Asda contracts: Vital that GMB mobilises for industrial action
Iain Dalton, Socialist Party West Yorkshire organiser
About 400 hundred Asda workers and members of the GMB union marched defiantly through Leeds on 16 October, angry at the company's plans to sack staff members that hadn't signed up to the company's 'Contract 6'- with its unacceptable working conditions - by a 2 November deadline.
Unfortunately, this demo passing Asda house in Leeds (the third to date) was smaller than the previous one back in August. It reflects the fact that many workers had signed the contract, feeling that the alternative of losing their job was far worse.
While the GMB has done more to mobilise its members in Asda than other unions in retail have done when companies have been attempting to impose contract changes, much of this has been too little, too late.
Although GMB general secretary Tim Roache made fiery announcements that the union would never accept workers being transferred onto Contract 6 and - following security being beefed up around Asda House for this protest - that he was prepared to be arrested, other parts of his speech told a different story.
He explained how he'd personally agreed to 'Your Choice' the forerunner to Contract 6 being introduced on the basis of it being voluntary for staff to move onto it - in effect that the collective bargaining of the union had been abandoned for each member to fend for themselves.
As multi-tier contract situations elsewhere in retail have ended up with workers eventually being forced onto the worst one by companies, did he really expect Asda would act any differently?
He said the GMB would fight through legal channels for those who wouldn't sign the new contract, but did that mean he saw no alternative way to stop the sackings?
He also said that this isn't the end of the campaign and that GMB is starting "phase two" to get workplace union density up to 50%.
But the best way to achieve this is to prove the union is prepared to fight. The failure to escalate action beyond protests and prepare for strike action will mean many workers questioning the unions resolve to stand up to Asda management.
On the demo Socialist Party members distributed a leaflet arguing for a strategy to build for such action, even at this late stage.
Workers agreed with us that this would be the only way forward, especially when we raised the question of 'disaggregating' the ballot - which could mean more densely unionised stores, some of which still have 80% of affected staff refusing to sign up to the new contract, could take action which would shake Asda management.
If this was tied to demands such as a £12-an-hour minimum wage, these demands could draw into the struggle those workers who had already signed up to contract six under pressure, or new starters who start on it.
If, on the other hand, the struggle isn't escalated and the sackings take place following the November deadline, Asda management will pursue further attacks in the future.
Union reps and workers in Asda need to learn the lessons of this struggle, particularly the need for a serious strategy to mobilise for industrial action as the best way to defeat such attacks.
In The Socialist 23 October 2019:
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