Klaxons boomed across the frosty Essex morning last Friday, as lorry drivers showed their solidarity with workers picketing the Unilever plant in Purfleet.
As the sun came up, the picket line swelled until there were over 50 workers waving flags and placards—out of a workforce of just over 200.
Some had been picketing since the previous evening.
The Purfleet plant manufactures spreads such as Hellmann’s mayonnaise and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
It was one of 12 workplaces to be hit by the first-ever national walkout at food and household goods giant Unilever.
Over 2,000 workers in the Unite, GMB and Usdaw unions voted overwhelmingly to strike in defence of their pensions.
They stopped production at the PG Tips tea factory in Manchester and the Colman’s mustard plant in Norfolk.
No production workers went in at the Marmite factory in Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire—and a quarter of them joined picket lines.
Lorraine Gronow is the senior Unite rep at the Pot Noodle factory in Crumlin, South Wales.
She told Socialist Worker, “We had 100 percent participation. No one crossed the picket line—not even agency workers who aren’t affected by the pension changes.”
There was a complete shutdown in Warrington, where Unilever workers make washing powders. GMB members at the company next door refused to unload any deliveries—as they would have had to use Unilever’s gates.
The firm made a profit of over £2 billion last year. But it is trying to abolish workers’ final salary pension scheme.
This will cost the average worker 20 percent of their retirement income, rising to 40 percent for some.
It comes just three years after they closed the scheme to new entrants and made workers increase their contributions.
There is now real bitterness among Unilever’s workforce. Many have been with the company for decades.
“We went in for a contract with a final salary pension and we planned our lives around that,” said Derek Hawkes, a maintenance fitter in Purfleet.
“Now it feels like the rug has been pulled out from underneath us.”
Unions are prepared to call further strikes in the new year if the company does not move.
Sheena Mitchell is a senior Unite steward at Unilever’s plant in Manchester.
She said, “The government has been doing this to public sector workers and now the blue-chip companies are doing it in the private sector.
“We’re all in the same boat, so now we all need to fight back together.”