Last week Unite members at the Argos distribution centres mounted the first of a series of strikes over pay (Unite press release). They have been offered a lower than inflation 4% while their employers made a record profit of £433m last year.
Strikes over pay in the private sector have not been that common in recent years – there have been a lot more disputes over redundancy terms. The picture is changing though. The victory of the Shell tanker drivers a few weeks ago has boosted everybody’s confidence that it is possible to win – and so it’s worth taking industrial action.
I was on a platform with Len McCluskey, Unite Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for the Shell dispute, a few days ago. It was clear from what he said how much effort the Union had put in to ensure victory. I suspect it was no coincidence that the employers conceded the day before a meeting of tanker driver reps from across the industry was due to take place. The last thing they wanted to see was a widening of the industrial action. When a Government minister attempted to intervene in the dispute, not on the side of the workers, the reaction from the Union leadership was an appropriately robust one.
This suport is what we should expect from a union, but too often in the past it has been lacking. When it’s there though, we all feel we can win.
The Argos dispute can build on the Shell victory.
Argos bosses were hoping that casual workers would be key to keeping their warehouse operations running during the dispute. But Unite has ensured that many temporary staff have joined the Union recently. Many more have asked whether the Union can protect them if they refuse to cross the picket lines. Importantly, over recent months Unite activists have played a crucial role in bringing Polish workers, recruited as casuals, into the union.
This is trade unionism at its best. We’re not going down the divisive route of complaining about foreign workers undercutting ‘our’ pay. Instead, we’re organising all workers to ensure that all of us can win decent pay.
It is always vital in building up union organisation never to dismiss any group of workers as ‘unorganisable’. It’s exactly 120 years since the Match Girls strike that marked the beginning of the 1888/89 strike wave which led to the growth of modern unionism. Who would have picked “Match Girls” as the vanguard?
The union movement has a proud history. It’s time we started writing a few more chapters.
Argos workers will welcome any support you can give. Messages of support can be sent Jennie Formby, Unite National Secretary: email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you can make it, Argos workers would also welcome support on the picket line. Details of the dates of further strikes and the location of distribution centres are in the press release.