IN HIS speech to the GMB conference in Blackpool yesterday, the union’s general secretary Paul Kenny featured the union’s current dispute with Asda.
He said: ‘They had a battle plan for what would happen for those odd nutcases who might hang on to their trade union membership. Refuseniks they called them. And their battle plan was to sack them as quickly as they could.
‘Never mind that it was illegal. Never mind that it was unfair. That was their battle plan. To remove trade union organisation from Asda at all costs.
‘We are currently in the process of a dispute with Asda, they may try to use employment agencies to break that dispute, employ drivers and others to do the work of our members if our members choose to vote “yes’’ for industrial action and to take that industrial action lawfully.
‘And there are two companies in particular that I want to name: a company called 24-7 Personnel, out of Charlton, south-east London, and a company called Pro-Tem, out of Dartford.
‘These two companies are refusing to talk to us.
‘In fact it seems Asda are intent on driving a coach and horses through the legislation about hiring labour in industrial disputes, so we are going to send a coach and horses down to visit these two companies.
‘We’re going send some cowboys to go and see the cowboys and I’ll tell you this as well: if anybody thinks that I am going to go into an industrial dispute with a company like Asda or anybody else, playing the Marquis of Queensbury Rules, while they hire in labour in order to do our members’ jobs when they are in legitimate, legal, lawful dispute, then you are living in cloud cuckoo land, because I’ll be calling – make no mistake about it – for the massed ranks of the GMB and the trade unionists to picket those depots wherever these scabs come in and try to do our jobs.
‘You can’t have a law that the employer can ignore but tie-binds us.
‘If they’re going to break the law, then we’re both going to break the law.’
In the afternoon at the conference Asda shop stewards held a press conference about their dispute.
It was introduced by Jude Brimble, GMB national officer for Asda.
She told reporters: ‘This is a national dispute because Asda won’t recognise us for collective bargaining.
‘We currently represent 50 per cent of Asda workers and we have members on each site.
‘It is clear to us there is a strong Wal-Mart agenda through our experiences with Asda.
‘What they’ve offered us is no more than our basic legal rights.
‘Their position now is to run another campaign to stop our members voting.
‘The ballot result will come on June 21.
‘The situation has shifted to what ASDA might do in the event of a strike.
‘We know that ASDA are lining up agencies to get their stock to the stores.
‘Our members shift 30,000 tonnes of stock into shops every day, so I don’t know how the customers will not be affected.’
In reply to reporters’ questions, one of the GMB stewards said that Asda ‘have sent letters to people’s homes trying to intimidate workers.
‘They’ve shipped TV screens into their sites with DVDs of (Asda boss) Andy Bond, telling them what to do and how to vote in the ballot.
‘They’ve actually put DVDs in cabs of delivery trucks.’
Geoff Golan, GMB south-eastern region, told the press conference: ‘We’ve had a letter from the general manager saying it’s not over until the fat lady sings.
‘They are talking to individual members, telling them to vote “no’’.
‘They are putting out that the GMB only has 20-30 per cent of the workforce as members, that we are unrepresentative.’
One steward handed round a laminated notice which was being put up in Asda stores.
He said: ‘They have done it like this so it can’t be written on.’
The notice had boxes with quotes in balloons pointing to the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ on the ballot forms.
The balloon indicating the ‘yes’ box reads: ‘Only vote “yes’’ if you are willing to disrupt your depot, hand business to our customers and undermine our recovery.’
The shop steward continued: ‘Workers are not being allowed to speak to their shop steward.
‘He has been suspended.’
Another steward said: ‘They wrote to families, to workers’ wives and partners, trying to put pressure on them.’
Jude Brimble carried on: ‘The tribunal decision in Newcastle had fined Asda £800,000 for bribing members not to join the union.
‘That was quite unusual in this country.
‘Asda is the only supermarket in the big four which does not have some agreement with unions.
‘Asda is drawing on the anti-union agenda.
‘We are not pressing an unusual agenda.
‘We want a “yes’’ vote. Our members are saying there will be a “yes’’ vote, but it comes in an atmosphere of intimidation.’
In answer to the question, will there be a strike, she replied: ‘If Asda doesn’t come to the table industrial action is inevitable.’
Asked about the effectiveness of strike action, she said: ‘The effect will be devastating. But we are not in the act of bashing Asda, we want Asda to be profitable but we want it to share some of those profits with our members.’
Present at the press conference was Nick Brown MP, former agriculture minister in the Labour government and a GMB-sponsored MP.
He told the press conference: ‘The industrial tribunal was the most shocking thing I have seen in my political life with the trade unions.
‘The union signed up to the national pay deal except for one clause: that was that the union would no longer be recognised.
‘It was on this point alone that members voted 2-1 against the deal.
‘Asda brought in a union buster, Tim Allen, and he told them to break the law and he did,’ Brown alleged.
‘As MPs, we would like to see the dispute resolved. But not at any price.’
News Line asked Jude Brimble: ‘So are you saying what Asda wants is a company union?’
She replied: ‘Yes’.
Another steward chipped in: ‘They want to turn the clock back to 1830, to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, where you got jailed for trying to join a union.
‘We are fighting for what we fought for for 150 years.
‘We’re fighting for basic human rights.’
The steward said: ‘A union workplace is a safe workplace, it saves them money at the end of the day.
‘Our members are trying to bring it to the attention of the public when staff are being cut to the bone to maximise profit.
‘They want two workers to do the job of three.
‘At our depots workers have to lift 6,000-10,000 kilos a shift.
‘They are doing that day after day.
‘It would save the NHS money not having to treat their injuries.
‘Asda are paying minimum wages but they want 100 per cent from their workers.’
News Line mentioned the statement from the GMB about a lift truck that had tipped over into the shelving because workers were being driven by management targets.
A Falkirk steward said: ‘Management denied that a switch had been held down on the lift truck, but we’ve got pictures on the wall showing it.’
Jude Brimble said: ‘Asda said they were going to change the way they work with the unions and they missed their opportunity.
‘One steward has been suspended but we’ve had other stewards who have been threatened with their jobs.
‘They’ve been pulling people aside and intimidating them.’
Asked if this would be of any concern to shoppers, she replied: ‘It is of concern to shoppers.
‘I think the way a company treats its union does have an effect on its quality.
‘We are having tremendous support from customers and people are writing to us from across the world, saying it’s a fundamental dispute about a union standing up against the biggest retail company in the world.’
On the issue of health and safety, another steward pointed out: ‘They’ve cut staff down to the bone so much it’s affecting the customers.
‘In Wigan one of our members had an accident.
‘Senior shop stewards asked to do a health and safety inspection on the conveyor involved.
‘He was refused. He reminded the manager of Health and Safety Act obligations.
‘When he returned the next day he was told he faced disciplinary action for challenging a manager.’
l A meeting took place after the press conference at which shop stewards considered an invitation from Asda Wal-Mart to the union for the GMB national shop stewards committee to attend a meeting in Leeds today.
The shop stewards decided they wanted national and local union officials present at the meeting.
Since officials are currently meeting at the GMB conference in Blackpool, the shop stewards have proposed that Asda Wal-mart senior management come to Blackpool so the meeting can go ahead.
In the meantime, the shop stewards want the officials to be in contact with Asda Wal-Mart so that the shop stewards can clearly understand what new proposals Asda Wal-mart are prepared to put on the table to resolve the dispute.