Workers showed how it is possible to win a victory for union rights over the world’s largest retailer last week. Depot workers, members of the GMB union, have forced a level of union recognition from the food giant Asda.
The TUC brokered deal prevented a five-day strike set to coincide with the World Cup quarter finals. It would have hit Asda on what the company said would be its biggest sales day of the year, outstripping Christmas.
The threat of strike action forced Asda to give the union access to all depots to recruit and represent members.
One Asda depot worker from Washington, north east England, said, “The deal means we can organise inside the depots properly.
“There was a lot of intimidation during the ballot for action, but now people feel we can stand up to bullying. There is a lot of work to do to make this a decent job. But we are on our way.”
As part of the deal, a new distribution National Joint Council (NJC) will be established and talks will be held on updating existing collective bargaining agreements at nine Asda depots.
Asda has agreed that meetings of the company and the GMB “will take place at the most senior level at least twice a year jointly to review major strategic issues facing the company”.
The GMB is also “given access” to all distribution sites and “facilities for appropriate levels of union workplace representatives”. It will be able to distribute recruitment material and present the union case during company induction procedures.
However, the appendix to the agreement states that the NJC “is not itself a collective bargaining or legally binding agreement”.
And crucially the central issue of pay is not within the remit of the NJC.
The company had threatened to use the anti-union laws to attempt to hold off the strike. The supermarket was set to apply for an injunction to stop workers walking out.
Wal-Mart, Asda’s parent company, employs more than one million workers in the US alone, where all of its stores are non-union.
When Wal-Mart employees at an outlet in Canada voted last year to unionise, the retailer shut the store, contending that it was unprofitable. In 2000, shortly after 11 Wal-Mart meatcutters in Texas voted to form a union, the company eliminated meatcutter jobs across the firm and announced that it would use packaged meat instead.
The company blinked this time but there is still much to be fought for by Asda workers. If the strike had gone ahead it could have fully pushed management onto the back foot.
As yet unresolved is the issue of higher workloads for depot staff. At the current 1,100 pick rate each worker shifts between two and ten tonnes of product each day.
Asda has attempted to increase the pick rate to 1,400. And workers are still campaigning for a resolution of outstanding bonus payments from 2005, at around £300 per worker.
One shop steward told Socialist Worker, “We have won a small battle in our war with Asda but the campaign is far from over.”