‘Hovis Bakers Win Strike in Wigan’
The recent workplace dispute at the Hovis Bakery on Cale Lane in Wigan involving the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) was over the use of zero-hours contracts, the introduction of agency staff, and the reduction in working hours. Some workers at the Wigan bakery had been on temporary zero hours contracts for up to three years before they were given full-time posts. The dispute was a clear example of the struggle between capital and labour and what Marx called the ‘periodical resistance on the part of the working men against a reduction of wages, and their periodical attempts at getting a rise of wages’.
BFAWU are the old bakers union founded in 1847 in Manchester by journeymen bakers who campaigned to secure the Bakehouse Regulations Act of 1863. The Union represents 30,000 workers in the food industry in Britain.
A one week strike by 210 workers began on 28 August 2013 at the Wigan plant, which is the only producer of Hovis crumpets. Hovis is part of the UK food conglomerate Premier Foods. A second week long strike began on 11 September and the Bakers Union advised people that they would see a reduction in bread and crumpets in stores due to the walkout. BFAWU Regional Secretary Geoff Atkinson said: ‘This has always been a locally run site, by the local people. There’s many families that work on this site. If the hours are there, they should be permanent hours and not covered by agency labour. All our workers on this site took a drop in hours and in money to protect permanent employment on this site, not to protect zero hour contracts and agency labour’ (BBC News Manchester 11 September).
The dispute became increasingly bitter between management at Hovis and the striking workers with increasing use by Hovis of Greater Manchester Police. The Green Party Trade Union Group blog of 16 September reported ‘After a four hour battle with the Police and scab Management this morning Monday the 16th, nothing came out of the plant for two hours then escorted by the police the first wagon took 40 minutes to travel just over 500 metres, but a price was paid when three of the pickets were arrested at the main junction when the police used heavy-handed tactics and threw a female across the road on to her back narrowly missing the pavement edge and a set of railings.’
Striking workers blockading the gates at the Wigan site prevented up to 80 percent of scheduled delivery lorries from leaving the bakery, and those lorries which did leave were so heavily delayed that they would have failed to meet their delivery deadlines for stores in the Midlands and North Wales. Drivers based at the Wigan bakery had refused to cross the picket line with the Hovis lorries on health and safety grounds.
On 23 September news of a settlement between the Bakers Union and Hovis management came less than 48 hours before workers at the Wigan bakery were due to begin a third week of strikes. The official union statement said: ‘Our members at Hovis have achieved an historic agreement with the company. Having already brought the end of zero hours contracts leading to twenty-four new permanent jobs, the action taken by those workers has ensured that zero hours contracts will not be provided by a third party. This landmark action by 210 of a modest-sized union along with meaningful negotiations with the company has brought about significant change that could potentially have a positive knock-on effect throughout the entire labour movement’
(Food manufacture.co.uk 23 September 2013).
Atkinson said: ‘The BFAWU would like to thank Hovis for finally sitting down with us in order to find a solution to what was becoming a very bitter dispute over the use of zero hours contracts and agency labour at the Wigan bakery. It has been agreed that agency labour would only be used when there was insufficient commitment by employees to work overtime and banked hours. Agency employees who work 39 hours per week for 12 consecutive weeks will be moved to parity pay.
(BBC News Manchester 23 September).
The Bakers Union success in the dispute at Wigan Hovis shows how, in Marx’s words, ‘Trades Unions work well as centres of working class resistance against the encroachments of capital and help to maintain the given value of labour’. The success can help ‘the initiating of a larger movement using their organised forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system’.
Strikes are necessary if the working class are to prevent themselves from being driven into the ground by the never-satisfied demands of profit. The working class must organise to defend and improve our wages and conditions of work. The strike is a working class weapon within the profit system that can limit the ambitions of the capitalist class.