Bread shelves in supermarkets are going empty as workers at the Hovis plant in Belfast continue their ongoing strike action for a 10% pay rise. Represented by Unite the Union and The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), the workers at the Apollo Road site began their picket on May 14, on a 24/7 basis, until their demands are met.
Crumbs from the table
Around 200 workers are striking for pay-parity with their company colleagues across England and Scotland. As it stands, the Belfast workers are currently receiving at least £2 per hour less, despite working for the same company and doing the same work.
BFAWU Regional Officer Laura Graham, who was at the picket, explained that:
“These workers are feeding the country yet bakers in the same company are getting paid more in Britain. They feel the attitude of management is to ‘starve us’ into submission but we’re fed up and we want parity!”
Hovis’ response has been to declare the workers’ demands to be “unsustainable”. This is simply false. While the bosses dismiss the 10% pay rise, the company has performed very well financially this past number of years. In 2018, the company reported revenues in excess of £460m, and a pre-tax profit of close to £20m in 2020.
Unite Shop Steward, Justin Clarke said:
“We asked them [management] last year to put us back on minimum wage with overtime because we’d be better off. But they said no. That’s how bad it is. These are semi-skilled workers and they are barely above minimum wage. While we’ve seen minimum wage increase over the years, our wages have not kept up and the gap is getting larger and larger. That’s why people are so angry.”
So while there may continue to be shortages of bread for the North, there certainly is no shortage of profit to be hoarded by the bosses.
As another indicator of ‘success’, we only need to glance back to last year when the company was acquired by a UK private equity firm – Endless LLP – who purchased Hovis for an “undisclosed sum”, rumored to be in excess of £70m.
When Hovis came to negotiate the pay dispute prior to the industrial action, they offered the workers a mere 3%. This amounts to little more than crumbs from the table. Rightly this slap-in-the-face offer was rejected and workers voted with a 90.5% majority to strike.
Speaking about the 3% offer, Sean McKeever Regional Officer for Unite had said:
“Management totally misread the determination of these workers and made no serious effort to address their just expectation for equal pay. Why does Hovis think Northern Ireland bread manufacturing workers deserve 10 percent less than workers in Great Britain? These are frontline essential workers who continued production throughout the pandemic lockdowns to ensure bread was on every table. They are not accepting second-class pay from Hovis simply because they live and work in Northern Ireland.”
Stench of hypocrisy
Throughout the pandemic, these workers provided an essential service to society, working to ensure we still had bread on our tables, and frontline health workers had the same. This past year has proved their worth.
The workers put their health at risk despite failures by the company to put in place adequate social-distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID. This resulted in an outbreak of the virus that some staff are still suffering with today.
Those failures have not even been acknowledged by the same site management who recently called the police to attempt to break strike action by reporting the workers for breaching COVID regulations.
On the fourth of the dispute, senior management thought it appropriate to provoke workers by trying to drive across the picket line. It was after their attempt failed that police were called. PSNI officers showed up in 6 vehicles, including a land rover mounted with an intrusive surveillance camera for “evidence gathering”. An inspector ranked officer then notified Union Officials and Stewards of his intent to issue fixed penalty notices for breach of Covid Restrictions.
To be clear, if the same workers gathered on the other side of the fence to make a profit for Hovis bosses, they would be fine in the eyes of the PSNI, but because their gathering was to fight for better pay, intimidation tactics were rolled out in an attempt to break their strike. The workers were undeterred.
The PSNI have selectively reserved this brand of COVID enforcement for when workers, women, and oppressed groups take a stand to challenge rotten inequalities. This led to a heavy handed response and fixed penalty notices for anti-racist activists in June of last year, and for those who organised a rally against gender-based violence earlier this year. Other gatherings, particularly involving those connected to Stormont have tended to be facilitated by the police, rather than targeted by them.
Referring to police tactics on the day, Unite Regional Coordinating Officer, Susan Fitzgerald said:
“The actions today strengthen the resolve of all union members here; it’s counterproductive.” To the Hovis workers, the stench of hypocrisy has not and will not deter them, no matter how many times management rings the PSNI. Rather, this police presence, on the invitation of the bosses, has consolidated the determination for these workers to fight on and fight harder for their demands.
Workers United Will Never Be Defeated
One standout feature of this strike so far, has been the plentiful displays of solidarity and workers unity. As Laura Graham said:
“with the Hovis strike in full swing, the first two days have shown the exceptional comradeship and solidarity that flows through the veins of trade unionists. Both our BFAWU members and that of Unite the Union have also shown how working together really means “Strength in Unity”… The strike will continue and support will grow, due to the commitment of this workforce. And we hope that the spark that has been ignited by the members of Hovis Belfast will spread like wildfire through the food industry that our union is immensely proud to represent, you take on one of us you take on all of us!”
From different branches of the unions involved, to local hospital workers refusing to handle Hovis crates, and the hospitality workers and firefighters union providing refreshments throughout the strike, solidarity has been strong. These instances of solidarity are crucial; they strengthen the confidence and conviction for the Hovis workers to fight on, reminding them that they aren’t isolated nor unheard – despite a clear lack of interest from mainstream media.
At the beginning of this week crèche workers at Queen’s University Belfast, on the third day of their own industrial action, marched to the Hovis site. As word of the crèche workers joining the picket spread, excitement added to the conviction and enthusiasm of the Hovis picket. Once the sound of car horns began to blare, strikers rushed into the centre of the road to stand in awe and applaud their fellow workers whose solidarity of common struggle brought them shoulder to shoulder, right in front of the Hovis Plant.
It’s moments like these that begin to give us a glimpse of a brighter future which is ours for the taking. Through workers struggle, we break down the barriers that divide us and see how the world works and in whose interests it operates. The working class, struggling for its interests is the fightback which opens our eyes and points the way forward beyond the crumbs that we’re left with.
One lesson to be drawn is that as we face further crises coming out of Covid: we need to see more workers coming together and supporting each other. Hovis workers are setting the example on this, and all of us should get behind them.
And given how issues of pay, conditions, and job security are likely to intensify, the trade union movement needs to prepare to go on the offensive. As restrictions ease and large sectors of the economy return to “normal”, we need to reject their normality and fight for a society beyond the exploitative shackles of a capitalism in deep decay.