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Pay stakes high at Sainsbury's Haydock distribution centre

by Helen Shooter

'Sainsbury's – making life taste bitter.' That is the message workers have scrawled on the locker room wall inside the supermarket's distribution depot in Haydock, north west England.

They held their fourth 24-hour strike last week in a dispute over pay. The workers are in the Usdaw union, which is not known for its militancy. It's the first time the workers at the plant, which opened seven years ago, have been on strike. They voted by 75 percent to walk out.

Their action has already forced the company into talks with the union, which began on Monday.

On the first strike day before Christmas some 400 joined the picket line out of a workforce of around 750. They succeeded in turning back the lorry drivers from the depot. Since then Sainsbury's has not tried to get the 150 drivers to cross the picket line.

The action is hitting Sainbury's. Each 24-hour strike affects two days' worth of deliveries across 120 stores. With supermarkets in Britain operating on 'just in time' production stoppages are very powerful.

The workers are demanding a pay rise to £8 an hour from their current rate of £5.75. This would put them in line with similar distribution depots.

But the strike is also about standing up to the bullying management. One picket, Jeff McGlue, said, 'They put a deal on the table for £8 an hour last year. They also promised us £500 on Christmas Eve. But then they just took the deal back. We've got to stick together or they'll shit all over us. My wife also works here. She's four months pregnant and they won't find a suitable job for her.'

The workers are also angry that management has changed their Saturday shift. 'It used to be from 1pm to 9pm, which meant you could still go out that night,' explained one worker. 'But now it's 2pm to 10pm, and that hour makes a real difference.'

This is Sainsbury's, which boasts of its 'partnership' with the workforce. Steve Smith said, 'That 'partnership'-don't believe it. After the last two pay deals we are worse off. They scrapped the old bonus system and the new one is unworkable. We don't get any extra for working at weekends.

'Our management told the top boss that the workers were happy here and it was just a minority. A week later there were 400 people out in the road. He got an idea of what was really going on then! People saw us as the weak link. Now everyone's got behind the union and we're really strong.'

The Usdaw convenor, Jim O'Neill, said, 'People here have just had enough. They treat us like second class citizens. But those years of mistreatment and aggression, it's all gone in the melting pot and it's all blown up with this strike. Last week our union meeting had 315 people at it, getting feedback on the strike.'

The workforce includes those who used to work in the area's booming industries-former glass factory workers, engineers and miners. As those industries closed, Sainsbury's low-paid, low status jobs are what's on offer.

But the older workers have brought their experience of organising and militancy to the younger ones in the depot.

'We've seen it all before,' said one worker. 'The young lads here think it's all they can hope for. They think it's normal to be treated like shite. But we don't like it and now we've all come out on strike.'


No parachuting in this time

'Where is our MP?' ask the pickets at Sainsbury's Haydock distribution depot.

They are referring to millionaire Shaun Woodward, who is married to the daughter of Lord Sainsbury. Woodward was parachuted into the area in the 2001 general election on Tony Blair's orders. He had been a Tory MP in charge of John Major's election campaign in the 1992 election.

Sainsbury's made £660 million last year. Yet they say it isn't enough. The mood on the picket line is buoyant. As one picket says, 'This strike has turned members of a trade union into trade unionists.'

St Helens, home of the historic revolt of the low paid in the 1970 Pilkington strike, is reviving a great tradition.

Geoff Brown


Article information

Features
Sat 24 Jan 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1885
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