Management at the Purfleet spreads factory has presented Unite with what amounts to an ultimatum to accept devastating reductions in employment, pay and benefits, an increased working week with reduced possibilities for meaningful time off, large redundancies and a reduction of the bargaining unit for remaining employees. Throughout the twelve-week mandatory consultation period which began on October 24, the company’s proposals have been presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, with no consideration given to a number of wide-ranging proposals from the union side aimed at meeting management concerns for increased flexibility.
The proposed pay cuts are truly disastrous. Losses for a traditional machine operator would start at some GBP 6,000 annually, or 17% of current base pay. Loss of shift premiums and other allowances and performance benefits for some workers would the income loss to over 29% of current negotiated pay levels. Other employees could lose up to nearly GBP 15,000 of their current pay packet or a total loss of 31%, of which 21% would be from base salary.
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The loss in pension benefits based on the management proposed change would be similarly catastrophic, coming on top of the 2012 changes to the UK pension scheme. With this new burden, employees face an increasingly uncertain future.
At the very last minute management agreed to modify its demand for an 8-hour/3 shift scheme, which would have some workers performing up to 6 consecutive 8-hour night shifts and 3 weeks without a meaningful break from work. In its place came a 12-hour scheme proposed by the union, but with no time for full discussion of the implications of the new arrangements or any of the company’s other demands.
Abandoning the proposed shift scheme was offered on condition that the union adopt a “neutral” position on the company’s entire proposal, whose pay, terms and conditions had to be accepted as a whole in order to allegedly secure the future of the site. The union has consistently said it recognizes the need for flexibility and is open to negotiation but has run up against a stone wall. At the end of the extended consultation period, the company challenged the union’s “neutrality” and reverted to the original shift proposal! Unite responded that the union reserves the right to fully inform the members of the contents of the proposals and has no choice but to recommend rejection.
The company’s autocratic refusal to respond constructively to any of the union’s many proposals has been coupled to the insistence on removing some 30 employees – 14% of the current workforce – from the collectively bargained pay scheme by putting them on individual contracts with performance-based pay.
The union proposed to move from the current 39 hours to a 40-hour week, with increased flexibility on banked hours. The union offered a 3-year pay freeze for pre-2009 employees, with some adjustments to lessen pay inequality for the post-2009 employees hired on reduced pay. The company’s response was: “It’s not enough”, despite the cost savings.
The company won’t listen to, let alone bargain over, any of the union’s proposals and commitment to negotiate flexibility. Given the poisonous atmosphere created by management’s aggressive attitude, the company will have no difficulty filling its 40 proposed voluntary redundancies.
Unilever’s steadfast refusal to give meaningful consideration to the bargaining process, their veiled threats about the future of the site, and the unilateral decision to shrink the bargaining unit by putting a sizeable number of employees on individual contracts constitute a concerted attack on basic trade union rights, rights which Unilever claims to respect. Unilever’s insistence on unilaterally reclassifying jobs to eliminate accumulated skills, seniority and experience has already generated conflict and led to a strike in South Africa. The drastic cuts now unilaterally demanded at Purfleet will not be limited to that site.
Unite is planning to ballot for a full recommended rejection and will be preparing an appropriate response if the company continues to reject in practice rights it claims to respect in Unilever policy statements.