They wanted to abolish shift pay, worth £2,000 a year to some people; to take away sick pay from the first three days of every occasion; and to lower sick pay coverage from 13 weeks to seven weeks. They also wanted to cut overtime payment from time and a half to time and a third and to change our contracts to make us work flexible annualised hours.
That’s why as a membership and as a union we called a postal ballot to vote for strike action. There was an 86 percent vote in favour of a walkout which we then decided had to be an all-out indefinite strike.
We went all-out because we’ve got a massive warehouse in Dunstable. If we just did a 24 or 48 hour strike it would be very easy for the company to mobilise our workload down to Dunstable. With an all-out indefinite strike, Dunstable would struggle to get the work done.
It was basically strategic, but the strength and feeling was there as well, so we decided to withdraw our labour indefinitely.
There are 310 workers out of which Unite the union represents 280. I think at first the mood among the workers was confident but a little bit anxious. We’ve not been on strike in 24 years. It was always going to take a little bit of time to settle in to the striking way of life. But straight after the first two or three days of the strike we felt comfortable, we felt strong, we felt united and we felt we could stay out as long as it took. To involve everybody we set up a 24/7 picket of the warehouse. We also set up a campaign where we got leaflets to people on a nationwide basis to tell the public about our fight and our struggle. We sent out 28 cars – full to the brim with people – all over the country to hand out these leaflets, telling the public to support us by not shopping at Superdrug. We handed out nearly 125,000 leaflets about our campaign and we went to 140 towns and cities getting the message across.
The response was great. Obviously we were well received in traditional Labour areas. We were welcomed with open arms in the north east, in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Overall I’d say 85 percent of the public supported our campaign.
We had many people with experience of the year-long miners’ strike. I’ve met a lot of people who were involved in that who gave me some sound advice and they are people I’ve forged great friendships with over the past three weeks.
After three weeks out on strike the company offered us a deal. They offered the shift pay people who were set to lose £2,000 a year an arrangement that means they will lose £520 a year, and that shift pay is retained on a lower level of £1.44 an hour.
On sick pay we now get paid for our first two occasions of sickness from day one, the sick pay has now been improved to seven weeks. But I think the most important thing of all, which swayed the 76 percent of people to vote yes to the deal, was that the common working practices we’ve had over the past 24 years will remain intact. There will be no annualised hours or flexibility. The company will not be able to force anybody into doing something that they don’t want to do.
We’ve lost big time on overtime payments. But overtime is only worked by the minority. We’ve gained 80 percent on what we lost before we walked out on strike, so as a union committee we feel that we can class this as a victory. I hope bosses now think twice about how they treat workers. Not just the bosses at Superdrug but also anywhere else with a union. The unions are there for a purpose and that was recognised. We struck and fought as one, and I would hope that would make bosses wary about tackling any other workforce, not just us.
I think there’s a great spirit among the members, although, I have to tell the truth, there were 59 people who voted to stay out. We’ve had to negotiate and concede, but I feel the concessions are minimal and I believe we can see it as a victory.
The local community has been fantastic with its help and support. We’ve been supplied with meat from a local butcher, we’ve been provided with toilet facilities from a firm next door and we’ve never gone short of wood for the fire. I also want to thank local journalists for running with this story – we’ve been in 33 local papers nationwide.
We are in a recession and we can’t avoid that. But I wish people would sit up and realise that the poor cannot pay any more for mistakes made higher up the capitalist chain.
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