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19 September 2012
Workers strike as Argos tightens the screws
Dave Murray spoke to Unite members at Argos's Basildon depot
Unite union members at Argos are taking strike action against their employer's decision to end their final salary pension scheme.
The scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago, and, having closed the scheme the company is now leaning on its workers to join a new one which does not offer a pension based on earnings, but works as a savings scheme, leaving retired workers at the mercy of the financial services industry at the point of their retirement.
The union is demanding a compensation package for Argos workers who are affected by the shutdown.
The attack on pensions is just the latest move by Argos to tighten the screws on its workers. The Unite union won recognition at the Basildon depot 12 years ago, but only after a long campaign by its members, who faced down management threats of dismissal in order to organise a majority of workers.
Since then, the bosses have systematically tried to undercut wages and undermine the union by using agency staff wherever possible; according to management, 62% of the Basildon workforce are 'temps' employed on lower wage rates through an agency.
Agency assault on workers' rights
In a further assault on the idea of 'the rate for the job' Argos now uses two separate agencies, Transline and Single Resource, paying workers different rates depending on which agency supplies them.
At best agency workers get a six-month contract, with a requirement that they must be prepared to work 20 out of 24 Sundays.
All workers are subject to relentless pressure to cut down 'idle time' and meet 'Key Productivity Indicators'; they face a ruthless response if they are forced to take sick leave.
In fairness, not all Argos employees are under the cosh. Chief executive Terry Duddy 'earned' £1.1 million last year. His pension fund is worth £4 million and will pay out £187,000 a year on retirement.
'Hard luck' story
His management underlings in Basildon have made it clear that in the New Year they intend to recruit permanent staff at below the current union rate, claiming lack of profitability in the face of stiff competition from online stores - like all bosses, they are always ready with a 'hard luck' story.
In reality the dispute is part of a concerted attack by employers in both the public and private sector on the hard won wages and conditions of workers everywhere.
The strike runs for four days from Wednesday 19 September. There will be pickets at distribution depots, and the union will be leafleting Argos stores to explain to customers what a shoddy deal Argos gives its employees.
The Unite picket line outside the Argos distibution centre at Magna Park, Lutterworth, was well supported, with workers taking shifts to cover it round the clock.
Passing lorries, nothing to do with the dispute, were hooting their horns as they drove past the big Unite banner.
Parish Patel, Unite regional officer said: "Our members feel very strongly about the company's decision to close the final salary pension scheme and offer a lesser scheme.
"It will mean people working longer and getting less. The company has rejected our proposals. Our members want to make a stand and defend their pensions.
"The company are being hypocritical - the directors' pension scheme is staying in place, they will walk away on retirement with handsome figures!"
Another worker commented: "This is the thin end of the wedge, they want to attack all our terms and conditions.
"If they had their way they would have us in there working for tuppence an hour. This is a cash rich company; where's all that money gone they made in the past?"
There was support amongst the pickets for the idea of uniting with public sector workers and taking general strike action around the issues that affect us all. As one worker put it: "It should have happened ages ago!"
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 19 September 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.