Workers at factories and offices across England and Wales have been walking out this week against attacks on their pensions from consumer goods giant Unilever.
The strikes, which began on Tuesday of last week, are part of a 12-day programme of action involving workers at 12 sites in the Unite, Usdaw and GMB unions.
They previously struck on 9 December—the first ever national strike in Unilever’s hundred year history.
Unilever wants to scrap its final salary pension scheme. This will cut thousands of pounds from workers’ retirement income.
But Unilever has no shortage of cash. It is one of Britain’s most profitable multinationals.
One striker at the PG Tips factory in Trafford, Manchester, told Socialist Worker, “One in every three cups of tea drunk in Britain is made from the teabags we make in this factory—and Unilever say they can’t afford to keep our pension.”
Workers struck for 48 hours in Warrington, where Persil and other household cleaning products are manufactured.
“Throughout the consultations they’ve not been able to put a single argument based on cost,” said GMB rep Mark Armitage.
“Their words are that final salary schemes are a ‘broken model’. But I don’t understand how it’s broken. It’s affordable, it’s sustainable and they owe us a decent retirement.”
James Webb, senior steward for the GMB, said, “Forty years of service agreements have been reneged upon from a company that made four billion euro profits.”
Many workers believe the firm is following the example set by the government in its attack on public sector pensions.
Unilever has rejected invitations to talks from the Acas conciliation service. It says it will only negotiate with unions if they sign up to its preconditions—including dropping the demand for final salary pensions.
Phil Calladine is the shop steward for Hellman’s mayonnaise manufacture at Unilever’s spreads factory in Purfleet, Essex.
“You can see by the support we’ve had on the picket lines that people are very determined to get Unilever back around the table—without preconditions this time,” he said. “What they’ve done is not consultation. It’s bullying.”
Senior steward Mike Rooke agreed. “Three years ago we agreed close the scheme to new starters and increase our contributions in order to keep final salary.
“That was a mistake because they saw a chink in our armour and they went for it.
“They expect people to plan their lives on shifting sands. Even if they get what they want this time, they could come back and change it again in three years.”
The bosses, so far, are intransigent. But workers are determined too. “I think we will be out again, in all the Unilever sites,” said Ian Barnard, a line operator in Purfleet.
“I think people are prepared to go out again and again.”
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