Warehouse and distribution workers at Argos, one of Britain’s biggest and most profitable retail chains, have voted by 67 percent to strike against a below-inflation pay offer.
But their fight is about more than just money. It is also about so-called 'modern working practices' and a battle to defeat old fashioned divide and rule tactics.
“We do a hard physical job under constant pressure and for very little money,” says Nigel Ruddy, who is the Unite convenor at Argos’s Magna Park depot in Lutterworth, Leicestershire.
“A few years ago the company brought in a new voice picking system. At the start of every shift we have to strap on a battery pack, transmitter and headset.
“From then on a computerised voice directs us. It tells us where to go, what to pick and where to take it. Our every move is monitored and we have to respond to the computer’s demands through a microphone.
“When the system was introduced we were told that it would make us more efficient, but that it would not be used for any kind of disciplinary action.
“But now if there is a 15 minute gap in your working day that the computer cannot account for – say you went to the toilet, or you had to talk to someone – then you can expect to have to explain that gap to a manager.”
Nigel says that for many years the union cooperated with Argos’s management to make the distribution side of the business more efficient. As a result the company made £9.7 million productivity savings, resulting in a 16 percent jump in profits.
But Mark Barter, a union convenor from the Basildon depot in Essex, says that the company is unwilling to share its success with its workers.
“New starters at my depot are on just £17,000,” he said. “Yet Essex is an incredibly expensive place to live. People at my place are up to their eyeballs in debt, and I know lots of people who have County Court judgements against them because they have not been able to keep up with their repayments.
“Meanwhile our chief executive’s earnings increased by 58 percent last year. Now Argos wants to move everyone onto monthly pay, meaning there will be a whole month when we don’t have any money coming in.
“The company is offering a £500 loan to tide people over, but our bosses are so out of touch that they don’t understand that many of us can’t afford the £37 a month repayment.”
Argos has offered workers a below-inflation pay rise of just 3.8 percent this year. If workers accept an attack on their sick pay scheme, bosses say they will up this to 4.1 percent.
Mark Pettifer, a driver and senior shop steward based at Lutterworth, is angry.
“We drive high-sided articulated lorries in all kinds of weather,” he says. “That means being extremely alert for 50 hours a week. If someone is off sick it is because they know they are not safe to drive,” he said. “The attendance record among drivers is excellent, so why launch a crackdown?”
Argos bosses have been recruiting workers in Poland, and the union believes that the company hoped to create an atmosphere of division among the workers. If that was their strategy it has failed dramatically.
“As the company’s plan became clear we argued that, for health and safety reasons, it was essential that the Polish workers were taught English before starting work,” says Mark Barter.
“But when they started arriving it was clear that this had not happened.
“Very quickly our work canteen became split into two camps, with Polish speakers on one side and English speakers on the other.
“The Polish workers were mostly agency workers and sometimes made up half of a 150-person shift. The two sides couldn’t communicate and as a union we decided that we could not tolerate that.
“The company said that its budget for lifelong learning was spent, so we went to the local college ourselves and made an arrangement for them to teach English to Polish workers for free.
“This had a positive effect on everyone. The Polish workers knew that the union had arranged the classes, so they were very friendly towards us and started joining up.
“As their English skills improved, we helped them with their interview techniques so that they could get permanent jobs with the company.
“We also got the opportunity to explain why it is important to have a union. Gradually we broke down the barriers and today it would be fair to say that we have a united workforce.”
Workers of all nationalities at Argos have withstood a barrage of recent management propaganda to vote for action. They have also seriously weakened the threat of agency workers being used to undermine their fight.
Now the bosses who glibly walked past their protest are set to find out who really makes the profits at Argos.