‘GMB members win the right to collective bargaining in the UK, Asda Wal-Mart distribution depots’, is what the GMB trade union optimistically labelled the decision by Wal-Mart yesterday, to stage a tactical retreat and reach an agreement to avoid a massive five day strike action that would have cost it dear.
It is an agreement that concedes the GMB’s access to all present and future Wal-Mart Asda distribution centres, but which allows the company to very much live to fight another day to prevent the emergence of free collective bargaining.
Paul Kenny, GMB General Secretary, made a lesser claim for the union when he commented on the agreement. He said that ‘This new agreement which GMB and Asda Wal-Mart have worked very hard to achieve heralds a new fresh approach to representation and bargaining between the company and GMB. It is the clear intention of this new agreement that issues beneficial to the growth of the company and the economic benefit of its employees will be dealt with through the new National Joint Council.’
What was agreed by Wal-Mart Asda and the GMB is that a Distribution National Joint Council is to be set up to deal with issues of mutual concern, and that meetings of the company and the union will take place at least twice a year at the most senior level to review ‘major strategic issues facing the company’. The agreement notes of the NJC: ‘It is not itself a collective bargaining or legally binding agreement.’
However, the agreement is all about collective bargaining, and the scope that Wal-Mart has for blocking it.
It was agreed that negotiations on the modernisation of existing collective bargaining agreements in nine Asda stores will take place at local level but with the NJC, the employer-union body, having an ‘overview’. The centres that do have collective bargaining agreements are to see them modernised, with the help of the employer on the NJC.
As far as the other and future stores are concerned, the GMB is to be given full access, while in two stores, Chepstow and Erith, in which Asda and the GMB have Partnership Agreements, there will be negotiations through the NJC to produce a model collective bargaining agreement within three months, for these two sites and ‘potentially’ other sites.
The ground is there for a deadlock over collective bargaining as far as the NJC is concerned.
The implementation of an agreement will require the support of at least 50 per cent of all colleagues, not just GMB members, in the ‘agreed bargaining unit’.
The agreement states: ‘The company have confirmed that they have no principled objection to collective bargaining provided this is subject to the free and informed choice of employees.’
It adds: ‘The company would remain neutral and would continue to communicate with colleagues in the normal way and both parties have committed that any ballots held under these procedures would be conducted in a non-adversarial manner.’ The Wal-Mart wolf has put on sheep’s clothing, obviously for the record.
The agreement concludes that: ‘Either party shall have three months notice to terminate this agreement’.
This deal will see the full fury of US anti-union style campaigning let loose in Britain complete with gangs of professional union busters, consultants, and attempts to induce, sweeten, or intimidate workers into voting down collective bargaining.
The GMB has outfaced Wal-Mart Asda in the first round of the battle. It has got its foot in the door, but the main battle is yet to come, and there is no doubt that Wal-Mart Asda will be preparing for it.
The struggle is an international one and double- edged. American and Canadian Wal-Mart workers are avidly watching the struggle developing in Britain, and British workers will be examining the anti-union antics of Tesco as it opens up to 140 non-union stores in California. International action by UK and North American workers against the superstore exploiters is clearly on the agenda.