Thousands of workers are in a battle for union rights with the world’s largest retailer. The dispute pits a multinational firm against low paid workers and their union. The workers deserve the backing of everyone who is sick of the domination of food supply by huge corporations.
The workers – members of the GMB union – were set to to hold a five day strike from Friday at the delivery depots of the supermarket Asda.
The company is using the anti-union laws to attempt to hold off the action. As Socialist Worker went to press, the supermarket was due to apply for an injunction to stop workers from walking out on Friday, claiming that there were irregularities in the strike vote.
The GMB sent out 5,347 ballot papers, with 57 per cent of its members taking part in the voting. They backed strikes by 2,209 to 771, while action short of a strike was supported by 2,483 votes to 487.
Asda’s case is that allegedly there are 160 people who were wrongly included in or excluded from the ballot. Even if this were true, it could not have affected the result of the vote.
During the ballot for action, shop stewards accused Asda of bullying tactics. These included putting CDs in drivers’ cabs urging them to vote against the strike, making lorry drivers go for interviews with senior management to persuade them not to strike and writing to workers’ families warning them against strike action.
One shop steward was briefly suspended by the company for flying an England flag with “vote yes” written on it.
The strike is due to affect 20 distribution depots including Bedford, Chepstow, Dartford, Didcot, Erith, Falkirk, Grangemouth, Ince George in Wigan, Lymedale in Staffordshire, Lutterworth in Leicestershire, Portbury in Bristol, Skelmersdale, Teesport, ADC Wigan, Wakefield and Washington.
Paul Kenny, the GMB’s general secretary, said, “GMB members in the 20 Asda distribution depots have spoken. They have voted by three to one to take strike action despite all of the company’s attempts to dissuade or intimidate them to vote no. GMB members have been subjected to unprecedented interference and propaganda by Asda.
“GMB members tell us that the company is gearing up and may illegally attempt to use agency labour to do our members’ jobs.
“Doing this during an official trade dispute is illegal. Any attempt by outside agencies to interfere or undermine this lawful industrial action by GMB members will be responded to with full vigour.”
Workers believe the company, owned by the US company Wal-Mart, will seek to break the strike. Asda told the Guardian the company had been recruiting a significant number of staff but attributed this to an upsurge in trading brought on by the World Cup and the sunny weather.
Asda plans to bus staff into work during the strike, claiming to the Sunday Times that it is in an effort to protect the identity of those who cross picket lines.
The union is calling for the establishment of proper national bargaining structures between the company and the GMB covering pay, conditions and union facilities in all 20 Asda distribution depots.
The workers are also campaigning for outstanding bonus payments from 2005 and fighting against higher workloads for depot staff.
At the current 1,100 pick rate each worker shifts between two and 10 tonnes of product each day – about the weight of five cars. Asda has attempted to increase this to 1,400 each day.
After the five day strike workers will then begin a ban on overtime and a work to rule aimed at stopping the company’s attempts to recover from the walkout.
GMB Swindon organiser Kevin Brandstatter was at the shop stewards meeting that called the strike. He said, “It was a very, very determined meeting. The shop stewards voted unanimously.
“Asda don’t have much room for fresh and frozen produce. The strike is for five days so people will notice they haven’t got much food in.”
One Washington Asda depot worker said, “Taking five days action is not something the shop stewards have taken lightly. They feel very strongly about this. Asda say they are a family, caring company, but I haven’t seen that side.”
Asda is owned by Wal-Mart, the infamous US multinational. Wal-Mart is the largest US private sector employer with more than 1.3 million workers.
Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer, and made profits of £5.5 billion in 2004. It has kept unions out of stores in the US.
Last year in Canada, when workers at one outlet successfully formed a union, Wal-Mart closed the store.
Lee Scott, the Wal-Mart president, got $17.5 million in 2004, while four of the ten richest people in the world come from the Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune.
The US National Labour Committee found workers for Wal-Mart suppliers in China’s Guangdong province working 130 hours per week for an average of 16.5 cents an hour.
In 2004 year the US retail group paid $77,000 to settle charges of 24 child labour violations in the US. The same year an internal audit found 1,370 similar problems and in 2000 it paid $206,650 to resolve similar charges.
The GMB union sponsors over 100 Labour MPs, yet the government upholds the anti?union laws that Asda’s bosses are trying to use to stop the strike.
In February Asda was fined £850,000 at an employment tribunal. Asda had brought the PR company Portland into its depot in Washington, Tyne and Wear, to draw up anti-GMB leaflets before a ballot on union rights.
Staff were sent literature described in the tribunal judgement as “very hostile to trade unions and highly disparaging of the collective bargaining process”.
Portland was founded by Tim Allan, a former New Labour spin doctor who worked for Tony Blair for six years in the 1990s, including a year as Alistair Campbell’s deputy in Downing Street.
The tribunal found the supermarket chain guilty of promising 340 distribution staff a 10 percent pay rise if they agreed to give up the collective bargaining right negotiated by their union. This action is illegal under 1992 labour relations law.