UK bakers union winds up Hovis strike

By Tony Robson
30 September 2013

The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has ended the dispute at the Hovis factory in Wigan by pushing through an agreement that enables the continued use of agency workers and zero-hour contracts by the company.

A BFAWU press release described the settlement as “satisfactory for all concerned,” saying that the union has “worked together with the company in order to minimise the use of agency labour at the Wigan site [which] will only be used where there is insufficient commitment by employees to work overtime and banked hours.” The statement also claims that any “agency employee who works a minimum of 39 hours per week for 12 consecutive weeks will be moved to parity pay.”

In an attempt to claim a historic victory, the union also stated that the agreement has scrapped the company attempts to use the “Swedish derogation”. This is an opt-out used by employers to deny agency workers their rights under the Agency Workers Regulation, which grants comparative pay and leave entitlements after 12 weeks on an assignment. However, this provision does not apply to zero-hour “on call” contracts.

According to the union’s own admission, zero-hour contracts will still be used by the company, with the only caveat being that this will be done directly and not through a third party. In relation to the continued use of agency workers, the terms agreed by the union allow for their employment to be terminated before they qualify for equal pay at 12 consecutive weeks.

In an earlier bid to end the dispute, Hovis agreed to employ on a permanent basis the zero-hour contract workers taken on in April to replace permanent staff following 30 redundancies. The agreement makes clear that this was only a temporary retreat based upon the union meeting its demands for providing the maximum exploitation of permanent workers: hence the reference to use of agency workers being employed only if the permanent workforce shows “insufficient commitment.”

In the name of flexibility BFAWU has overseen the reduction in hours and also cuts in hourly pay from £13 to £8.60 for some workers at the Wigan site.

BFAWU is now applauding Hovis and presenting as good coin promises to invest in skills and jobs. This is under conditions in which the company has eliminated 900 jobs since last November, with the closure of four sites nationally.

Hovis and its parent company Premier Foods have been dependent on the union in ensuring there was no opposition to the restructuring process.

The dispute at the Wigan site developed against this backdrop. While their co-workers around the country were being thrown on the dole, workers at the Wigan site were told their only prospect of protecting their jobs was to accept further sacrifices. The replacement of permanent workers by zero hours contract workers was the final straw.

From the outset BFAWU’s role, after failing to block the strike, was to isolate this struggle and use the pent-up anger of Hovis workers at Wigan to convince the company that union services needed to be retained in order to stifle opposition. Then, after a series of strikes since the end of August threatened to provide a focus for opposition to the on-going restructuring of the company, BFAWU called off the dispute at the first opportunity.

An additional factor in the desire of Premier Foods to reach an accommodation with BFAWU is a possible sale of Hovis that has been widely mooted in the trade and financial press.

The Grocer reported September 7 that the share price of Premier Foods has more than doubled since July “on the back of encouraging financial results and rumours that Grupo Bimbo is looking to buy Hovis.” Any agreement at Hovis would be in this event nullified.

Throughout the Wigan dispute BFAWU has relied upon the services of the fake left groups such as the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Party of Britain to cheer on and echo every demagogic statement made by the bureaucracy.

This found its most grotesque expression in their support for the barring of members of the Socialist Equality Party from the meeting preceding the signing of the latest sell-out deal on September 14. At the meeting, BFAWU National President Ian Hodson made a beeline for two SEP members, pointing and shouting, “These people do not support your dispute and are saying your union does not back you!”

With Hodson leading chants of “Out! Out! Out!” and threats to call the police, the two SEP members calmly left the hall to leaflet outside. Shortly afterwards a police van arrived and the SEP members were threatened with arrest for a breach of the peace if they did not leave the area.

The leaflet distributed by the SEP featured a September 11 World Socialist Web Site article pointing to the record of BFAWU in enabling job losses and pay cuts and calling for a rank-and-file movement to overcome the isolation of the dispute. It noted that workers were now earning what they had 10 to 15 years ago—cutting hourly pay from £13.00 to £8.60 for some and the loss of 900 jobs and the closure of four sites, including Garretts Green in Birmingham, Greenford, West London, as well as distribution sites in Plymouth, Devon and Mendlesham, Suffolk.

Bitter experience has confirmed that the trade unions are utterly hostile to the interest of those workers trapped within them. Union leaders collude with management in a conspiracy against their members. And whenever a strike is called, the intention is always that it ends in defeat or a rotten deal. The only thing that truly animates the bureaucracy is a desire to safeguard their own privileged existence as an industrial police force working on behalf of the employers.

BFAWU is a tiny union, with Hodson owing his current position as president to the votes of just 645 people from a total of 21,000 eligible votes. Fully 18,000 members decided to abstain, a measure of their alienation from an organisation that does little other than take dues out of their bank accounts.

A total annual income of £2,603,216 is clawed out of the small membership, of which wages and expenses of the union apparatchiks amounts to £1,251,756. Hodson himself draws a salary of £62,000, not counting various perks. The general secretary, Ronnie Draper, gets £64,000.

The various ex-left groups are tied to the unions through financial relationships and, in many cases, sharing personnel. The SP has dutifully published the press releases of the BFAWU on its web sites without comment, with BFAWU affiliated to the SP’s National Shop Stewards Network.

Hodson was a guest speaker at the SWP’s Marxism 2013 conference. That is perhaps why, while Hodson was demanding the SEP was expelled from the union meeting, someone holding the platform microphone asked, “Do we have a problem with the [CPB’s] Morning Star? Do we have a problem with the [SWP’s] Socialist Worker?”

To both questions he himself answered, “No,” and why would he do otherwise?