JDE coffee workers condemn fire and rehire: “It’s like a virus going through the whole of the workforce”

Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE) workers picketing the coffee producer’s plant in Banbury last Thursday spoke to the World Socialist Web Site about their fight against fire and rehire contracts aimed at gutting their pay, terms and conditions. The workers were issued with termination notices on June 2, with workers recognising that their fight has reached a critical turning point.

Many expressed unease over Unite’s strategy of seeking a negotiated settlement with the company and its refusal to mobilise industrial action by JDE workers across Europe and internationally in the face of the company’s aggressive tactics.

One worker told WSWS reporters, “I have read your articles about our struggles, and I tend to agree with you about the union. They said that they were going to escalate our struggle against fire and rehire. What we now see is de-escalation. We had hundreds of people on the picket line a couple of weeks ago. We were planning to do two single 24-hour strikes on a weekday and weekend, each week in June. But currently only four days of strikes have been planned.

“Unite told us to wait until they have discussions tomorrow with a different and much more favoured member of the JDE management team, with the hope of some reconciliation. But I have no illusions and we need to prepare to escalate industrial action. I am sure we will have to be on the picket line Monday. JDE management has already given us dismissal notices unless we sign the fire and rehire contracts.

“Our pensions have already been massively reduced. I think Unite knew it and they didn’t tell us. As you explained they are waiting till our opposition wears down. I agree that they will take the first opportunity to sell-out our struggle.”

Another JDE worker said there was support from sister plants in Europe, but he conceded that international solidarity action promised by Unite via the European Works Council—a corporatist body uniting the unions and management—had not materialised, “We’re seeing it on paper, but not in action. What I heard, and that’s all, is that in France they were going to do some sort of demonstration, but I’ve never seen the outcome of it.”

The worker described this as, “A very small step! Not a big enough step to make a noise—like a small pussycat meowing, when you’ve got a tiger roaring. You want the roar coming out. We’ve all got to unite together. One individual can’t make that noise. Somebody has to throw the pebble in the pond.

“Here in the UK, because of the pandemic fire and rehire is becoming so widespread. It will have to get outlawed, full stop. They should be unifying all the workers, and all the factories together, and organising a national, worldwide demonstration to show we’re not having this, it’s not right. It’s morally not right. I could totally understand if the company’s losing money, but you’re not losing money! You’re not in a difficult situation, you’re not facing financial hardship. You’re making billions.”

The worker explained the extent of the cuts being demanded by JDE, “If you add all the nitty-gritty bits from the terms and conditions, it works out to about a £20,000 cut. That’s a big hit. A couple of grand, okay, I’ll bite my teeth—twenty-grand? That’s another person’s salary, a year’s salary!

“It’s not just the Banbury site, globally they’re making billions. They’re not losing money, so why should I be? You’re taking twenty grand off me, one person, and where’s that going? In your pocket! You times that by a hundred people.”

Another worker said, “They issued us with a dismissal notice for fire and rehire on June 2, just basically given us 12 weeks’ notice. They keep on telling us that our union won't talk to them. We're prepared to talk to them, but we're only prepared to talk to them if they take the Section 188 [fire and rehire proposal] off the table, which they've replied ‘No, we're not going to take that off the table’.

“I've been here 27 years and I feel like they disregard all that service that I've given them. Basically, I'm just a number now. That's all we are. They've got no affinity towards anyone in the factory. They've got loads of people from outside the company. They're ruthless. Telling people, if you're struggling with the new terms and conditions you might want to think about downsizing your home, and things like that. It's not a reasonable request in my view.

“I'm having to restructure my whole life now. I was looking at retiring at about 60, so that's still 11 years away. Now it's looking like I could have 18 years left, which I didn't really want. I've based my life around that. I've given the company a lot of my life, my working life. I've made sacrifices to come here. I came here for the benefits, for the working conditions and they're taking that all away.

“We're not just doing it for us. Once this management gets away with it here, it's like a virus going through the whole of the workforce. So, we're standing up for our rights. We've never really struck at this factory. It's the first time. This is massive for us. As far as we're concerned, we're doing it to try and prevent it from going any further.”

The worker joined others on the picket in condemning JDE’s sacking of a member of the union committee in retribution for a social media post:

“I think it's disgusting. The guy is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. There's not a bad bone in his body. He bends over backwards for anyone. He'd help anyone. And it's just disgusting the way he's been treated. His whole family has been put in turmoil for that.”

Workers at Banbury have been angered this month over the gutting of their pension scheme, signed off on by Unite. One worker said, “We've all had our letters saying that the pension scheme's finished and I think it's from the 8th of July next month.

“It's just greed. Sheer greed. The final salary scheme ended this month and they've gone onto a defined benefit [scheme], which is a rubbish one. Our old one, you didn't have to put in… they paid your pension and your salary. But this one you're forced to put in a percentage of your pay. So, if they’ve already taken £9,000 off you [because of salary cuts], and you can't afford to lose £9,000 a year, how are you meant to pay for your pension every week or month?”

The worker agreed on the need for global action against JDE’s fire and rehire measures, “If we accept this here, then it's going to snowball and you're going to have it in France, Germany, Russia and everywhere. And I think they're all in solidarity with us.”