Profits and pay at fmcg giants, against a backdrop of coalition austerity cuts, mean workers are in no mood to conciliate

As Unilever staff kicked off a 11-day staggered strike on Wednesday, unions have warned of more unrest in the year to come.

Trouble has been brewing for some time. Though few disputes boiled over into fully fledged industrial action in 2011 (apart from the first Unilever walkout in December, the only other significant strike involved two months of intermittent disruption, a year ago, at Heinz) threats of industrial action at CCE, GSK, Allied Breweries, British Sugar and Park Cakes resulted in hasty retreats, as a pragmatic approach prevailed.

All that could soon change. Unions expect relations to deteriorate as austerity measures contrast with high executive pay, while the supermarket price wars come as raw material prices move upwards.

“There is a likelihood of more industrial action as terms and conditions come under attack,” says Ronnie Draper, general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). The union has gained 100 new members in the past week alone as a direct result of company aggression, Draper revealed to The Grocer.

Unions fear companies will use the economy as a smokescreen to undermine terms.

For Unite, Unilever is a case in point. The union claims the giant has used the recession as an excuse to scrap its final salary pension scheme, when its most recent half-yearly results reported a 9% rise in net profits to €2.4bn as underlying sales grew 5.7%. “Fmcg employers continue to make good profits and award bonuses to executives. All too often they’re not prepared to share the rewards,” says Unite’s national officer for food and drink Jennie Formby.

And the Agency Workers Regulations will cause more conflict in 2012, adds Draper.

The regulations, which came into force in October, were designed to improve the lot of agency workers by giving them the same pay and conditions as directly employed staff after 12 weeks of continuous work.

Draper claims food companies, who employ a lot of agency workers, have been reacting by undermining pay and conditions of full-time staff.

At Park Cakes, workers threatened strike action last autumn when the company introduced new contracts for new workers at lower pay, claiming it could not afford to offer former rates after the new regulations were brought in.

Draper claims Park Cakes is far from an isolated case. “A number of branches are up in arms about this,” he says.

Unite is also concerned. It has been working on unionisation in companies where there are a lot of migrant and temporary workers to ensure the rights of agency workers are respected and the pay and conditions of other staff are not undermined.

With the unions’ backs up in a manner reminiscent of the 1980s, a new war is opening.