Workers at one of Asda supermarkets’ distribution centres began a three day strike over pay on Wednesday of last week.
The 538 members of the GMB union at the Washington site in Tyne and Wear were offered a 10 percent pay rise earlier this year — but only if they gave up their rights to collective bargaining.
They refused the company’s offer. Asda managers would not accept a 5 percent one year deal without strings attached.
Asda, which is owned by the anti-union US multinational Wal-Mart, seems determined to drive the unions out of its British distribution centres.
Workers on the picket line, who did not wish to be named, spoke to Socialist Worker. One said, “It’s all about breaking us now. We gave them three offers of arbitration but they refused every time.”
Another worker said, “We earn between £1 and £1.40 an hour less than workers at other distribution centres and we are asking for that gap to be closed.
“The company refuses to tell us why we get less than at other sites. They say that it is the going rate. The only reason we can think of is so Asda can claim that union organisation leads to lower wages.
“One hundred drivers got a letter warning of redundancies. On the letter it said, ‘Asda — Britain’s best employer’. It stinks. A manager said that it’s healthy to have a high turnover. He said we weren’t worth a pay rise because we’re two-a-penny.”
Management dished out redundancies in the run up to the ballot result. Many have since been withdrawn. Workers believe that this was to scare them into submission.
There have also been three or four disciplinary cases a week, mainly against the most outspoken workers. Temporary workers have been taken on to lower the union density and to prevent the union winning recognition.
Managers even held a “family day” on the Saturday before the ballot offering free food and drink in an attempt to influence the vote. Workers were keen for the strike to spread across the Asda chain.
GMB regional organiser Mark Wilson and shop steward Barry Davies said, “There are now rumours that the Wakefield depot is delivering to the shops in Teesside and Tyne and Wear. We’re trying to get in touch with their union shop stewards.
“We used to deliver to Boldon four times a day, but now Asda say Boldon is local to Edinburgh or Wakefield rather than Washington. They are getting lorries to drive eight hours to deliver there.”
Despite management bullying, the Asda workers are determined to win. The GMB union said that the strike was solid and affected stores across the north east of England.
Distribution workers have the power to shut down Britain’s giant supermarket chains.
Strikers revealed the conditions in which they work. One worker said, “We have Voice Picking — a radio station — telling us what to pick off the shelves. We get instructions in an American voice telling us what to do all day. It does your head in.
“It’s just work faster and harder. The voice picker knows where you are at any time of day. It knows how long you have spent doing the job, how many breaks you’ve had, how long you’ve spent on the toilet.”
Mark Wilson said that union stewards would meet this week to determine future action and that more strikes were likely.