If you ever thought the class struggle was dead, you should have been outside the Iceland depot in Enfield, north London, at 2am on Friday last week.
Some 350 workers were about to begin a strike over pay and management bullying. But as pickets gathered they were met by squads of security guards hired specially for the occasion.
“They are threatening, provoking and intimidating our people,” said Peter Kavanagh, the T&G union’s senior regional industrial organiser. “We are trying to deal with the police over a serious incident of assault against a 63 year old man. It has been a nasty start to what is a lawful strike and a peaceful protest. There’s no Christmas cheer.”
The Iceland stores group does not directly run the warehouse. Until recently, the Wincanton group held the contract. But a few months ago DHL Exel took over. This is an arm of the giant DHL group (part of Deutsche Post) that was recently handed the NHS Logistics service by the government.
The Enfield site has about 115 drivers and 250 warehouse operatives. It delivers to about 180 Iceland stores in the south east and east of England.
The strike hit hard, forcing the management to reorganise schedules and send deliveries out early. The T&G said the goods being delivered might not be as fresh as they should be.
“DHL sent the refrigerated trucks out three hours earlier than normal but the Iceland stores weren’t opened three hours early,” explained a union rep.
“That means the refrigeration units would have had to stand idle waiting for the stores to open before they could be unloaded. You have to wonder what happened to those food stuffs during the wait when they couldn’t be kept in proper refrigerated conditions.”
Bosses prepared meticulously for the strike. Earlier this year, the T&G began a consultative ballot in response to the company’s imposition of a 2.4 percent pay increase (which it said was a “goodwill gesture”).
Coincidentally, at almost the same moment, the company cooperated with government authorities in a series of immigration checks on staff. At the end of the process some 40 well-established workers had been weeded out of the plant, including some key militants.
“Many of those who left were perfectly legal, but they were removed by the regime of fear,” one picket said.
“The attacks came just as home secretary John Reid was making inflammatory speeches about immigrants. Those speeches trickle down to managers and have their effect in the workplace.”
Laws that supposedly prevent bosses from abusing illegal labour are used against workers. In 2004 there were nearly 1,100 raids. Just eight employers were prosecuted but 3,330 workers were arrested.
At Iceland’s depot, bosses brought in fresh workers and agency workers to replace those swept out. But this did not weaken the resolve of the strikers.
They are angry that a hard job brings them such low pay. Site services staff start on just £6 an hour. Warehouse workers get £7 an hour basic and the drivers get £10 an hour – all very low rates for London.
Night workers get a little more, but their overtime pay is at only 1.2 times the normal rate, while the rest of the staff get 1.5 times the rate.
“And when you do a Sunday night, the extra supplement is withdrawn if you have a sick absence later in the week. That’s unfair,” said one picket.
Another added, “There’s no chance of getting a house on these wages. We are demanding 4 percent now, but that’s just the start.
“I was really shocked by how nasty the bosses’ response to our strike was, but I blame Iceland as well. We’ve been told they have to OK any pay rises for us. I hope if we make enough fuss it will embarrass Iceland as well as DHL.”
Further strikes were planned for this Friday, 15 December, followed by Thursday 21 and Friday 22 December.
Polish workers join the fight
“Strajk Oficjalny” (official strike) read some of the placards on the Iceland picket line, one sign that a large number of workers at the depot are from Poland.
Dariusz, a T&G member at the depot, said, “I did not come here to take money from British workers, I came here for my family and for a better future. I believe strongly in the union and I am proud to be on strike today with my friends.
“It is hard in Britain because although you get better pay than in Warsaw, everything is so expensive. I could not believe the cost of housing. When I first came there were six of us in a room meant for two people.
“The best thing about working at Iceland is that there is a good feeling among us all of togetherness. It is the first time I met people from Africa and Asia.
“I have found out we can all be together as workers. Poles are not your enemies, they can help to make unions better.”