Last month, Asda workers and GMB union reps gathered outside Asda stores across the UK to protest against the introduction by management of a new contract that will impose unpaid lunch breaks and allow the bosses “flexibility” in assigning irregular shifts to store staff. Asda workers have been told they will be sacked in November if they refuse to switch to the new contract terms.
Asda has a track record of pushing forward harsh anti-union policies imported from their U.S. parent company Walmart.
Yet in the past, GMB have scored rousing victories against the company. In 2006, Asda attempted to crush GMB’s foothold in the Washington (Tyne and Wear) depot by offering workers a 10% pay rise if they disaffiliated from the union, which was voted against and resulted in a strike for further pay. The Employment Tribunal ruled that Asda had acted unlawfully and imposed a penalty of £850,000 on the company.
Asda have not forgotten this defeat and continue to grind down their workers with threats of mass redundancies and contracts with irregular working hours. This current move by management, defended by chief executive Roger Burnley as one aimed at remaining ‘competitive’, constitutes just the latest episode in the union’s standoff against the retail giant.
We interviewed a GMB rep for an Asda store in Norwich about what the mood was amongst the workers in the lead up to the protest.
When did workers first catch wind of the fact that management was planning to introduce the new contract?
Contract 6, which is now called ‘Our New Contract’, came in a few years ago as a voluntary option for staff to switch over for extra pay – about 1 pound extra on their wages. But after the minimum wage rise in April this year, those on ‘Our New Contact’ got just 16p an hour extra, while those on the old contract got 26p extra, so this clear difference showed that the management hadn’t done as they said they would. They then rebranded the contract to the workers as ‘Your Choice’. Of course, it wasn’t our choice. They held a 12 week consultation on the contract in February, which gave us a definite indication that they were rolling it out to the store staff.
What do you think of GMB’s role in this dispute? Do you think there is anything that they could have been done better?
After the consultation with the Asda management, who didn’t listen to a word we were saying, GMB held a meeting and decided to hold a protest outside the head office. They distributed a questionnaire asking workers whether they agreed or disagreed over the new contract. By that time, however, the career interviews were taking place, which the management used as a bullying tactic to force workers to sign over to the new contract. GMB should have prepared a lot earlier, rather than going through that whole process of protesting, handing out questionnaires and only then taking action - we would have had a lot more time to gather support from the staff to join the protest. I think we have been successful, but we should have been faster to get more people behind it. If we had, we would have made a much greater impact than we have now.
What were the relationships between the different levels of management?
The junior management has been a lot more sympathetic. They were colleagues once, some not so long ago, so there’s that level of empathy that you don’t get with the senior management. They don’t think about how much money we earn. They’re not worried about the contract – they just think it’s going to be easier to manage the rotas now.
Recently, Sainsbury’s workers have been on strike in Essex at their distribution centre after attempts to impose a new sick leave policy, and we are seeing supermarket workers take action across the country. How do you feel about the prospects of industrial action amongst supermarket and distribution workers?
I hope it takes on a greater political resonance. We need to stand up and fight, which is hard when you’re so scared of losing your job. But this fear can’t last forever – we need to take this energy further.
As an example of a fighting union leadership instilling confidence in Asda workers, GMB should be commended. Yet frustration over the protracted process of planning demonstrations and strikes has been mounting within the GMB London branch, especially its over-cautious use of workplace ballots conducted before legitimising any action. In this case, the GMB branch evidently deliberated to the extent of compromising the efficacy of the demonstration. But the policy of workplace ballots has severe implications for organisation in a climate of bitter class war. In the event of a general strike, for instance, the distribution of separate ballots makes the proposition of any nation-wide action to the TUC nearly impossible.
So far, their actions have been mostly limited to handing out petitions to customers to be handed to the CEO, which is no substitute for a militant leadership calling for radical industrial action.
With patience and persistent activity, class-fighting trade union reps can shape the union apparatus into a highly efficient machine for an offensive against employers, linking together existing struggles across the labour movement to coordinate lethal offensives against big business.
If united with a Corbyn-led Labour Party, fighting on the political front with clear socialist policies, trade unions could develop the momentum for an irreversible transition of power into the workers’ hands.