The lorries driving out of Argos’s distribution hub in Basildon, Essex, clatter and bounce at every bump. That’s because they are running almost empty, as a strike by Unite union members hits hard.
The warehouse workers began a three-week walkout on Monday at five sites around England. It’s their second round of action this year, after two weeks in May.
One picket told Socialist Worker, “Last time we had a big effect and with three weeks we expect to have even more this time.”
They pointed to a customer tweet complaining that the strike meant they weren’t getting their delivery. “Things like that really make the mood buoyant,” the worker said.
Basildon workers are linking up with other Unite strikers in the region at British Airways, Barts NHS and the Bank of England
Workers are angry at the treatment of 500 colleagues based in Lutterworth, Leicestershire. Argos outsourced their contracts to Wincanton.
Under Tupe regulations and their existing terms and conditions, if Wincanton simply laid them off it would have been liable for five figure redundancy payouts. So instead it transferred them to another site in another county.
“They were basically told to choose between 250 miles more travel a week—which is a lot just in terms of fuel costs—or giving up their jobs,” the worker explained. “All so that bosses could say that no-one was being made redundant.”
The first round of strikes won talks over the Lutterworth workers’ fate and will have made Argos less confident about pulling the same trick elsewhere. But workers need guarantees.
They demand a new deal linking further delocalisations to redundancy payouts. This would make it impossible for Argos to get layoffs on the cheap in this way.
Workers at four of the sites on strike—Bridgwater in Somerset, Haywood in Greater Manchester and Whitefield in West Yorkshire alongside Basildon—are covered by a national bargaining forum.
The other main demand of the strike is that strikers in Barton near Burton-on-Trent can join it.
This is the workers’ fourth dispute in eight years, each one involving more than one round of strikes.
Argos was called out today, Thursday, by HMRC for being the worst offender when it comes to underpaying it's workers. It was forced to admit it has underpaid 37,000 people by an average of £64 each.
And the firm is constantly trying to chip away at its higher paid warehouse workforce, hoping to replace them with people on worse, cheaper contracts.
But it keeps crashing into the strength of workers’ organisation—and the power that its pared-back, “just in time” distribution model gives workers. Knowing this, pickets are confident.
“We’ve won changes and concessions from every strike,” the worker said. “We don’t win everything—it’s always a compromise. But for example, after the strike in 2014 we won over 100 new jobs and a ring-fenced number of roles on the higher pay rate.
“Argos wants us to wither away, but because we took industrial action that’s not happening.”
The Basildon workers are linking up with other Unite strikers in the region at British Airways, Barts NHS and the Bank of England. And they were spurred on by the recent victory of bin workers in Birmingham.
With the support of other trade unionists, if they keep their action up it could end in another win—and send a warning to axe-wielding bosses everywhere.