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Asda/Wal-Mart: Fighting the union-busters
PROBLEMS FACED by GMB members in Asda/Wal-Mart distribution depots in the north-west seem to be coming to a head at the Ince, Wigan depot. The depot is one of only three in the country distributing the George clothing range.
Andy Ford, Warrington
The company want to move to a new technology, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in which a computer-controlled voice directs warehouse workers via a headset to the goods to be picked and loaded for delivery.
The GMB were in talks with Asda about possible safety aspects of exposure to magnetic fields, the dehumanising effects of being controlled by a computer, and most crucially, the company's insistence that the goods picked per shift should rise from 1,100 cases to 1,400 - with no extra pay. But they did offer a crate of beer for those workers who agreed to go over to the RFID system! George clothing has a turnover of around £2 billion.
However the company moved to implement RFID ahead of proper consultation with the GMB. Workers were unhappy about it and held an impromptu meeting in the canteen whereupon management grilled Gary Belshaw, senior rep at Ince, for three hours before suspending him on pay, pending investigation for organising a stoppage.
Eddie Gaudie, GMB organiser, explained the problem with the new productivity targets.
"Asda say they have done time and motion on the RFID. They reckon 1,400 cases is achievable, but we are sceptical."
Eddie explained the brutal selection of new staff.
"New employees are given a target of cases to pick per shift. If they can't pick the target then they don't keep them on, they just let them go. These targets are important. And if everyone moves to 1,400 cases, then they're doing 10 hours' work in an eight-hour shift - five people end up doing the work of six".
I asked Eddie if the company consulted first before setting the targets.
"No, it's implement first, talk later", he said. But although the GMB are constantly playing catch up with Asda, the union-organised sites are far better to work in than the many unorganised depots around Warrington.
"We have consultation rights over wages, terms and conditions. We have got reasonable conditions, but it's a constant battle".
As result the GMB has built a good membership at the Ince, Goose Green (Wigan) and Skelmersdale warehouses which employ around 500 staff each, with about 80-90% in the union.
Had industrial relations changed at all since Asda's take over by Wal-Mart?
"Oh yes. They do recognise us, but it's not easy. For instance they aggressively promote their own 'Law Club' offering free legal advice - and they say it's cheaper than the union; it's only 34 pence a week. But how can anyone expect Asda's own law club to represent them if they have a problem with the company?"
Asda/Wal-Mart also tries to undermine the union by opening up new sites with workers on a 'New World contract' which work 363 days a year and discourage union membership. On the 'New World' sites the company try to undermine the union by stopping check-off of union dues.
At first there was going to be no check-off at all, even for workers moved from other sites, but eventually the GMB got check-off for existing members. The union has to fight every inch of the way.
The GMB is determined to get Gary Belshaw back to work. A ballot for industrial action is going ahead. But Wal-Mart is a massive company with assets of billions of dollars. They retain the best (or worst!) employment law experts, and the company will be only too keen to exploit the legal minefield of Britain's employment laws.
The GMB convened a national meeting of reps from ASDA/Wal-Mart distribution depots only to find that the company refused stewards time off to attend. Now the reps have had their email facilities withdrawn.
The GMB held a protest outside the depot on Wednesday to coincide with Gary Belshaw's disciplinary hearing.
As well as balloting for industrial action, the union has issued quite militant advice to the members: "ASDA George now has a turnover in excess of £2 billion but you are being asked to put up with low pay and industrial terrorism... If you vote against industrial action ASDA will continue on its present course of intimidation and bullying. You are the crucial cog in ASDA's supply chain of Just in Time computer ordering.
"You have the power to defend yourselves and fight for better pay and treatment. There are only two other ASDA George Distribution centres and both have pledged to support you and your shop stewards..."
Workers at Asda's Washington distribution centre are due to strike on 24 June, in a long-running dispute over pay and conditions.
There is a separate dispute where ASDA management has threatened the possibility of over 300 redundancies at another Washington Depot.
A meeting of all GMB ASDA shop stewards called for 16 June, was cancelled after the company refused to give stewards time off.
In The Socialist 23 June 2005: