Bosses have been using the recession to impose so-called “zero-hour” contracts. These contracts allow employers to hire temporary workers on a short term basis, with no guarantee of further work, at lower wages and worse conditions.
According to government figures there are some 200,000 people on these contracts. Zero-hour contracts have spread to the health service and colleges, as well as the high street. These contracts are a direct attack on workers’ pay and conditions, and contrary to popular belief, are not simply in workplaces with low union organisation.
Zero-hour contracts have become the symbol of austerity Britain. This summer workers at the giant Hovis bread bakery in Wigan came out on strike when the company attempted to introduce zero-hour conditions on temporary staff. The Hovis workers won their strike and proved that militant action could deliver victory.
The union that spearheaded the strike is the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU). Ian Hodson is its national president, John Fox is a veteran union organiser in the factory, and Kelly (not her real name) still works at the factory. They spoke to Socialist Review about the strike and its lessons. Ian said, “The victory at Hovis demonstrated that when workers aren’t prepared to accept cuts in terms and conditions, and are prepared to take on the employers, they can actually succeed.”
He said that the key to victory was its union history: “A section of the Hovis workforce had been there for a while, and they’d been part of the union. For a long time we have had temporary workers – in Wigan they’re known as ‘as and when’ workers, as they are employed as and when they are needed. That’s how many people first started work at the factory. The ‘as and when’ contract always guaranteed 35 hours a week, and the same terms and conditions as everybody else in the plant.”
John Fox started work at Hovis in 1978 and he will be working his last shift on 12 October. He said the factory had a strong tradition of union organisation.
“When I first came into the industry it was a closed shop. I’ve been there 35 years. I started on 27 July 1978, and by the beginning of November 1978 we were on strike,” he said. “We never really had agency workers. We did have ‘as and when’ workers, who were guaranteed a certain amount of time each week, so it was like a temporary contract. But with the government legislation changing, these workers couldn’t actually get the benefits they need. We thought this was quite unfair.”
Ian said, “What’s happened recently is that the company introduced a new version of the ‘as and when’ contract which said that those people will no longer be guaranteed a 35-hour week and they weren’t going to receive the same terms and conditions as other workers.”
Kelly said that the arrival of agency workers on zero-hour contracts sent shock waves through the factory. “We felt that, because they’re not members of our union, we couldn’t protect them if the management said they were going to get rid of them.”
John described the shock on the shop floor: “There was a big mood swing at that time. People were quite angry about the company bringing the ‘agencies’ [workers] into the company, because we did have enough people in the place and in the local community.
“Local people would come in and do them jobs, and that’s what we really wanted: proper jobs with proper hours, with proper terms and conditions for all our people.”
Kelly described how at first workers “were a bit stuck. Sometimes you feel like there’s nothing we can do about it. People were starting to get depressed about action because they were frightened of losing their jobs.”
This mood began to shift once the strike started. “Once they came out for the day and saw the support we got, what action we could take, I think they started to find it easier. ‘We can win this’, they were saying. You don’t worry so much about what is going to happen then.”
The strike and mass picketing forced a company climb-down, in what was to become a landmark victory for workers in Britain.
Union leader Ian Hodson said, “Hovis is a stunning victory after so many batterings over so many years, and sometimes we miss a victory. This really is a massive victory for working people and I think it demonstrates that working people do want to see better for their fellows and for their community. Fortunately for the people in Wigan they saw a workforce prepared to stand up, and they should be inspirational for everybody.”
Kelly said there is a lesson for all workers: “I think that the people have the power and I don’t think we always realise that. We create the wealth. If the whole of England said tomorrow, ‘We’re not going to work until we get this government out,’ what could they do? We have the power, but it’s convincing people that we do.”
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