Trade union activity has increased dramatically over the past six months, with few of the major supermarkets escaping fire. Such is the level of discontent among members of both the GMB and Transport & General Workers’ Union (T&G) over activities within the distribution networks of the multiples, that strike action has already taken place at a number of individual depots and could reach a national level at Morrisons.
But what has prompted it? On the face of it, there is no single factor behind the sudden upsurge of activity. In some cases lack of consultation on changing working practices is blamed; in others, the implementation of new technology aimed at increasing workers’ productivity. There have also been protests against redundancies that have come as a result of cost cutting and against increased working hours.
Dig a bit deeper, though, and they have a number of strands in common. A logistics company boss who works with the supermarkets, says: “We’re entering an era where the unions are stronger again, especially with the big retailers, who’ve taken a lot of their distribution in-house. If you’ve a problem with one depot then it spreads to the rest.” He believes the current shortage of drivers is weakening the hand of the retailers, especially as their overseas recruitment drives have “not been that successful” - chiefly due to accommodation and language problems.
This, combined with the sustained media interest in fat-cat salaries, is producing a potent fuel for the unions, he suggests. “Staff are seeing massive profits at supermarkets and saying ‘we’ve only seen 2.5% increases while the directors of Tesco received a £7m bonus!’”
A spokesman for Morrisons agrees that there is a link between the various instances of union action in the food sector and believes it is partly driven by a shift in the stance of the GMB and T&G to combine forces and deal with the retailers and their distribution networks on a national basis. Since Morrisons has a predominance of T&G members and Safeway has mostly GMB representation, the combination of the two has resulted in the company facing strong demands to deal nationally, compared with Morrisons’ previous arrangement of dealing on a local level. “They now want us to deal with one body, which is not practical as all the issues are local - one site might be dealing with vegetables, whereas another is meat. We’ve a history of good relations, just ask shopworkers’ union Usdaw, with whom we work incredibly well,” the spokesman argues.
This holds little sway with T&G organiser Brian Revell, who accuses Morrisons of failing to communicate the changes it is implementing after the Safeway deal. “With any big takeover there will be some changes, but there are a whole lot of frustrations because Morrisons is not willing to communicate on a national level. They only want to meet the two unions individually. They’ve been very difficult,” he claims.
Revell’s suggestion that the workers at the Safeway depots need to know why changes are being made is strongly rebutted by the Morrisons spokesman, who suggests the unions are engaging in an “opportunistic” attack on the company”. He says: “They don’t like the fact that we don’t know the answers to their questions. We’ve sold 100 stores and there have been no redundancies yet. And until we know what’s needed, there will be no snap decisions.”
With the two camps in deadlock, Morrisons appears to be heading towards its entire distribution workforce being involved in industrial action. Without the agreement from management to engage in a national level meeting with both unions at the same time, Revell says: “We will be moving ahead
to full strike action after an industrial action ballot.”
According to Michael Hopper, GMB organiser in the north east of England, the build up of discord against the supermarkets is down to the pressure they have placed on their supply chains. “They have strangled the supply chain so much that they are now looking at making cost savings from the employees by reducing numbers and using new technology. This might be why people are now kicking back,” he says. This is certainly in evidence at Asda where the GMB is involved in two disputes with management at distribution depots located at Ince in Wigan and Washington in Tyne and Wear. These have centred on a mix of pay, redundancies and new technology.
At the George depot in Ince, the GMB says that industrial action was taken after management demanded that picking rates for forklift truck drivers handling George clothing be increased from 1,100 to 1,400 items per person per shift. Although Gary Belshaw, the shop steward involved in the industrial action, has been re-employed after being sacked, Asda will no longer allow him to represent the union. As a result, the dispute is still rumbling on.
While this looks to be a one-off issue for Asda, it is not alone among the multiples in facing disruptions over the introduction of new technology to its distribution network.
Both Tesco and Sainsbury have also brought in scanning technology at depots as a measure to improve efficiency in the supply chain and the unions have expressed concern. They regard new picking technology that involves wrist-held computers linked to finger scanners as a method of monitoring workers’ productivity.
Although the supermarkets strenuously deny such allegations, the logistics company boss says it is very easy to closely monitor workers using these devices. “We’ve got some wrist-scanners and you can tell when somebody goes to the toilet. And if they’ve not picked anything for 15 minutes, then you know they are on their fag break,” he explains.
Whatever the levels of Big Brother in the UK’s depots, it is probably not unreasonable to suggest that for once in recent years the major supermarkets are facing a union force that cannot easily be brushed aside. This is the view of one union insider. “They present themselves as all-powerful but they are not that powerful; they make mistakes. They’ve lost control of the supply lines - and we’ve got that control,” he says.
Undoubtedly, the supermarkets would disagree but, with more strike action pending, it will soon become apparent just how much of this claim is based on reality. Union dispute with Asda at Washington
>>GMB gearing up for strike action next week
Asda offered a pay package worth 10% over two years if union members left the union, according to Michael Hopper, the GMB organiser in the north east, who says this is all part of an effort by the company to drive out the unions.
“Since Wal-Mart came in it’s got worse. They’ve tried to remove the unions three times in three years,” he suggests.
After the 10% offer was rejected, along with the subsequent offer of a backdated 5% (with bargaining rights intact) and 2.75% the year after, strike action took place on June 24.
With no resolution in sight, the union is now gearing up for a further three days of action from Wednesday, July 27. The GMB has also taken Asda to an employment tribunal that could be worth up to £2,500 per member at Washington.
However, a spokesman for Asda vigorously denies that an offer of 10% was ever on the table and said the company’s initial offer simply required union members to give up their collective bargaining rights. “They could still be in the union, but with no collective bargaining rights.”
He is also adamant that the 7.75% offer was accepted - based on Asda’s assumption that non-union members be counted as accepting the offer. This is a denied by Hooper, who also says that having no bargaining rights would be tantamount to dropping out of the union.
The union is also aggrieved about the potential for 315 redundancies at Washington, especially as these were announced shortly after union members agreed to opt out of the Working Time Directive so that some drivers could take on more work as Asda sought to improve the efficiency of its supply chain.
The Asda spokesman acknowledged that its review of distribution - involving the introduction of a ‘hub and spoke’ system - had caused “changes and a knock-on effect” that had been felt by the depots. As a result, he says, there is a risk of redundancies across the group, including those at Washington.