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We don’t want the crumbs, we want the bakery

 

By James Copley

A crucial victory was won this month in Wigan, with workers in bakers’ union BFAWU forcing bosses at the Hovis factory to employ workers on full time rather than zero-hour contracts, and put an end to the routine use of agency labour.

These precarious workers are super-exploited, not knowing from one week to the next – often one day to the next – whether they have work and can pay for food, rent or transport. Yet they are expected to be on call all the time.

Since February, 30 per cent of the workforce had been made up of agency staff that Premier Foods management had insisted were “emergency cover”. Since then, management has ignored workers’ complaints and tried to drive down pay and conditions for the rest of the workforce.

In the face of this attempt to “streamline” the workforce came a pair of week-long strikes, with a third lined up before management caved in. The first strike was well supported; around 220 machine workers and cleaners came out on picket lines in the early hours, successfully disrupting goods deliveries.

The second strike was as strong as the first, again disrupting deliveries both by preventing trucks from leaving and by convincing the drivers to join their action, despite a heavy police presence and the arrest of three pickets.

By the time it ended, management had already shifted on zero-hour contracts. Buoyed up by a partial victory, the strikers refused to compromise and demanded an end to the use of agency labour.

With their profits severely hit, management finally caved in days before the third planned strike. Some 24 workers on zero-hour contracts were taken on full-time, and management agreed that agency staff would be taken on only after overtime had first been offered to full-time workers, with a review of staffing levels to be taken within three months.

Lessons

What can we learn from this victory? The first lesson is that the Hovis workers were striking to win, not just to protest. When the bosses ignored their first strike they didn’t just give up but struck again, and were prepared to carry on doing so until they won. This is a lesson that other unions could do well to learn; the CWU postal workers’ union fighting privatisation is the first that comes to mind.

The second lesson is that militant pickets are effective; by preventing deliveries from leaving the factory with pickets of up to 80 blocking the roads and gates, the strikers hit the bosses where it hurt them most, their profits. Indeed, these pickets in the middle of the night were well supported not just by workers from the factory but also by members of other unions and their wider supporters.

Finally, this shows that strike action can beat back zero-hour contracts. Other unions should now start to mobilise against the systematic threat that zero-hour contracts represent.

There are at least 200,000 workers on zero-hour contracts in Britain today, probably many more. Over 90 per cent of McDonald’s workers are subjected to these humiliating contracts – but even Buckingham Palace employs 300 staff on zero-hours.

If workers in Unite, UCU, CWU, PCS and Unison were to launch a wave of strikes against zero-hours contracts, drawing in the agency workers that are bring used to bring down their wages, then there is a real possibility that we could start to reverse this damaging trend.

Ultimately we cannot expect the union leaders to start these campaigns however; it is up to the rank and file workers across all of the unions to start organising for action. The bakers have shown us what can be achieved with militant action, now it is up to workers across all sectors to rise to the challenge and fight, because it is only when we fight that we can win.

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