Bakery workers in Northern Ireland win strike, pay raise

By Jonathan Silberman
and Ólöf Andra Proppé
June 7, 2021

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Two hundred bakery and dispatch workers won an improved pay offer from bosses at Hovis and voted to return to work May 24. The workers, members of the Unite union and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, had been on strike since May 14.

At stake was regaining some of the ground lost over the past 12 years. “We got an increase in basic pay” in 2009, “but lost all premium payments for shifts, weekends, overtime, public holidays. Year by year it’s fallen back,” shop steward Justin Clarke told the Militant  on the picket line May 20. The workers were demanding wage parity with the company’s seven sites in Britain, amounting to a 10% raise. Hovis is the second-largest bread production company in the U.K.

These reporters, members of the Communist League in London and Manchester, England, visited the picket line to learn more about the workers’ fight and to bring a solidarity card signed by 35 striking refuse workers from Thurrock, just east of London. We received a warm welcome from strikers, who were trying to maintain their picket line as torrential rain and 60 mph winds uprooted their gazebos and brought down a fence adorned with a union banner.

When he saw the card from the refuse workers, Clarke said, “This is great!” He went to draw up a card in reply.

“We really appreciate you coming,” said Irena Movakova, originally from Slovakia. She is one of the few women working at the plant and described the support she’s received from male co-workers to learn and hold down the job.

Extending solidarity

David Blackhorn, a bakery laborer with 27 years at the plant, proudly told us he was one of 20 strikers who went to Queen’s University here to extend solidarity to workers at the college child care center who are organizing protest strikes against having to work an extra hour a week with no extra pay.

Bakery workers’ demands are “unsustainable,” Hovis bosses said. They initially offered a 3% raise. A week later, they increased it to 8.4% over three years. This was rejected by workers in a picket line vote, reported Unite official Donal O’Coffaigh. “Within hours management made another offer of 8% over two years,” he wrote. That offer was accepted by a 79% vote.

“We’re rock solid and united,” bakery worker Richard Finch told us, pointing out the strike involved workers who were both Catholic and Protestant. Sectarian divisions fostered by the British rulers to undermine common action by working people in Northern Ireland have declined in recent decades.

Pointing to the profits bosses have made recently, Finch said, “This plant has been booming during the pandemic, providing about half the bread in Northern Ireland. Its sales to the Republic of Ireland have doubled.”

Shoppers sent reports and photos to the Belfast News Letter  that showed supermarkets increasingly short on bread during the 11-day strike.

Workers on the picket line blasted police attempts to curtail their picketing, which they organized round-the-clock.

“They’ve cited COVID to try to reduce picket numbers against workers who have worked throughout the pandemic providing much needed bakery supplies,” said Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union official Laura Graham.

Marnie Kennedy in Belfast contributed to this article.