‘I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win,” says Tom, a striking worker at the Superdrug warehouse in South Elmsall, West Yorkshire.
Workers at the plant have been on
all-out indefinite strike action for two weeks in a battle against a vicious company that wants to tear up their contracts and smash their union. The strike has lit a flame that is reaching across the whole county.
South Elmsall is an ex-mining town. Some may assume that the destruction of the mining industry would have smashed any potential for resistance.
But that is not the case and Superdrug has picked on the wrong group of workers – because the traditions of fighting back and of building solidarity are alive and well.
Paul, a former miner who is now striking at Superdrug, told Socialist Worker, “All the other warehouses are watching us. There may be less than 300 of us but we’re proud people and we don’t like being bullied.”
Susan, another striker, said, “My husband was a miner on strike in 1984.We had two kids and, like everyone, I worried about paying the bills and everything else.
“Now I know that if we can survive 12 months out on strike then we can survive this. The community spirit during the Miners’ Strike was fantastic. We’ve got that spirit shining through today.”
Backing in the area for the strikes is impressive and growing. “We’re getting a lot of support,” said Sarah, one of the strikers. “The local butcher keeps bringing us meat and workers at the Del Monte plant are giving us hot water for drinks, pallets to burn for the braziers and letting us use their toilets.
“I’ve lived in this area all my life. A lot of people here know what it’s like being on strike – there are lots of former miners. One turned up the other day with 15 bacon sandwiches. People are bringing things for us because they remember what it was like for them.”
The workers are spreading their message wider.
“The strike is so solid it’s been unbelievable,” adds Tom. “We’ve had 28 cars going to leaflet outside Superdrug shops every day. We gave out 90,000 leaflets in 100 different towns and cities.
“We’ve had superb support.”
Superdrug wants to impose devastating new contracts without agreement with the workers’ Unite union. The changes include abolishing shift allowances and anti-social hours allowances – that would slash £2,000 from some workers’ pay packets.
It wants to cut the sick pay entitlement period from 13 to seven weeks and overtime rates from time and a half to time and a third. It also wants workers to opt out of the European Union’s 48-hour working time regulations.
Owen has worked at the site for 23 years. “They want to change our contracts so that they can make us work whenever they want,” he told Socialist Worker. “You could come in one day and be told ‘we only need you for four hours today, but come in for longer tomorrow’.
“My wife works days and I have to be home for my son after school. They don’t care about that.”
“We’d be signing away all our normal working practices that we’ve had for years,” said Tom.
“They want to bring in new draconian procedures. For example, if you’re late – whether at the start of your shift, after your break time or after your lunch time – you’d be on a disciplinary after three times. It’s a massive attack.”
Superdrug bosses are becoming more vicious as the strike continues. The firm sent letters to all workers last week to notify them that it would be terminating their contracts – effectively sacking them.
Workers responded by burning the letters on the picket line.
“I’ve had four letters from Superdrug and the last one said I’d be finishing on 1 February,” Tony told Socialist Worker.
“I’ve worked here for 21 years. Is that the way to treat people who’ve given years of service?
“I thought I’d be here for the rest of my life. But who wants to work for a ruthless company like this?”
Strikers are shocked at the company’s audaciousness. Time and time again they stress that they’re not on strike for a pay rise or to gain anything but simply to keep what they’ve got.
“We’re not on strike because we don’t want to work,” Mick told Socialist Worker. “We just want to be left to get on with it.
“It’s 2009 but you wouldn’t know it. We should be going forwards, but it feels like we’re going backwards.
“This is capitalism gone mad. If those at the top keep taking more from those at the bottom where’s it going to end up?”
Many workers think that Superdrug is using the recession as an excuse to go on the offensive. They think that the attacks were planned long before the crisis hit.
“Superdrug started up another distribution centre in Dunstable around two years ago,” said Tom.
“We’ve been here 24 years and we’re unionised. At Dunstable they set people up with worse terms and conditions than we have. And now they say they have to ‘harmonise’ us all and we have to go down to their level.
“They opened Dunstable to put a gun to our heads.”
Workers say that conditions at the site began to deteriorate at around the same time that the Dunstable centre opened.
Alex is one of around 30 Polish workers who work at the plant. “I’ve worked here for over four years and people have always been really friendly,” he told Socialist Worker.
“At first the working conditions were lovely. But over the last year they’ve started looking for excuses to get at us. We have to make a stand.”
Emma and Liz joined a mass picket at the plant on Thursday of last week. They spoke about the way that life at the plant had changed.
“We used to have a laugh but not any more,” said Emma. “You daren’t breathe for fear of being sacked.”
“We’re getting used to being on strike now,” added Liz. “It’s all or nothing – if we’re still here after Christmas then so be it. We can’t let them get away with what they’re doing.
“I’ve never been on strike before. I don’t think it’s hit us all yet really what we’re doing. But we won’t go back until something’s resolved.”
Liz is among many pickets who were striking for the first time. But in this former mining area traditions of striking run deep. Many, like Harry, had parents who were miners.
“Before the Miners’ Strike, 90 percent of working men in this town worked in the pits,” he told Socialist Worker. “People know about sticking together.
“People here have tended to vote Labour but you don’t exactly see Labour pulling its weight do you? I’d like to see the government doing more.
“Labour should be getting onto the companies and putting them straight. They should say, ‘You can’t treat workers like this’. But the government is just letting this happen.
“Margaret Thatcher brought in a lot of things against the workers and Labour has had enough time to sort it out, but it seems to be going along with it.
“I think Superdrug is doing this because it wants the union out. It says it’s about money but it’s really about smashing the union. If this is happening to us then you can bet it will be happening to someone else too.”
Many of the pickets are fed up with mainstream politicians and the fact that they are all on the side of the bosses.
“We’ve had three decades of Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and Thatcher,” said Mick. “They’re all worse than useless. And then the politicians have the cheek to moan about their expenses. They don’t live on this planet.
“It’s as much a class society as it’s always been.”
There is a steely determination among the strikers. The idea of being on strike for weeks on end seems to faze no one and there is a sense that workers have no option but to strike.
“We are on all-out strike because we knew that it was the only way to have an impact,” said Mick. “If we just came out for one day, they’d just get extra work through in the days before and it would have no impact on them. This is the only way to make a point.”
Many workers feel that, if Superdrug gets away with its assault, working there will be unbearable.
“I’m left with £30 a week after all the bills go out,” Steve told Socialist Worker. “If they take any more then I won’t be able to pay the bills. I’m petrified about what will happen – at the moment I’m the breadwinner in the house.
“The managers tried to divide us but people joined the union in the run-up to the strike.
“They send us new contracts in the post, but we just give them back to the posties to return. We go home from the picket lines and we feel we’ve played our part.”
“If we accept this, what will they do to us next year?” asked Joe, another striker. “We’ll end up on the minimum wage.”
The strikers’ determination is also fuelled by the knowledge that their fight is part of a bigger one – and that the result will have an impact on other workers.
“I think we’re a test case for all warehouses,” Owen told Socialist Worker. “If they get away with it here then other workers will be next.”
The Superdrug strikers think that their bosses did not expect them to fight.
Instead they are showing a level of resilience and defiance that can show all other workers facing attack the way to respond.
All names in this article have been changed