Unilever workers strike to defend pensions
Unilever workers across the country took strike action on Friday 9 December for the first time in their history, against thousands of pounds being slashed from their pensions.
According to strikers in Leeds, the pension scheme is slightly in deficit, but Unilever could easily use its £6 billion profits to plug the gap.
The strike at Unilever comes the week after up to three million public sector workers took strike action in defence of their pensions.
The strike at Unilever blows apart the Con-Dem government lie that cutting public sector pensions will somehow help private sector workers.
The millionaire government coalition and millionaire bosses are trying to drive down the living standards of all workers, public and private.
Usdaw, Unite and GMB members at Unilever were striking together for 24 hours from 7am to 7am at 12 factories nationally.
In Leeds, there were six pickets at each entrance, and tens more workers protesting on the street opposite.
James, an Usdaw member, whose wife is a senior teaching assistant and as a Unison member had been on strike on 30 November, said he was set to lose £6,500 off his pension. “I did a rough calculation, I could lose silly amounts over the course of my retirement, £300,000”.
James said that over the last seven years working for Unilever he had seen his benefits go down, and he made it clear that if he was to accept yet another ‘change’ to his pension, the bosses would just be coming back for more.
One Usdaw union steward explained that “in 2008, Unilever promised to keep the final salary pension scheme, if we increased contributions”. Now Unilever wants to change this and put everyone on defined contributions, “but even this is only guaranteed for two years.” Paul Poleman, top dog at Unilever, took home £1 million in shares this month. Poleman says it’s not about the money, it’s about making his company ‘competitive’.
Unilever workers on strike in Leeds, understood that bosses weren’t going to back down after just one day of strike action, and were willing to take further action until they win.
When Unilever workers do strike again they could coordinate their strike with the public sector to ensure it has the maximum effect, and to build unity between public and private sector workers in defence of pensions, and against all the cuts.
Ian Pattison, Leeds City Socialist Party and Unite member
Unilever’s Pot Noodle mine came to a grinding halt on Friday as the entire shop floor workforce at its Croespenmaen factory near Crumlin in Gwent walked out on strike.
Most of the workers supported the picket and even agency workers in the factory refused to cross picket lines.
Unilever is planning a massive attack on its workers’ pensions by closing down its final salary pension scheme that its long-serving staff have worked hard for.
Only management, office workers (who have not been balloted) and security staff were in the factory. Management sent out the head of security every so often to complain about the number of pickets and where they are standing.
Such a pathetic attempt at harassment merely amused the workers who were in high spirits.
There was a lot of support for the public sector workers’ action on 30 November in defence of pensions and support for the idea of coordinating their action with public sector workers.
If Unilever does not withdraw its attempt to close down the final salary pension scheme then further action is planned for January which could easily be coordinated with a public sector pensions strike. “We need a general strike” one Croespenmaen worker declared “and the sooner the better”.
Strangely, after all the Tory media propaganda about public sector ‘gold plated’ pensions being ‘unfair’ on private sector workers there has been virtually no coverage of the fight of the private sector Unilever workers’ strike to defend their pensions. And no Tory MPs were seen on the Croespenmaen picket line.
There were three picket lines at the Unilever plants in Port Sunlight. The picket lines were well supported, about 80 pickets at 7.30 in the morning, with the workers having a positive attitude, in the birth place of the company.
As pickets pointed out, Port Sunlight was built as a model village by the Lever brothers to house the workers at their soap factory.
However the days of the ‘liberal patrician’ factory owner are long gone.
Nowadays Unilever operates from a tax haven and is motivated by greed. Discussions on the picket line were warm and welcoming; and the common struggle for decent pensions in the public and private sector was clearly recognised – a number had visited a local PCS picket line on N30.
There was a determination not to lose this struggle, and recognition of further action being needed. There is a debate on whether to have strikes on the same day as the public sector, or whether that risks drowning out their struggle – after all the government and media don’t want to spoil their myth that it’s about ‘gold plated’ public sector pensions. What also came across clearly was that if we don’t struggle - all of us – they will continue to attack us.
Today pensions. Tomorrow pay and sick pay. Port Sunlight has long been the heart of Lever brothers/Unilever, on Friday it was the heart of workers fighting back.
60 or so pickets from Unite and GMB trade unions were outside the Unilever factory in the centre of the town.
One of the union stewards on the picket line said: “There’s about 250 people work at this site, union membership must be about 95%. There are about 2,500 out on strike across the country”.
The negotiations have been going on for three or four months but the company has resolutely refused to climb down from its decision to axe the final salary pension scheme in favour of a career average scheme.
“The effect will be to cut between 20% and 40% off the members’ pensions, depending on their age. Your existing pension gets frozen, and the rest is career average.
“After the negotiations with the unions broke down the company tried to carry on with the ‘staff council’ which represents non-union members.
“Well this is their answer today”, he said gesturing at the strikers gathered with their Unite and GMB flags.