BFAWU members on strike at Hovis in 2013. Photo John Harris / Report Digital
Using agency temps to replace striking workers will threaten the basic right to strike for all
Two years ago this September, workers at Hovis in Wigan took strike action and won a landmark victory over increasing zero-hours work in their factory, safeguarding an important source of secure employment for the town.
But new government plans to allow employers to use agency workers to break strikes mean that by this time next year, their action and the important concessions they won could become impossible for other workers.
Hovis are a major employer in Wigan, where they’ve been established more than 50 years and employ over 350 staff. The factory works constantly to provide fresh bread and bakery goods to shops and supermarkets all over the country.
In 2013, workers at the factory became concerned that the employers were reducing the number of full time employees and bringing in more agency workers on zero hour contracts and lower pay rates. Trust between management and the workforce was being eroded, and many were fearful for the security of their livelihoods.
Members of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) voted for strike action, and staged two one-week stoppages in August and September. It was difficult, but the workers stood together and won support from others across the region. With a third week of strikes planned, the company returned to negotiations and a new deal was agreed with the striking workers.
Hovis promised to restrict the use of agency workers only to situations where employed staff were unable to cover the shifts, rather than bringing in more insecure workers by default. They also agreed to pay any agency worker with more than 12 weeks’ service the same pay as a full-time employee, reducing the risk of undercutting and of dividing the workforce against each other.
BFAWU regional organiser Geoff Atkinson said:
“We believe we got everything we wanted. It’s a massive victory for us. We are a small union and we took on a company. It should encourage other people. We’ve proved that if you stick together, you can do away with these unscrupulous contracts. We won’t stand for our members being replaced by agency labour.”
The strike paid off, but taking strike action had been a huge decision for the Hovis workers.
The strike caused a further deterioration of working relationships, which was only rebuilt following the new deal. Committing to three weeks without pay was also something no worker took lightly. Even the permanent staff were on comparatively low wages and a strike meant a big impact on already stretched family budgets. This commitment to stand together and use their last-resort right to strike ultimately paid off for them all, permanent and agency workers alike.
From next year though, this kind of victory for working people could become impossible. The Government are seeking to overturn a longstanding ban on employers using agency workers to break strikes, alongside other restrictive measures in their Trade Union Bill. The new measures will make the fundamental right to strike almost meaningless.
Employers would need to be given 14 days’ notice of a strike (rather than 7 currently), and would be able to use the time to recruit and train agency temp workers – potentially on zero-hours and minimum wage contracts – to take over the jobs of striking workers.
The Hovis strike worked as the employer needed to maintain regular production. Using agency temps, they could more easily cope with stoppages, meaning a strike would have much less effect on their business, and removing the last power workers have when faced with injustices at work – withdrawing their labour.
Employment relations are much improved at Hovis now, but had the employer used agency temps to break the strike, this would have totally destroyed trust on both sides. The agency workers themselves would also have faced a stressful situation, being brought in to undermine existing staff. Limited training in operating the machinery, ovens and vehicles at the bakery could have led to real safety risks for people covering strikers’ shifts.
We’re campaigning against this damaging change and other equally harmful measures in the Trade Union Bill, and we’re starting with a petition to Business Secretary Sajid Javid, who is leading the move towards overturning the ban on this tactic.
Please join us and help make this as big as we can, to protect the fundamental right to strike for all UK workers.