Seventy workers at the CHEP Ltd. site. in Trafford, Greater Manchester, have been on indefinite strike since December 17, following a series of one-day strikes on December 3, 6, 10 and 13, following a 75% vote for industrial action . They are fighting a 2% wage offer, in fact a substantial cut, after being kept on the job throughout the pandemic as essential workers.
CHEP workers make and repair wooden pallets used for deliveries. The company’s main customers are Heinz, Heineken, beverage company InBev and container manufacturers A&B Containers and Encric.
Their month of indefinite action in the dead of winter shows the determination of CHEP workers to achieve a substantial improvement in pay and conditions. There is growing militancy in the working class after two years of a pandemic that has seen millions face worsening conditions amid a deadly virus and record corporate profits.
But the CHEP struggle is endangered by the leadership of the Unite union.
Regional agent Ian McCluskey admitted the morning star newspaper in late December, “A 2% pay increase is a massive pay cut, and it follows increases of 1 and 2% in previous years.” In other words, the union has already imposed rotten wage deals on workers, leaving them hamstrung by rising inflation and rising costs of living.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: ‘Unite members employed by Chep will not accept an offer of a pittance that amounts to a real pay cut. But that’s exactly what the union is up to. McCluskey continued, “Our redline is 5% backdated to July 1.” CPI inflation was 5.4% in the 12 months to December last and RPI 7.5%, both expected to rise further in the coming months.
The union is offering to short-sell its members to a company that, McCluskey acknowledges, “has increased pre-tax profits by 173 percent per worker” over the past two years. The company is “sitting on a big pot of gold and it’s going to get bigger when it reports its results for 2021.”
During these pandemic years, the company paid out £50 million in dividends to its shareholders in 2021, from £60 million in profits and £110 in 2020. In 2021, the best director paid received £386,000, of which £33,117. payment into their contributory pension fund — more than the full annual salary of most workers.
CHEP UK is part of multi-billion dollar supply chain company The Brambles Group, headquartered in Sydney, Australia, and employing 12,000 people worldwide. In 2021, Brambles made $526 million in pre-tax profit and paid $280 million in dividends, up from $290 million the previous year. Its four executive directors received $10,556,000 between them in 2021, not to mention their stock wealth. Trillion-dollar asset management firms BlackRock and Vanguard are the company’s top institutional investors.
In 2020, it was workers like those at CHEP who were singled out for sustaining those profits, with the company’s annual report noting that “strong volume growth and price realization in our global pallet business has more than offset declines in our automotive container and Kegstar businesses.”
For workers to achieve a real victory over wages and working conditions against such an adversary, a major mobilization of their forces is needed. The basis for wider action clearly exists, with the strike winning strong support at the local level. News site About Manchester reports that 80 percent of truck drivers refuse to cross the picket line.
But Unite is doing nothing to organize a broader struggle. CHEP UK has 27 service centers nationwide, with factories in Birmingham and Dublin, and around 1,200 employees in total in the UK, including around 1,000 in production. Yet the union has issued no public statement calling for or organizing solidarity action with Trafford workers at other sites. The workforce is so divided that other CHEP workers are said to earn up to £1,000 more a year than Trafford workers.
Unite’s refusal to extend the strike underscores the union’s defense of employers rather than workers. Their appeals are made to the corporations to ensure the suppression of a larger struggle.
Since the start of the dispute, the union has been trying to sit down at the table with management. McCluskey made clear his extreme reluctance to call a strike in late November, telling the company, “This dispute is entirely within the company itself.
“CHEP can afford to offer a fair wage increase, but chose not to, despite lengthy negotiations with Unite.
“Even at this late stage, strikes can still be avoided, provided CHEP returns to the bargaining table and makes a wage offer that meets our members’ expectations.”
His demeanor has not changed. Before the move to indefinite action, he again pleaded: “It is very disappointing that CHEP has refused to enter into discussions or negotiations with Unite since the strikes began, in order to resolve this dispute.
Appealing to their shared concern over profits, he continued: “Unite believes the dispute has already cost CHEP more in halted and unfulfilled orders than it would have cost to make its employees a fair wage offer. .
“This dispute could be easily resolved if CHEP made a fair wage offer to its workers and entered into talks. The ball is firmly in the company’s court.
To fight a fight for real improvement in their wages and conditions, making up for the losses suffered throughout the pandemic as CHEP raked in profits, Trafford workers must oppose this rotten bargain between the union and the government. business carried out at their expense. They can seize the initiative by turning to their broader working class allies who face the same problems.
Workers at B&Q warehouses at Worksop in the East Midlands, employed directly by Wincanton Logistics Ltd, went on an indefinite strike on Christmas Eve after beginning weeks of alternating strike action at the end of November. They are fighting a paltry 4% wage offer, reacting angrily to the windfall profits their employers have made during the pandemic from their exploitation. Unite has kept lone workers in their fight despite their determination and despite ongoing disputes between truck drivers in B&Q’s supply chain, including at the Worksop site itself.
In Yorkshire, an all-out strike by Stagecoach bus workers in Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield was sold out by Unite last week in a deal that preserved the pay gap between garages, in line with union actions in Stagecoach operations nationwide. The wage offer was 10.7% but stretched over two years to 2023. As with CHEP workers, bus drivers are determined to wage a full fight for a wage increase above inflation , but the unions have limited each fight to the pursuit of what the company considers “a reasonable offer” and have refused to join disputes across the country.
There is a concerted effort by Unite and the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to keep each strike isolated, actively working against any unified struggle across the working class. They fear such a move will spin out of their control and negate their ability to enforce company-drafted wage offers that keep the working class chained to multi-tier and poverty-level wage deals.
The industrial struggles taking place in the working class must be carried out on an independent basis. Rising inflation rates are creating a punitive cost of living crisis, compounding the hardships and dangers of the pandemic. Workers can retaliate by forming rank-and-file committees, independent of the unions, to mount a unified offensive against the employers.