Workers at a Tesco distribution hub in Dagenham, east London have struck over pay. Their action is raising wider questions about how workers can take on and defeat the retail giants.
Hundreds of workers in the Usdaw union joined a 24-hour strike from 10pm on Thursday. They are demanding pay parity with workers doing the same job 15 minutes drive away in Thurrock.
Workers have been offered a pay rise of less than 3 percent by bosses. They are currently on £9.75 an hour. Workers at Thurrock get paid £1.38 an hour more.
“We all pay the same rent, we all pay the same prices for shopping—why are we worth less than other people?” asked Tim.
Sam argued it’s not difficult to see why people are striking, “I explained the dispute to my eight year-old and he said, ‘That’s not fair, is it dad?’”
“Tesco said they want to be an ‘upper quartile payer’ for the sector,” Usdaw rep Simon Vincent told Socialist Worker.
That would mean increasing pay by £1.75 an hour according to the firm, which describes the rise as an “aspiration”.
“Well, I have an ‘aspiration’ to win the lottery, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Sam told Socialist Worker.
Nearly 550 workers were involved in the strike ballot which saw a 63 percent vote for strikes on a turnout of over 70 percent.
Companies such as Tesco sometimes seem all-powerful. But this strike reveals the fragility of its “just in time” work patterns.
Around 80 percent of Tesco Express stores in London could be affected by the strike, as well as One Stop convenience stores.
These are small stores that rely on regular deliveries to keep costs down, such as ground rent on storage space.
One year ago half of the managers at the depot were fired. Now “everyone’s job is getting harder as the money saving drive works its way down the chain,” said Jack. “Pay is the biggest issue, but everybody’s job is getting harder. Morale is at an all-time low.”
Another demand of the dispute is over paid breaks. Two years ago workers negotiated a 15 minute paid tea break.
“The performance clock was supposed to stop when you started your break,” said Sam. “Management reneged on that—now it’s part of our dispute to get that back.”
Workers also talked to Socialist Worker on the picket line about the brutal nature of their work. It’s a refrigerated distribution centre which is held at 1 degree centigrade. And if people are working in the freezer section the temperature drops to -21 degrees centigrade.
“We can move up to 30 tonnes over the course of a shift and they say that’s not worth £10 an hour,” said Jack.
Another worker said he can walk between 10 and 15 miles on a shift. And as bad as things are for contract workers, agency workers have it worse.
“Our overtime pay rate comes in after 37.5 hours a week, but for agency workers it comes in after 48 hours,” said Tim. And for those first 48 hours agency workers get the minimum wage, which is topped up if they hit performance targets. Because of poverty pay agency workers are effectively forced to work savage hours.
“The other week we had one agency worker who did 61 hours,” Tim said.
Sam has worked at the depot since it opened five years ago. Turnover has been very high.
Workers are issued a new “decamp”, or identification, number when they start. “6,000 people have registered on the system in the last five years,” said Sam. Just last month 53 workers stopped working at the site.
“If Tesco paid a bit more money on wages people would stick around,” Jack said.
Tesco bosses are determined to break the strike. The firm has drafted in scab labour and got managers in from other sites.
Usdaw says this week’ strike will be followed by another 24-hour stoppage from 10pm on Thursday 24 May, with further strikes to be agreed in due course.
The action already threatens backlogs throughout Tesco’s network.
Extending them by striking for 48 hours or longer would have a huge impact.