Experiences with Unite, GMB, USDAW at, amongst others, Sainsbury's distribution centre, Waitrose warehouse, Bakkavor food factory, Alpha LSG airline caterer.
We are well aware of the ideological trap: coming from a left-communist background we have to remind ourselves that an analysis of the trade unions and their role is not something that was done and dusted in 1914 – 23 and has confirmed its historical truth ever since; rather that this analysis is a permanent process in our day-to-day experiences. We wrote stuff about how we see the problem of trade union forms of struggle in general , here we will just write down very briefly our concrete experiences in West-London so far. The reports surely are anecdotal, which doesn’t mean that they are not representative.
Before we even started working in West-London some of us joined GMB and later on Unite, hoping that there would be local branch meetings where we could meet workers from various sectors, but in the last one-and-a-half years we did not come across these kinds of social spaces within the union structure.
1) GMB during the Ealing hospital cleaners strike, February 2014
2) USDAW at Waitrose booze warehouse, May 2014
3) UNITE at Sainsbury’s warehouse, February 2015
4) GMB at Bakkavor ready-meal factory, October 2015
5) GMB at Wealmoor food-supplier, July 2015
6) UNITE at Alpha LSG, airline caterer, June 2015
7) Other examples of trade union disputes in the sector
a) GMB at M&S warehouse in Swindon, 2014-2015
b) USDAW at Morrisons pay negotiations, October 2015
8) Some conclusions
1) GMB during the Ealing hospital cleaners strike
The GMB organised a strike of cleaners and porters employed by Medirest at Ealing Hospital in 2014, demanding the London living-wage.  Workers, most of them of migrant background, told us that it took about a year to go through all the bureaucratic work to actually go on strike. When we went to the strike the ‘picket’ was set up on a roundabout in front of the hospital, after management had obtained a legal order that no picket line would be allowed near to the entrance. The company brought in workers from other hospitals to replace the strikers, which undermined the impact of their walkout. The GMB neither tried to contact the other hospital workers, or Medirest workers at other venues (e.g. caterers at Chelsea stadium), nor did they provide a leaflet for hospital staff and patients informing about the dispute. The strike lasted for a bit more than a week, there was concern about the lack of pressure on management. In the end management and GMB agreed on a wage increase of £1 p/h, raising the wage from £6.50 to £7.50.
2) USDAW at Waitrose booze warehouse
In the warehouse the old permanent workers earn £9 p/h plus, the permanents hired after 2012 get the minimum wage, as do the temporary workers. Of the total workforce maybe 20 to 30% are union members. The ‘new permanents’ are pissed off with the wage gap. There have been various meetings between USDAW and management about the issue, but without result. The main union reps are older permanents with higher positions, e.g. supervisors, trainers or responsible for health and safety stuff. The main rep never addressed the temporary workers regarding the union. He is a loud mouth and slags off the bosses with the workers, but generally friendly with management. He said that he had been offered a manager position, but instead he trains new people on the forklifts as well as normal warehouse work and gets a ‘near to management wage’.
When the agency cut the overtime bonus for the temps and most temps refused to work overtime – which put the company in a difficult position – he openly worked double shifts and on days off. On days off he earned £22 p/h. He said that he thought it was good that they cut the overtime bonus for the temps and that the temps now refuse to do overtime, because due to lower wages the company had tended to give overtime to temps rather than to permanents. For two weeks external company advisors ‘analysed’ the work and productivity of the warehouse workers. The union reps had discussions with management about this and the new targets, but not with the temp workers. The union held meetings with the permanent workers, from which the temps were excluded, but even the permanent workers could not really say what the meetings were about – which is not just a language related problem.
3) UNITE at Sainsbury’s warehouse
The Sainsbury’s distribution centre is across the road from the Waitrose warehouse mentioned above. Both warehouses are run by the same logistics company Wincanton, which employs temp workers through the same agency. Despite these similarities the sites are ‘represented’ by two different unions, USDAW and Unite.
We started working at Sainsbury’s as temps, who made up about 60% of the warehouse staff. None of them were members of the union, and probably less than half of the permanents were. So, how would a temp worker get to know about the union? First of all, there was a union board, which only announced that three months before the union had agreed (with a narrow majority of votes) to a pay increase offer of 2.2% for the permanent Wincanton workers. After several weeks we spotted a union rep on the late shift, she wore her union high-vis. She spoke mainly to our line-managers, most likely because they started working with her several years ago and worked their way up together. This was basically all that was seen of the union for several months.
We then got to know two permanent workers who were in the union. They had a lot of disciplinary meetings with management, mainly because of accusations of absence, low productivity or other forms of ‘indiscipline’. We spoke with them about the situation of the temps and whether they think that something can be done, but it seemed to us that they were rather ‘individual rebels’, who pitied the temps, but were not interested in collective steps. Our friends then distributed a leaflet to temps and permanents against zero-hour contracts and for same pay. We addressed workers of both Sainsbury’s and Waitrose sites. The leaflet was anonymous. The union rep replied by email, showing that she did not have to much information about the conditions and union activities on the other site across the road. We also thought that her reply to our demand for the temps indicated that she did not see much chance of doing anything about the situation:
“I hear your problem, but not sure I understand your target. The contract deems what staff are paid: why are new staff being paid less than the older staff? At what stage did this occur? What is old? From what date did/do staff become new? When was the new rate introduced? What have the Union done about this? Do you know how many Union members there are on site & are they just perm.staff? If there are 50% of Temp staff then a Union can go to that Employer & seek recognition: & can them represent them with their Mang. I don’t see how you will get all staff the same rates, but you could represent all members rights. Should it not be your aim to discourage Wincanton to employ Agency Staff, but rather to recruit perm.staff to perm. Post?”
We were not sure whether we could trust her, so we just told her at some point that we had joined the union – we were the only temps with union membership. She did not react to it, at least she did not jump at the possible chance to organise more temp workers. We thought that there was no practical use in asking our temp-workmates to sign up to the union, if there was little chance for a short-term plan of action that could improve things. Under the given conditions of high turnover, such a plan would not be able to exceed three to six months if you want to mobilise people.
When we had our disciplinary meetings with management after the slow down ‘strike’ the union rep tried to avoid representing us, even as individual members. We phoned the regional Unite office, but they just referred us back to the shop-floor reps. In the end it was clear that she did not want to risk her position with management for some unruly temps. This might be understandable from her point of view, given the general weak basis of the union in the warehouse and the aggressive history of Wincanton management when it comes to industrial disputes.
4) GMB at Bakkavor ready-meal factory in Park Royal
One of us works as a temp at the Bakkavor ready-meal factory in Park Royal. Bakkavor is a multi-national corporation and employs up to 2,000 workers in various plants in West-London. There is a GMB union representing permanent staff, who have their own office in one of the bigger factories. The fact that permanent staff with five, ten, fifteen years experience still earn £6.79 per hour (this is 9 pence above the minimum wage!) says something about the union’s position. The permanents still get overtime bonus (time and a half), which means that workers top-up their meagre wages by working 50 to 60 hours per week.
During the induction process for new starters – the group contained both new permanents and agency temps – management announced that the new permanents would have a session with the union, which the temps would be excluded from. Due to bad weather the temps ended up staying in the same room. The GMB rep came in, he did not know who he was addressing specifically i.e. what contracts people were on. This was important because some of the so-called ‘permanent’ workers were apparently only on short-term permanent contracts ove the christmas period. A lot of them did not speak good English. He did not explain much, just said that the union’s success is an annual 2 per cent wage increase and a christmas bonus (which these workers most likely won’t get, due to their short contract). He mentioned very quickly that workers would have to pay union dues, but it was obvious that this went over most peoples’ heads. He just asked people to sign the membership form and almost all of the people signed. It was not clear whether they knew this was not part of the work-contract or not. It seemed to be just another form to fill out after a long morning of filling out forms…
Some of the people were coming to work from as far away as Mitcham (over an hour and half away and probably about £6 a day in transport costs). It was pretty disgusting to ‘trick’ these people into membership when they were earning 9p above the minimum wage…
5) GMB at Wealmoor food-supplier in Greenford
The workers’ composition at Wealmoor – a fruit and veg warehouse and packaging plant – seems to be more preferable for union organising compared to other warehouses, due to the fact that all the workers are permanents, the workforce is relatively large (around 200), the staff turnover is relatively low, while wages are not exceeding the minimum.  A friend who works at Wealmoor told us that he was approached by a GMB organiser, telling him that the GMB had an interest in organising the place. Our friend became a member and agreed to help out. A first leafletting session failed, because leaflets were not ready, a second attempt happened in mis-coordination at a time when our friend was not at work. After distributing one flyer the organisers seemed to realise that communication with the largely asian workforce would require more energy than expected and they left it at that.
6) UNITE at Alpha LSG, airline caterer
A friend of ours worked at Alpha LSG airline caterer. He is a workers’ activist with years of experience, but only found out about the fact that there is a Unite union representation after several months. The union seems to concentrate on the drivers, who pick up the stuff from the warehouse/kitchen and unload it onto the aeroplanes. Alpha LSG has a history of mergers and rather tragic industrial disputes in the past . During distribution of our paper we spoke to drivers, who have an ‘individual dispute’ with management about the continuation of terms and conditions from their old contracts. They said that the union was not being too helpful in their case, just telling them to hold on and they will sort things out. This had been going on for some months.
7) Other examples of trade union disputes in the sector
a) GMB at M&S warehouse in Swindon
The M&S warehouse in Swindon used to be run by Wincanton, before they lost the contract to DHL. The temp workers in Swindon had very similar conditions to us at Wincanton/Sainsbury’s. The GMB organised them and started a campaign for equal pay. Their protest remained largely symbolic, e.g. protesting in front of big M&S stores or sending workers to Brussels, in order to lobby the parliament to get rid of the ‘Swedish derogation’ (which allows companies to pay temps less than permanents, despite equal pay legislation).  It seems that after one-and-a-half years the campaign doesn’t yet have any concrete results. We wanted to get in touch with Swindon workers, but had no direct contacts, so we wrote to the GMB organiser. We asked him if he thinks it’s possible to arrange a meeting with M&S workers and Sainsbury’s temps, seeing as there was discontent in our place and we were in the same boat. But it seemed he was more interested in recruiting, than in workers’ meetings, at least that is how his mail to the regional GMB secretary read (he left it attached to a mail to us):
“Not sure who to send the email below. The email talks about a Wincanton Distribution centre in Greenwich
If this is on the level, I suspect that this would be ripe for major recruitment. If you make contact, I would be happy to come down and meet them and discuss our campaign in Swindon.
GMB Branch President
W15 Wiltshire and Swindon Branch”
b) USDAW at Morrisons pay negotiations, October 2015
We thought this small report below is interesting because it questions to a certain extent the current ‘we pay the living wage’ advertisement of various retail corporations, such as Lidl or Ikea, and the union cover for it. This comes after Lidl sacked a worker who had questioned Lidl’s pay policies on Facebook.
One Morrisons USDAW union rep wrote:
“Vote No to the Morrisons Pay Offer
Retail has historically been low paid. So on the surface USDAW negotiating Morrison’s staff a wage increase from the basic rate of £6.83 to the dizzying heights of £8.20 taking them over the so called living wage, seems like a more than fair deal. The company are paying a good wage, the staff are happier, USDAW has negotiated a good deal for its members…
That is about as much coverage if any that you will hear about in mainstream media. The reality is a stark double edged sword. The new wage deal sees the end of the company’s Sunday premium currently paid at time and a half, quite ironic when USDAW ‘The Campaigning Union’ who organise predominately in the retail sector, are fighting the governments propositions to deregulate Sunday Trading, yet are trading away Morrison’s Sunday premium. Are they not in fact preparing for it becoming a normal working day? Or in fact accepting it already is one?
The Sunday premium isn’t where it ends. Overtime, late and early premiums are being scrapped. Forklift drivers and café cooks will see there supplements disappear. People who started with the company after December 2013 will only receive service rewards at 5 year intervals, although people who have worked for the company since before that date won’t be effected and still receive it every year (for people who started work prior to December 2013, they have to work 5 years before they can claim their first service reward). Finally but my no means the smallest in this wage offer, paid breaks will disappear taking the working week down to 36.5 hours (39 hours minus paid breaks).
The concerns of many rank and file USDAW reps within Morrison’s (who don’t negotiate pay, apart from a select committee who sit with the National Officer) is that Terms and Conditions are being traded away for a higher rate of pay, and given this governments appalling attacks on working tax credits and cuts to peoples benefits are the members realistically going to be any better off? So what exactly are USDAW doing about all this? Well they recommend the members accept the company’s offer when casting there vote in the pay ballot.
But why? Many members are asking. Surely a trade union fights to strengthen their members terms and conditions? And doesn’t trade them away for the sake of a pay rise? It is not difficult to understand members or even non members apathy towards the union when you look deeply into what is being offered, and a perceived lack of any sort of a challenge from USDAW officials, all they seem to be doing is reminding reps to recruit new members. Perhaps USDAW needs to remind itself that recruitment is only part of organising, and they are unlikely to recruit new members or organise the ones they have if they keep trading away terms and conditions without so much as a fight, Who’s next Tesco? Sainsbury’s? Where’s your next new member coming from? Because you will more than likely hear the old question, what is the Union going to do for me? And with deals like this even the most dedicated reps and trade unionists are struggling to answer that one.” 
8) Some conclusions
First of all it is worth noting that warehousing or food production is not an ‘un-organised’ sector and that workers employed in this sector are not ‘un-organisable’ from a trade union point of view. The problems lie deeper: there are unions in the sector, but at large they are not able to overcome the division between permanent and temporary workers and/or to enforce considerable improvement of conditions. We will continue looking for the potentials of meeting other workers’ militants within the local union branches, but even that seems difficult. Which means that we are having to create these spaces of direct solidarity ourselves.