STREET, Somerset, England — “We have to win this,” said Francis Foley one of 130 workers on strike against wage cuts at Clarks Shoe’s Westway distribution center. “If we don’t, it won’t be worth working in this place.” Foley’s comments expressed the determination of the 50 workers, members of the Community union, picketing the center Oct. 20. The strike began Oct. 4.
“We’re currently on 11.16 pounds an hour” ($15.40), shop steward Don Gray told the Militant. “The company is cutting the hourly rate to 9.50 pounds. Currently our half-hour lunch break is paid. No more. They’re eliminating overtime pay, and cutting sick pay. They’re even taking away our paid 10-minute morning coffee break.”
The company, which recorded over half a billion pounds in profits between 2010 and 2017, says that the cuts have been forced on it by the pandemic. Workers who refuse employment on the new terms will be deemed to have resigned — a tactic known widely in the labor movement here as “fire and rehire.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called fire and rehire “unacceptable,” but local Member of Parliament James Heappey, from Johnson’s governing Conservative Party, has attacked the striking workers for fighting bosses’ efforts to impose it at Clarks.
Bosses: ‘Change your lifestyle!’
“We were given three meetings where a Human Resources representative tried to convince us of the new contract conditions,” said Foley. “If we haven’t agreed by the third meeting, we’re fired on four weeks notice. I told her that there was no way I could live on 9.50 pounds an hour. It’s difficult enough on 11.16 pounds. She told me I’d need to change my lifestyle!”
Clarks is a household name in the U.K., having begun shoemaking in rural Somerset in southwest England 200 years ago. The strike action has gotten some media coverage, featuring condemnation of LionRock Capital, a Hong Kong-based venture capital company that took over Clarks in the last year.
“All manufacturing has been moved out and is now done in Vietnam, India, Indonesia and other countries,” Gray said. “LionRock bought the brand name and venture capitalists will do what venture capitalists do but we’ve not had a pay raise in six years.”
“When I started here, it was a well-organized union shop with decent pay and conditions,” said Daryl Harding, who has worked there for 24 years. “But year after year they’ve chipped away at our conditions and, over time, the union has gotten weaker. We need to relearn how to use union power.”
‘Wage cuts and rising prices’
“That’s especially true now as we’re facing a double whammy — wage cuts when prices are rising,” Harding said. He pointed to the 1.40 pound per liter gas price being advertised at the nearby supermarket. “Yesterday it was 1.37 pounds,” he said. Inflation in the U.K. is running at 3%. The Bank of England’s chief economist, Huw Pill, projects a rise to 5% next year. Miguel Patricio, CEO of giant food manufacturer Kraft Heinz, recently told the BBC that people have just got to get used to paying more.
Clarks says it is ending its two-tier wage setup by slashing wages of workers getting a higher rate and marginally increasing the rate for new workers, from the 8.91 pounds an hour up to 9.50 pounds.
“That’s ridiculous,” says Gray. “If the company thinks that all workers should be on the same rate — which we certainly do — they should bring the lower paid workers up to 11.16 pounds.”
The government announced Oct. 25 that the national minimum wage will be increased to 9.50 pounds an hour starting in April 2022.
“What they’re really doing is trying to weaken the union through divide and rule,” said Liam Reddin, a shop steward for workers on the lower rate. Most of these workers are continuing to work, though Reddin and his wife, Zhenys Petkova, have joined the strike. A substantial majority of workers at the center are on strike.
Clarks says any worker who can’t live on the new contract can just work extra hours.
Strikers are winning support. Postal workers have refused to cross the picket line. There is a constant cacophony of sound as drivers passing by honk in solidarity. Messages backing the workers have come from steelworkers, who are also organized by the Community union.
On Oct 14 they were joined on the picket line by 40 workers from different unions mobilized by the local Mendip Trades Union Council. A solidarity rally is being planned for Nov. 13 here.
Send messages of support to Daniel Francois, regional organizer, Community, 10 Bath Mews, Bath Parade, Cheltenham, GL53 7HL. Tel: 01242-708090; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.