Lorries backed up outside Tesco’s distribution centre in Doncaster last Saturday, and on Monday and Tuesday of this week—kept out by defiant pickets.
Distribution workers began an indefinite strike there on Thursday of last week. It was a dramatic escalation of a long-running dispute over sackings by haulage bosses Eddie Stobart Ltd.
“We won’t just lie down and die,” said driver Mark Elliot. “Tesco is a big company and they think they can do without us. We’ve got to stick together.”
The 180 drivers are members of the Unite union. Tesco employed them until the summer when their contracts were transferred to Stobart. The new employers issued sacking notices almost immediately. By Christmas, all of the 180 workers could be gone.
Unite rep Trev said the strike was having a big effect. “We have friends and family who work in Tesco stores, and we know the shelves are not getting filled,” he said.
Normally the Doncaster depot would take on more loads at this time of year to relieve other depots. As many as 200 lorries a day could go through it. Instead the strike has forced other depots to take extra loads.
Support for the strike in Doncaster has hit Tesco’s sales. When over 200 drivers and supporters marched to the shop last Saturday, the car park was half empty. It should have been one of the busiest days of the year. But until Sunday, scabs were getting the bare minimum of work done.
“Tesco will throw as much money at this as it takes,” said Kev Fawcett, who has worked on the site for 24 years. “They want to do this at other sites, so they will try to make an example of us.”
Tesco brought in contractors from as far away as Ipswich and spent thousands of pounds putting up scabs in the Holiday Inn.
On Saturday strikers discussed more active picketing. One group of workers forced a scab lorry to stop outside Tesco repeatedly by putting on its emergency break. “We’ve got to step it up,” one picket told Socialist Worker. “We have to stop lorries going in and out.”
Back at the depot many were nervous. “People know we’re right,” said John, one of many ex-miners among the strikers. “The trouble is they don’t think we can win.”
But when pickets blocked the gates the results were almost immediate. In half an hour a queue of at least 16 lorries formed—each worth thousands of pounds in Tesco shelf space.
“We should be doing more of this,” said one picket. “They were walking all over us. But blocking the trucks got their attention.” He was right—and by Monday morning large teams of pickets were at both Tesco depot gates.
Blocking trucks was key to getting results in Doncaster’s recent bin workers’ strikes. Effective picketing can push the bosses back.
Many of the scab lorries are driven by contractors from within Britain. But some are driven by migrants from eastern Europe. Some of these have become a focus for pickets who see them as “taking our jobs”.
This is a poisonous argument that divides workers and helps bosses drive down conditions for everyone. In 2009 a wave of wildcat strikes at Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire began with the slogan “British Jobs for British Workers”.
But in a later dispute, workers saved jobs by spreading the action—including solidarity from Polish workers at Drax power station.
Tesco pickets have turned back some lorries driven by eastern European workers. One of this week’s most inspiring disputes involves the mostly Asian workforce at 2 Sisters food factories in the west Midlands.
Those workers are fighting the same struggle as the Doncaster drivers—against the same enemies.
Eddie Stobart said it could cover the Tesco contract with its existing staff. But drivers point to the agency workers Stobart relied on to work during their strike.
Many are worried about the safety risks of replacing experienced drivers with low paid workers. “A 44 tonne truck is like a loaded gun,” said Mark. “We make it look easy, but it’s only a matter of time before someone gets killed.”
Stobart has also claimed it has offered them new jobs. But the nearest is in Chesterfield, 40 miles away. And some are different jobs as far away as Essex. Janice, a driver’s wife, said, “My husband’s been an HGV driver for 36 years. How can he start working in a warehouse?”
Send solidarity donations to TGWU 8-9/490 Branch Tesco Contract, c/o Harriet Eisner, Unite, Sovereign Court, 300 Barrow Road, Sheffield S9 1JQ. Send messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org