Striking workers at the Superdrug distribution centre in South Elmsall, Yorkshire, have forced management to retreat after more than two weeks of all-out, indefinite strike action.
They returned to work on Tuesday – yet many believe that more could have been won if they had continued the action.
Some 76 percent of strikers voted to accept a new offer from management at a mass meeting on Monday. They had been striking in protest at company plans to slash their wages and attack their working conditions.
Superdrug wanted to axe shift pay allowances that would have cost some workers £2,000 a year. It also wanted to impose “flexible” working hours and for workers to opt out of the European 48-hour working time directive.
Workers’ action did force management to backtrack. Bosses have withdrawn dismissal notices that were sent to workers and have suspended discussion on some contractual terms until April 2011. But the new offer still contains cuts.
“The main things we got from Superdrug were, firstly, a smaller cut in shift allowances,” one Unite union rep told Socialist Worker.
“They wanted to cut around £2,000 from the pay of workers on the ‘afters’ [2pm-10pm] shift but that has now come down to £520.
“We’ve got an agreement that they will pay sick pay for the first three days of two absences rather than one absence.
“And we’ve got our contracts back to how we wanted them in terms of flexibility and the working time directive.”
Yet Superdrug is still cutting the overtime rate from time and a half to time and a third, and all workers have accepted a pay freeze for 2010.
The company was out to impose a savage attack on the South Elmsall workers and to impose worse contracts on themwithout union agreement.
Many strikers believed that the firm wanted to smash their union and that it had opened a warehouse in Dunstable, where workers are on worse pay and conditions, in preparation for pushing through the attacks.
The magnificent response of the workers has stopped the company from getting what it wanted.
But the fact that a quarter of strikers voted to reject the offer reflects some very real problems with it.
One worker on the afters shift told Socialist Worker, “This dispute was about Superdrug wanting to ‘harmonise’ its two warehouses – here and in Dunstable – but it hasn’t been able to do it.
“The deal is obviously a step forward for everyone. The general feeling is that we weren’t expecting such a movement from the bosses. I think we could have held out for more but I don’t feel disappointed.
“People will go back to work feeling confident. We’ve proved to the company that we won’t be messed about with.
“We got so much support and were so strong that I don’t think the company will try anything like this for a long time, if ever.
“I’ve no doubt that people will be out again if they do.”
Steve added, “Management tried to ram all the changes down our throats. We’ve shown that we’re not having it.”
The strike had a real impact on Superdrug. Pickets leafletted Superdrug shops to highlight their struggle and got a fantastic response. And millions of pounds worth of stock has been stuck in the warehouse.
“I think the mice will have been having a party,” Susan, one of the strikers, told Socialist Worker. “There are lots of crisps, selection boxes and advent calendars. Who knows what damage the mice will have done.”
The Superdrug strike showed how relatively small groups of workers can have a real impact if they take the most militant action and fight back together.
It also showed the level of support and solidarity that can be harnessed to help workers win.
It is a strength that Superdrug workers should be prepared to use again if management renew their offensive.