational support derived from being in Unite has meant Barbour management has badly misjudged the mood of its employees, many earning just £7.45 an hour, to defend one another.
“We feel loyal long serving employees should be treated much better. We work on an isolated estate. The first bus arrives after the proposed new starting times. The last one leaves before 11pm. We belong to Unite so everyone can look after one another. That’s what we are doing by striking,” explained Eric Bone, one of two Unite workplace representatives amongst warehouse staff.
It’s not as if Barbour is struggling. Last year the company made a healthy 14 percent return with £21.5 million profit on worldwide sales of £152 million. Staff have worked hard as demand for the products of the successful family-run company has soared in recent years after Barbour jackets became popular with celebrities.
After picketing their Gateshead workplace from 7.30am, strikers crossed over to nearby South Shields. Accompanied by local Labour MPs, Stephen Hepburn and Emma Lewell-Buck, employees, flags flying and horns sounding, marched determinedly to Barbour’s main offices. Sales director Ian Beattie accepted a signed letter to the company chair Dame Barbour requesting she intervene to help restore unsocial payments and get management to consider a day shift for anyone unable to work till 11pm.
There was then a short rally at which Labour North East Euro MP Paul Brannen expressed his solidarity and urged “Barbour, please reconsider as this dispute will damage your brand.”
Unite regional secretary Karen Reay and national officer Roger Maddison were as one in praising the strikers for standing up for “family values and your fellow workers.”
“The strikers have stood firm in pursuit of basic principles. They are buoyed by the possibility of resolving the strike. Barbour management should act responsibly by considering the day shift we have proposed and entering Monday’s talks constructively. We certainly will do so,” said Unite regional officer Fazia Hussain-Brown.