Socialist Worker

Resistance could squeeze the supermarkets’ profits

by Joseph Choonara
Issue No. 1957

A rash of disputes at supermarket depots has shone a light on poor conditions, low pay and management bullying across the industry.

The last week has seen:

  • An overwhelming vote for strike action over pay by GMB members at Asda’s depot in Washington, County Durham. They were due to strike on Thursday into Friday this week.
  • Plans for a national meeting of GMB union stewards in Asda depots to fight 315 job losses at the same site.
  • A demonstration at Asda’s Wigan depot in Lancashire to defend a GMB union steward suspended following a spontaneous walkout.
  • A call by the T&G union to reject a pay offer in WM Morrison depots, which could mark the first step towards a major dispute.

The simmering discontent is a serious threat to Britain’s giant supermarket chains — any one of which could be shut down by coordinated action by depot workers.

The Washington depot dispute began in December. Walmart, the US multinational that now owns Asda, offered workers a 10 percent pay rise if they gave up their rights to collective bargaining. GMB organiser Michael Hopper told Socialist Worker, “Our members rejected that offer and we’re taking the employers to an industrial tribunal because they offered an inducement for our members to give up their rights.”

When official pay talks began the following week, union members found the offer from management was now an increase of just 3.5 percent.

“Our members asked what had happened to the 10 percent that the company said was available before,” said Hopper.

The GMB organised a ballot for industrial action. The result was a 77.5 percent vote for strike action.

The day ballot papers went out, the company announced plans for 315 redundancies at the depot. “Our members were shocked,” said Hopper. “There is a new Asda depot opening next door to the current one, and local people had been promised there would be more jobs, not fewer.

“For some reason the company has now said the opening of this new depot will be delayed.” The GMB is currently setting a date for a national meeting of its reps in Asda depots in order to discuss a fight against the job losses.

In a separate dispute, GMB members at Asda’s Wigan depot, which supplies clothing to Asda stores across Britain, demonstrated on Wednesday of last week. Their union steward, Gary Belshaw, was suspended by management following a walkout on Monday 6 June.

Union members plan to ballot for industrial action if he is not reinstated.

The spontaneous walkout, which Gary is wrongly accused of organising, took place as managers tried to increase the number of items picked by workers from 1,100 to 1,400 in an eight hour shift.

The recent GMB conference heard how companies such as Tesco were using electronic tagging and portable computers worn by staff to speed up work rates.

Meanwhile workers in Morrison’s depots are being advised by the T&G union to reject a 3.2 percent pay offered from their management.

A spokesperson for the T&G, which represents about 2,000 workers at the major Wakefield and Nantwich sites, told Socialist Worker the union may go to the Acas arbitration service if the pay offer is rejected.

Send messages of support for the suspended GMB steward, Gary Belshaw, to: GMB Lancashire Region, Thorne House, 36 Station Road, Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire, SK8 7AB. Fax 0161 485 8968


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News
Sat 25 Jun 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1957
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