Watered-down contracts, worsening pay and bosses meddling at every turn. The reality of companies trying to boost their profits by robbing workers of any control over their work or their lives is a familiar one.
“It’s the little things that wear everybody down,” said Matthew, a worker at the Hovis bread factory in Wigan. “Say you’re sweeping up and you take a minute. They can see you from their office because there’s cameras on the plants. They come round and say, ‘Don’t sit down’.”
In February Premier Foods (PF), which owns the factory, brought in a new boss to introduce zero hours contracts. It didn’t expect much of a fight. But a relatively small group of workers decided to take a stand. They beat back bosses on zero hours contracts earlier this month and now they’ve beaten them on agency workers.
Bosses have agreed that these will only be used when permanent workers aren’t available. Around 220 machine operatives and cleaners joined the strikes, hitting bosses hard. “It’s been building up for so long because they’re going at us all the time,” said Ian. Workers say the atmosphere got a lot worse since food giant PF bought Hovis out three years ago with billions borrowed from RBS.
Baking is a hot process, and only one machine on the shopfloor has drinking water nearby. But workers cannot leave their machines to drink, unless there is someone to swap with them. Matthew said, “It’s red hot but they make us wear long white jackets. It’s killing us and they don’t do anything about it—they go and sit in their air-conditioned offices.”
Machines operatives stand for three hours then have a half hour break. They also swap round to a different machine every half hour. Sheila said, “It does hurt your back standing in one spot. But the shifts have been worse.” The shifts are 12 hours long, in a cycle of two days, then two nights, then four days off. Shifts changed before this management came in from the very unpopular four nights on, one off, two on, two off.
That made simple things like family life an almost impossible struggle for many workers. “It was horrible,” said Ian. Sheila agreed, “Only bed and work.” The work is tough enough when the machines run as they should. When they don’t it’s chaos. If the prover machine—where the yeast makes the bread rise—stops for five minutes, it makes loaves too big for the slicer. So the slicer smashes up the bread, which backs up and piles up on the floor.
Sometimes there are electrical faults. Then fitters are called in over the tannoy for repairs. But according to Matthew, “They won’t slow the plants down. There’ll be bread all over the floor and the bins are overflowing and they don’t care—it goes to the pig farms.” The only response is to pile yet more pressure on workers. “You’re fighting with the machine to keep it running,” agreed Ian. “They think we’re stood doing nothing so they give us more and more paperwork to do every half hour. There’s product control and metal detection and even a taste test. I don’t want to eat the bread but you still have to so you can write it down. Now we’re hearing they’re going to give us more paperwork.”
Managers began to learn the hard way, with the workers’ first week-long strike from 28 August. They thought workers could be easily replaced. But scabs and managers only managed to make 10,000 loaves in a week. “We made 10,000 in one shift when we went back,” Paul laughed on the picket line in the second strike.
One machine that normally ran with three workers took 18 scabs—plus one for paperwork and a fitter standing by. That strike won full-time permanent contracts for 24 agency staff. These were workers who had been hired in April to replace 30 permanent workers.
At the first strike meeting on Saturday 7 September 170 strikers voted overwhelmingly to stay out. They then demanded that agency workers are brought in house and that agencies are not used again except in emergencies. They struck for a second week earlier this month.
Ian, Sheila and Matthew have each been at Hovis for more than 24 years and Paul for nine years. There have always been casual jobs there. There were Saturday jobs for students and young people. Three generations of the same families have often worked at Hovis. This was how Sheila started. But the previous agreement in Wigan Hovis was that after 12 weeks casual you became full-time and permanent if you wanted to.
Now the bosses have tried to tear up agreements and workers don’t trust them at all. PF bosses told workers at Wigan last year that they needed to cut costs to avoid redundancies. So they took cuts to their hours and pay in the hope of preventing compulsory redundancies. Now overtime is only paid on bank holidays. But PF bosses went ahead anyway. They made 30 people redundant in April this year—and then replaced them with agency workers on much less pay.
Boss Gavin Darby, who pushed through the wage cuts, takes home around £700,000 a year. “We came back in to find they’d got agency workers in on lower wages,” said Angela bitterly. “They looked us in the face and lied even though we’d agreed to their ‘flexibility’.”
Bosses threw money at their scabbing operation because it would be worth a fortune in extra profit if they could slash pay. Managers came from Hovis sites around Britain and Northern Ireland to drive vans as the usual drivers refused to cross picket lines.
PF, a giant firm that owns a number of “power brands”, has been culling jobs by the hundred since its debts were made public and its share price plummeted earlier this year. But taking a stand has boosted workers’ confidence.
In the first strike workers were fearful of management filming them. They were told if they stepped in front of the vans they would be sacked. But at the end of that week they marched back into work behind their Bfawu bakers’ union banner.
In their second strike they marched through central Wigan and rallied at the Labour Club with up to 100 trade unionists from other unions. Then hundreds of strikers picketed over three nights from 2am, blocking delivery vans and facing down a heavy police presence.
After causing huge disruption to deliveries, workers marched into the first shift back to riotous applause shouting, “The workers united will never be defeated.” They decided that if management didn’t crumble after a third strike then they would strike every Sunday and Thursday, the biggest production days, until they did.
Workers hope their victory can set an example that other workers can follow and turn the tide against job insecurity and workplace bullying. Sheila said, “We’ve cost them thousands and I just hope other people take inspiration from us. We got organised and we’ve got three union reps now.” Ian added “We’re much more confident now—since the march and rally, we got so much support. I’m so proud to be part of it.”
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