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Third week of Superdrug strike
A banner on the Superdrug picket line, photo Alistair Tice
Superdrug workers at the company's distribution centre in South Elmsall, West Yorkshire, were in defiant mood as their strike entered its third week. The workers, mainly warehouse operatives, are members of the Unite union and first went on strike on 4 November, following the company's attempts to attack pay and conditions.
Steve Faulkner, South Elmsall
Following an agreement in April between workers and the management to freeze pay, the management has launched a string of attacks on working conditions, health and safety, pay and pensions.
Under the company's new proposals, premium pay, which is paid to those working evenings and night shifts would be ended. This could cost families up to £2,000 per year. Overtime payments, currently at time and a half would be cut down to time and a third. Sick pay has been attacked, with the maximum entitlement cut from thirteen to seven weeks per year.
Pensions have been attacked and the company wants workers to work more than 48 hours per week.
Of course, a £2,000 a year loss to hard working families is only small change to Superdrug's CEO Jeremy Seigal. By the end of 2008 after Superdrug reported an operating loss of £2.4 million, with a loss after tax of £6.5 million, they were forced into clearing masses of stock in the January sales. But it won't be the directors making up this shortfall. Seigal confidently claimed in August that the business was "now heading in the right direction".
Showing no awareness of what life for most workers is like, he arrogantly likens his business philosophy to that of an Olympic athlete in training: "You may not be a track and field athlete, so you might want to start with cycling, equestrianism or rowing... While health and beauty trips off the tongue in the same way as say, fish and chips, we say beauty and health. So we make sure we are winning in the right places."
What a load of drivel! Workers earning just under £8 an hour are being told they have to work harder and longer, for less money.
The short-sighted market driven approach shown by Seigal is in stark contrast to the resolve shown by the workers and the community. A former mining town ravaged by the pit closures of 1993, South Elmsall's Frickley colliery was a thorn in the side the Thatcher government.
"They are like school bullies, we have to stand up to them now or they will just keep coming back for more," said one striker. And in an area where the far-right racist BNP gained over 800 votes in the last local election, strikers have recognised the need for class solidarity: "Those Polish lads are good as hell. The management tried to attack them first, but they stood firm with us."
Workers from neighbouring warehouses have been delivering wooden pallets to burn and keep the pickets warm. A local butcher has delivered meat regularly, and donations from the public have added more confidence to a workforce clear that the dispute could even continue after Christmas.
The decision to strike now in the run-up to the busy Christmas period is an inspired one, giving the workers a stronger hand.
The company's response has been - some say illegally - to employ agency workers and management at a warehouse in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. However, even agency staff see the significance of the move, with some deciding not to work, rather than work as scab labour.
Management have sent letters to each of the 261 strikers, around 95% of the workforce, requesting them to attend an individual 'consultation' meeting. Rightly, the workers have refused to attend.
All week, strikers have been targeting high street stores, in an attempt to organise a boycott of the business. This week the union hopes to have released 250,000 leaflets.
In The Socialist 18 November 2009:
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party feature
Marxist analysis: history
Socialist Party election analysis
Socialist Party Marxist analysis
Workplace news and analysis