Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/702/13589
Stepping up the action to defend pensions at Unilever
Workers at multinational company Unilever are making a stand to defend pensions. Following a strike of 2,500 workers last month, from 17 January thousands of Unite, Usdaw and GMB members at Unilever are taking strike action for up to 12 days.
The strike is because the company threatens to end the final salary pension scheme, leading to pension cuts of up to 40%.
Pickets at the Purfleet factory on the first strike day, warmed by cups of tea and bacon sandwiches in the drizzle, explained their anger at the company.
"You should look at the pay at the top. They're taking off us to give to them.
"Our contributions were nearly doubled three years ago - we went from paying 4% to more than 7% - on the guarantee that would save the final salary pension."
One woman striker explained: "I've been here ten years and I'll lose £2,500 a year - and that's based on the assumption of extra contributions. And it's only guaranteed for three years, then they could come back and move the goalposts again. Some of the guys here will lose a lot more.
"Unilever is refusing to talk. Unite and the other unions have gone to Acas and are willing to talk but the company refuses."
As the pickets recognised, public sector workers fighting to defend pensions are being told they should be grateful for what they've got compared with the private sector, while private sector workers are being told what they've got is too generous. "What we should do is all join up together!"
On the evening of 20 January and the morning and afternoon of the following Saturday, workers at Unilever's Leeds site in Seacroft took a further 24 hours of strike action.
The company, which was founded by philanthropist Lord Leverhulme, still claims to hold social responsibility among its values. Yet despite making €4.6 billion in profits last year, they now claim they can't afford to pay the workforce a decent pension. And as for Unilever workers outside Britain, a recent video produced by Unite the Union points out the entire workforce of the Lipton's tea factory in Pakistan are temporary workers with no job security.
If the company are still refusing to come to the negotiating table then it is likely to take an escalation of the action to do so. In the meantime, Unilever workers and the unions should aim to build links with all others fighting for decent pensions, not least workers in the public sector who face similar attacks on their pensions.
Unions and trades councils should invite Unilever workers to speak at meetings to help counter the government's attempts to divide public and private sector workers and fight for a decent pension for every worker.
A Leeds Usdaw member
Pickets from Unite and GMB were outside the Unilever works in Warrington from 6am on 18 January. About 30 union members picketed with placards and flags reading "Unilever - Not as clean as you think" and "Unilever - Ditching my pension", while being watched by management and security guards from the security lodge at the main gate.
Andy Ford Warrington trades council
Manchester Socialist Party members joined the picket line at Trafford Park Unilever site again when the weekend shift walked out on 22 January.
Unilever cancelled Christmas for staff at other sites in retribution for the previous strikes. But at Trafford Park, workers haven't seen a company Christmas hamper in years!
Further action may well be needed and it's urgent that the trade union movement rallies round with donations to ensure workers can continue the fight.
- Please encourage your union branch to donate to the national hardship fund. Make cheques payable to "Unite the Union - Unilever" and send them to: Jennie Formby, Unite the Union, 128 Theobalds Road, Holborn, London, WC1X 8TN.
At the Port Sunlight picket line on 18 January, one Usdaw steward said: "Management like to talk about needing to pay big salaries and offer fat pension rewards otherwise 'you don't get the right quality of management', but you don't hear them talk like that when it's about what, say, the forklift truck drivers should get."
As with any such struggle no one wanted to lose pay but there was an awareness that a stand had to be taken. The mood was one of quiet determination to carry on a drawn-out struggle otherwise "they'll just walk all over us."
At Unilever's Manchester factory several strikers voiced anger at the cynicism of the company: "They're just jumping on the bandwagon, they've looked around and seen other companies doing it and thought 'Oh, we can do that too'."
"You get a Tory government in and the bosses think 'Right, here we go again'," said one striker to me.
"This used to be PG Tips, it was locally owned, you'd have managers and workers having a laugh together in the pub. Not now though, it's a big global company like all the others."
In The Socialist 25 January 2012:
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news