Some 1,000 workers are on strike at five Argos distribution centres.
This weekend was set to be the launch of the chain’s new catalogue. It is one of the busiest times outside Christmas for Argos branches across Britain, with hundreds of new product lines to rush in.
But bosses hadn’t reckoned with a seven-day strike by members of the Unite union, which began on Saturday of last week. A heavy-handed attempt to impose harsh new contracts has galvanised workers’ anger.
Mark Barter, Unite convenor at the Basildon distribution centre in Essex told Socialist Worker, “We’ve had two one-day strikes and it seems to be getting stronger.
“Everything management does seems to get people more fired up.”
The new contracts rob workers of even more control over their time. New 24/7 shift patterns subject to change at short notice would disrupt their ability to plan childcare or holidays, let alone a social life.
And plans to measure their work minute by minute against “key performance indicators” (KPIs) represent a further clampdown in workplaces.
Several strikers told Socialist Worker it already felt “like being in prison”.
“You’re already under the cosh all the time with targets,” said forklift truck driver Bill. “They’re on your case asking what you were doing for this or that ten minutes.
“You can never just leave without going through checkpoints, and security guards come round while you’re working and make you empty your pockets.
“The KPIs are a sacking tool—they can make up whatever numbers they like. Those of us in our 50s or with medical conditions could be out the door in six months.”
At the Castleford centre in Yorkshire, Unite steward Carl told Socialist Worker, “We have recently found out that in management briefings the staff are referred to as sheep.
“So I approached the site manager and asked him to grass over the car park so that the sheep could graze during breaks.”
There is also resentment at the use of agency workers. In Basildon there are around 200—about as many as permanent staff, but with lower wages and fewer rights.
“It’s terrible,” said Frank, who works with returned goods. The bosses want everything their own way. They haven’t brought any of the agency workers in house for two years—they use them to undermine permanent workers.”
Unite could launch a legal challenge against clauses in the contract that workers fear would allow them to be blacklisted. Many strikers signed the contract under threat of the sack. But it hasn’t stopped them fighting back.
Behind the dispute lies an industry-wide drive to cut distribution costs. It makes workers’ lives hell—and has helped generate massive profits for those at the top. In May this year three directors were given shares worth £2.5 million.
But it also means that margins for error are whittled down to a minimum. So the very business model that robs workers of their rights also means they can hit back harder.
“People see Argos as a customer and they think it’s pretty spacious,” explained Mark. “But the storerooms are much smaller than you’d think. There’s only one of some items. Now there will be catalogues full of new lines, and they just won’t have the stuff in store.”
Management want to divide the workforce. The dispute involves five centres—Heywood in Manchester, Magna Park in Leicestershire and Bridgwater in Somerset as well as Basildon and Castleford.
But only in Castleford does the action include lorry drivers, who elsewhere are employed by contractors. Nor does it cover agency workers.
Many who are still working could be persuaded not to cross picket lines, if only on the basis of risks to their health and safety. The bosses’ offensive mirrors others in workplaces from factories to further education colleges. Beating it back could boost us all.
Thanks to Nick Ruff. Some workers' names have been changed
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