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20 August 2019
Chanting "No ifs, no buts, no Asda cuts", around 1,000 Asda workers, members of the GMB trade union, marched on Asda House in Leeds on 14 August to protest against imposition of a new contract called Contract 6.
Workers came from as far as London, Bristol and Scotland to demonstrate against what they described as management intimidation to force them to sign up to a 'Martini' contract, allowing bosses to force staff to work "any time, any place, anywhere".
In return for being forced to work bank holidays, paid breaks being scrapped, cuts to holiday entitlement, slashing of night shift pay, and shifts being changed at four weeks' notice, workers are being 'bribed' with a wage increase to £9 an hour and report being threatened with the sack if they don't sign up!
Staff report that management is using strong-arm tactics of one-to-one interviews, then a second one, to pressure them, and understandably in many stores where the union is not well organised, they have been intimidated into signing up under the stress and fear of losing their jobs.
But tens of thousands haven't signed. 3,000 staff could end up £500 a year worse off under this pay 'increase'! In any case, the minimum wage is supposed to reach £9 an hour in 2020. £8-21 basic, the minimum wage, this is what's paid by Asda, part of the Walmart empire, the biggest company in the world that made £129 billion profit last year!
However, for the predominantly part-time, low-paid and mainly female workforce, it is the threat of shift days and hours being changed that is the main worry when so many have built their work lives around family, children and caring responsibilities.
The demonstration was noisy and angry, but this anger and militancy of the workers has unfortunately not been matched by their union leadership.
The door to the imposition of this Contract 6 was opened last year when the union did not oppose the introduction of a very similar, supposedly voluntary, contract called Your Choice.
Most colleagues, 87%, did not take the £1 an hour 'bribe' then but all new staff had 'no choice' and are started on the new flexi-contract. Then, of course, Asda bosses used that wedge to make the new contract compulsory for all staff, rolling six old contracts into Contract 6 "to make it fair"!
While the GMB has negotiated a few concessions from the original contract offer, in its consultative ballot 93% rejected accepting the new contract. But with only three months to go to the imposition of Contract 6 in November, the union has not even started an industrial action ballot of its 30,000 members.
Even worse, at the rally in Leeds City Square, GMB general secretary Tim Roache did not even mention the word 'ballot' let alone 'strike' in his speeches, but had a more pleading tone appealing to Asda bosses to "do the right thing" and respect their workers.
Well, of course workers do want respect but their bosses have shown only utter contempt and that they'll only change if forced to.
This second and bigger demo at Asda HQ must urgently be used by the GMB as a launch-pad for an energetic campaign for a big strike vote in an industrial action ballot.
If the union appears serious in trying to stop this contract rather than just hoping for one or two more small concessions, then even those staff who have signed under duress or who are already on this contract could be enthused to join the union and the campaign, especially if it was linked to a £10 an hour minimum wage across-the-board pay demand.
While only 20-25% of Asda workers are in the union, many stores have 80-90% union membership where a ballot could be won and strike action would leave shelves empty and check-outs unstaffed. In the cut-throat world of supermarket wars, it wouldn't be long before Asda was losing customers and profits and could be forced to back down.
Given that the Big 4 supermarkets are all cutting thousands of jobs and are imposing similar flexi-contracts, the GMB should approach the Usdaw and Unite unions for a joint campaign in retail, including future coordinated industrial action, to stop this 'race to the bottom'.
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Article dated 20 August 2019
The Socialist, weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party
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