Unite members at Weetabix are striking for four days a week over fire-and-rehire attacks. The whole labour movement must resist the bosses’ offensive. Only militant action and bold socialist policies can offer a way forward.
Since late September, around 80 engineers in Weetabix’s factories in Corby and Kettering have been on strike every Tuesday and Wednesday. From last Monday, 8 November, this escalated to four days of strike action a week.
The dispute was sparked by planned changes to workers’ shifts and hours, which could lead them to being up to £5,000 a year worse off. This shameless attack on pay comes at a time when Weetabix are generating huge profits – making £82 million in 2020 alone. Meanwhile, the owners of Weetabix, Post Holdings, made £500 million in 2020.
Disgracefully, Weetabix bosses have denied that they are engaging in fire-and-rehire practices, saying that the current dispute has nothing to do with this.
Yet Unite has obtained the original letter sent to the engineers from Weetabix bosses. In this, management explicitly makes the threat of “terminating” current contracts and “re-engaging” workers onto new contracts – a.k.a., fire and rehire!
But the workers are determined to resist these threats, and are prepared to fight to the end.
The decision to escalate to four days of strike action per week came after weeks of fruitless negotiations. “Weetabix should expect this dispute to continue escalating until ‘fire and rehire’ is dropped,” Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has stated.
The union is also using its leverage strategy to target stakeholders in Weetabix: encouraging a boycott of Weetabix goods, and taking the campaign to supermarkets across the country to spread awareness of the strike.
? Our team were out at breakfast this morning in Loughborough. We want to make the public aware of that @weetabix are using immoral #fireandrehire tactics to trash our members’ T&Cs.
✍️ Sign and share our petition today: https://t.co/oQS1eHP8Wp#TakingTheBiscuit pic.twitter.com/vRhUFq3qaD
— Unite East Midlands (@UniteEastMids) October 25, 2021
Fire and rehire has been the favourite weapon of the bosses over the last 18 months, as they seek to make workers pay for the coronavirus crisis. This tactic is effectively being used to hold workers to ransom – either they accept worse pay and conditions, or face the sack.
As a result of increasing pressure from below, a Unite-backed bill to curb the use of “fire and rehire” tactics was recently proposed in Parliament by Labour MP Barry Gardiner.
This was blocked in the House of Commons, however, thanks to filibustering by Tory junior business minister Paul Scully. This leaves no doubt as to which side the Conservatives are on – that of the capitalist class.
Even so, the bill had its limits. Gardiner admitted it would not completely outlaw fire and rehire. And in the event of a company collapsing, the left-wing Labour MP even said that fire and rehire may be necessary.
But with growing resistance to these attacks on the shop floor, a bill being blocked in Parliament is not going to stop workers from fighting back. Sooner or later, as pressure builds, something will have to give.
Beyond the law
In this respect, it is welcome to see Sharon Graham responding boldly to this bill’s defeat, with the new Unite general secretary stating:
“The politicians have failed, it is time for the trade union movement to take the lead. If we are forced outside of the law to defend working people, so be it. Enough is enough.”
Today the Prime Minister got his Westminster MPs to kill legislation banning ‘#FireandRehire‘. The politicians have failed, it is time for the trade Union movement to take the lead. If we are forced outside of the law to defend working people, so be it. Enough is enough. pic.twitter.com/DYEgTp8Xtf
— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) October 22, 2021
Graham is correct to raise this prospect. Sooner or later, the union movement will have no choice but to face down these attacks on workers’ rights, pay, and conditions.
In the past, anti-trade union laws formed a useful excuse for union leaders who preferred backroom deals to picket lines. Now, however, capitalism is incapable of granting even the crumbs it had previously given up, meaning that concessions and compromises will not be won without militant action.
At the same time, however, in a recent article for the Mirror, Graham implied that this struggle was due both to the ‘greed’ of the owners of Weetabix, and the fact that they are a US-based company. The Unite leader referred to the bosses’ use of fire and rehire as “American-style ‘take it or leave it’ labour relations”.
But this misses the point. The onslaught against workers’ pay and conditions – at Weetabix and across Britain – has nothing to do with the nationalities of their owners, or whether they’re personally immoral and greedy.
Rather, these attacks have everything to do with the dog-eat-dog nature of the capitalist system, with the bosses attempting to eke every bit of profit they can out of workers, in order to continue expanding their profits. Fire and rehire is just one weapon in their arsenal to achieve this.
Fight for socialism
The Weetabix engineers are showing the way forward: escalate and don’t back down in the face of the bosses’ threats.
It is clear that half-measures will not suffice in the face of such attacks. If necessary, Unite should also call on other workers at the Corby and Kettering sites – organised in USDAW – to join them on strike.
Beyond the immediate battles, to win lasting change, workers must look to more political solutions.
The Manchester bus drivers and Thurrock bin workers have scored important victories, for example. But it seems that every time one fire-and-rehire attempt is beaten back, another opens up.
We therefore need more than just isolated, atomised strikes; more than bills in Parliament. We need system change.
Ultimately, therefore, to defend workers’ jobs and conditions, Unite should be demanding the nationalisation of Weetabix, under democratic workers’ control – as part of a socialist plan of industry, with production based on needs, not profits.
Such a vision is already supported by Unite members. At the union’s recent policy conference, for example, delegates voted for a motion calling for a new socialist Clause 4, based on “the common ownership, under democratic control and management by working people, of the commanding heights of the economy”.
The union must turn these words into deeds, and ensure that this bold aim is incorporated into all its industrial battles. Only with the socialist transformation of society can we guarantee decent jobs, pay, and conditions for all workers.
#UnitePolicyConference delegate and Socialist Appeal supporter Russ Blakely proposing Composite 15 on a new Clause 4.
This commits Unite to backing “the common ownership, under democratic control and management by working people, of the commanding heights of the economy” pic.twitter.com/KiFmICcP8N
— Socialist Appeal (@socialist_app) October 22, 2021