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Power on the picket lines—strikes at Chep and Wincanton B&Q

Workers at Wincanton B&Q in Worksop and at Chep UK in Manchester are on all out strike over pay. Isabel Ringrose talked to strikers about how action has changed their workmates
Issue 2788
Workers stand on the picket line, some have Unite union flags, story on Chep and Wincanton strikes

On the picket line outside Wincanton B&Q ­(Picture: Socialist Worker)

Two all-out strikes are showing how collective action changes working class peoples’ ideas. These Unite union strikes in Manchester and Worksop have allowed workers to come together as a workforce rather than be divided.

And with attacks coming on working people’s living standards, pay is a central issue. Escalating a strike to all-out action is an important tactic to give workers the best chance of beating the boss. Other strikes should follow this lead.

Workers from Wincanton B&Q ­warehouse in Worksop are on an all-out strike to win a six percent pay rise, and to battle victimisation of their rep Pat McGrath. It’s their first strike in 16 years.

At the end of November, 475 ­workers struck on a bi-weekly cycle of strikes ­followed by an overtime ban.

But the strikers quickly realised that going back in for a week gave the company a chance to build stock and prepare for the upcoming week. 

Workers

“It was not having a massive impact,” rep Pat explained to Socialist Worker. “We made preparations for another ballot, and since 27 December we’ve been on continuous strike.”

Pat said unity between workers has been high. Before the strike, this was not always the case.

“For some of the strikers, English is not always the first spoken language—we have a lot of eastern European workers.

“It’s a diverse workforce, but a lot of solidarity has been shown. There’s a relationship building up with people—they may only have crossed paths on shift changes.

“And the workforce isn’t male dominant. It’s about 40 percent female.”

The effect of being out on strike has brought workers together, who had been divided particularly over issues of race.

“I’ve heard a bit of resentment, that ‘taking all our jobs’ nonsense. There has been some bigotry and ignorance. This kind of thing comes from the right wing press. I’d say in response people only migrate when it’s a ­necessity.

“They’re not paid with gold, instead they’re exploited by landlords and cheap labour over the years.

“But now people are stood together shoulder to shoulder—a relationship has been built. I’m proud of them all—there’s no racial element now.

“They see each other as comrades and not the enemy—now the enemy is Wincanton.

“Solidarity between the eastern and western European workers is really, really good.” B&Q is owned by parent company Kingfisher, which also owns other companies such as ­Screwfix. Dividends for shareholders are up 40 ­percent, and profits are up by 60 ­percent.

“When you’re paying dividends to shareholders you can afford to pay workers a decent wage,” Pat argued.

With living costs rising, Pat said the strikers are “hellbent on winning” a wage rise.

“People have had enough, especially of in-work poverty. It shouldn’t be there,” he added. “We have members facing evictions, using foodbanks and having problems with Universal Credit.

“We’ll keep fighting for inflation plus. The company has accused us of moving the goal post. We’re not moving the goal post, inflation is.”

The all-out escalation also means workload has spiralled, putting bosses on the back foot. Agency workers cannot cover the additional work.

“Some 95 percent of the workforce is in the union, so the company is really struggling,” Pat explained.

“They’re getting about 50 loads out a week—that’s not even 20 percent of the normal rate. They thought they might get away with it.”

Cambuslang, Scotland, is the location of the second national B&Q distribution centre.

GXO lorry drivers have voted to strike also over a below inflation pay offer. HGV drivers employed on behalf of B&Q by GXO are also ­considering pay strikes at another nationwide ­distribution centre in Doncaster.

The strike has had a lot of local support, with people bringing hot food and drinks to the picketers and not ­wanting to cross the picket line.

Others have set up stalls at the front of the site to leaflet.

Threatening

Anti-trade union laws place limits on how pickets can run, including how many people can be outside the ­workplace. The legal maximum is six.

“But we’ve had hundreds down there,” Pat said. “And the company has sent all the strikers threatening letters about the size of the picket and saying it’s in breach of their contracts.”

These threats won’t stop the determined strikers. Plans are even being made for a demonstration at the B&Q head office.

Pat added, “We’re out at half four every morning. It’s cold and wet. Pickets are on for 18 hours.

“Between 11 am-12 pm there’s hundreds down there waving flags and they’re proud to be there.

“They’re not hiding and thinking ‘don’t let the ­managers see me’. They know we’ll ­protect them.”


‘We can remember this as a life changing experience’

Workers on the Chep picket lines in Manchester (Socialist Worker)

In Manchester workers at Chep UK, who repair and supply pallets, are striking. 
 
They originally called four days of strikes at the beginning of December and have been all-out since 17 December.
 
Gary Walker is a union rep and striker, as well as a lead picket supervisor. He told Socialist Worker the 24 hours pickets have been “unbelievable”.  “I like to cross over with the other shifts, seeing others I don’t usually see. It’s brilliant.
 
“On the pickets morale is high, we stand on the gate stopping waggons going in. I didn’t expect people tuning up like they have.”
 
Local trade unionists from unions such as Unison, PCS and RMT have been on the pickets with banners to show their support.
 
“On nights we try to keep morale high, it’s cold, dark and quiet,” Gary said. “In the day, standing on the main road, you get traffic going past beeping and visits from different unions.
 
“We have a camaraderie, plus management is in so we give them a good booing.”
 
Before going out on strike, a manager commented that the strikers wouldn’t last a month.
 
“They walked across the car park and we rubbed it in their face, showing we’re not weak and divided like they thought we were. We’re going to stick it out.”
 
Meanwhile, the effect of the all-out strike means the yards are full of pallets that need repairing, and the storage room on the site is running out.
 
On one shift normally covered by 20 workers, only three are left. And forklift truck drivers are also striking. Across all three shifts Gary reckons no more than 15 workers are working in total.
 
The Chep strikers worked throughout the pandemic. Pay talks focused on uncertainty and waiting until the worse had passed.
“But the rewards don’t match the way they sung our praises,” Gary said. “It’s frustrating.
 
“There’s a lack of respect. A letter was sent out last week scaremongering to strike fear and hoping to target weaker individuals—there isn’t any now.
 
Retracted
 
Gary said the strikers “won’t go below five percent” after the initial offers of 1.5 and two percent last year. “Most are talking about seven and eight percent.”
 
Pay talks originally included pay backdated to July when annual pay talks begin—an offer the company has now retracted. 
 
With the momentum behind the strike, Gary is confident of a win. He has also been in contact with a rep from the Chep plant in Pontefract, organised by the GMB union, to bring workers together.
 
“We can remember this as a life changing experience,” he said. “It’s not an easy decision to go on strike—and it’s been difficult getting to this point. The depot was divided as part of the company’s divide and rule.”
 
Gary explained how the company limits the time union reps get with workers. “Chep has been very clever over the years,” he said. “It’s been difficult but it’s worth it.”
 
The shift patterns—two days and one night—also made it hard for workers and reps to organise together.
 
Before Gary became a rep, he explained clashes occurred because reps were stuck in their ways.
 
See a video of a Chep striker here
 
Gary wanted to bring a “fresh approach”. “It got to the point we had to make a change—the union was not working well within the depot.
“It was very difficult to get the lads on board. If you told me three years ago, I wouldn’t have thought we could do this.”
 
After bringing in new reps and other changes, “The lads saw the reps weren’t going to bend to management. They knew they had people fighting for them.”
 
Having never been out on strike before Gary said he didn’t know what to expect. “I now realise us doing this is important to other unions and workers—it’s important we’re successful so it can spur others to do the same.”
 
Gary hopes this includes other Chep workers who see how well the Trafford Park strike is doing, and “they’ll start believing ‘we can do this as well’.”
 
“In future if other workers around here are on strike we’ll be going down there to see if they need anything, from any advice to funds,” he added.
 
“People are annoyed with the world, the government and Covid. All of a sudden they’re driving down the road and see us cheering. It can have an impact.”
 
As for Chep, Gary says it could give the strikers what they want. But going forward it will be dealing with workers who have gained a lot of experience.
 
“Now they’re realising we will not bend to their will. It is inspiring to see working class people standing up.

“We’re not going anywhere—no chance.”


Breaking down the barriers

Strikes and collective action raise workers’ consciousness. That means divisions such as racism and sexism can be overcome when workers take action. 
 
Striking can be transformative—not just to a workers’ economic situation, but also their ideas.
 
The experience of class unity creates an understanding of who the enemy under capitalism is and where workers’ strength lies.
We need more of the example set by workers in Manchester and Worksop to overcome divisions pushed from the top.
 
Workers fighting over pay, better conditions or fire and rehire should take inspiration from these strikes.
 
They must especially look to replicate how workers have decided to launch all‑out strikes. In many cases, strikes can only win when they escalate. 
 

Strikes that change people’s ideas are great, but strikes that change ideas and win are even better.


How you can back the strikes

To support the strikes, donate to the strike funds and send messages of solidarity to the strikers.
 
Send donations to the Wincanton strike fund to Unite East Midlands. Sort code 60-83-01, Account 20173975. Give the online reference “Wincanton”. Tweet messages of solidarity to @uniteEastMids.
 
Tweet messages of support to the Chep strike to @unite_northwest Donations to Unity Bank NW/1 Strike Fund. Sort code 60-83-01 Account 20217873

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