Workers at CHEP Pallets in Manchester have been on strike since before Christmas and are currently balloting for a further round of industrial action. CHEP is a multinational company making and repairing pallets for the logistics industry.
Socialist Alternative spoke to Gary Walker, Unite shop steward, in a personal capacity.
Can you tell us what the strike’s about?
It comes down to pay. The offer for 2021 was derisory, it came in at 2%, we find that unacceptable, particularly after working through the pandemic, where we were key workers. We feel that over a period of time we have not been in line with where the company are in terms of profits, and, given the physical nature of the job that we do, we don’t find that acceptable.
Where have the profits come from?
CHEP basically have a European footprint of over a third of the market. Everybody’s ordering stuff online. One of the biggest customers is Heineken, people didn’t stop drinking through the pandemic, you might say people drank even more! The company have made a big thing of how important we are to the supply chain, we’ve kept the supermarkets stocked up.
When did the strike start?
The strike actually started on the 3 December, two days a week initially, Friday and Monday, and then we went all out on the 17 December. We’ve been all out ever since, that’s five days a week, 24 hours a day. We picket from 6.00 am Monday morning and we finish 6.00 am Saturday morning, across the three shifts. We’ve got a brazier, proper ‘old school’, and we’re learning on the job all the time!
What sort of solidarity have you had?
The support and solidarity we’ve had has been unbelievable. To be honest with you, I didn’t expect it, you have an image in your head of what a strike entails but I didn’t believe for one minute we’d get the support we’ve had. We’ve had trades councils in Bolton, Wigan, Manchester, trade unions like RMT, councillors, MPs like Rebecca Long Bailey, Kate Green the local MP, just loads of people, it’s unbelievable the people that came. We had a solidarity rally the other Friday morning with 100 people. We had Wigan Trades Council down recently, they want us to go to their meeting and they’re talking about having an event with maybe a couple of hundred people. We’ve had loads of support.
How do you see the future of the dispute?
We’re at a bit of a standstill at the moment. We had a senior director down last week and he did say it would be resolved but he didn’t put anything on the table, we’re still stuck at the 2% so they’ve gone away scratching their heads. Ultimately we’ve set our red line on what we’re not willing to move away from. Inflation’s going up all the time, it was 7.1% the day of the meeting, the next day it was up to 7.5 and he was told in no uncertain terms that the longer it goes on the more our expectations keep rising.
What do you think about Sharon Graham’s plans for the union?
I think it’s brilliant, I listened to Sharon on a Zoom call the other week and I liked the sound of some of the things that she said about said with regards to challenging companies, about being more workplace-focused as a union rather than being a bit political. I liked what she said about building some sort of alliance between unions in this country but not only this country but going international, with Amazon having a big market share in America, Great Britain and Germany, she sees the benefits of an alliance to take them on, it could be the biggest fight the unions have ever had to take on a company that big. Going forward it sounded a really positive move.
Have you had any contact with other CHEP plants?
The only other plant we’ve had contact with is the Pontefract, Yorkshire, site and contact with the current trade union reps there goes back really to two years. Not all workplaces are at the same stage but we’re hoping that our strike can inspire them to look at us and take the next step.
There are other sites, are there?
Yes, there are other sites but I’ve not been able to arrange any contact with them. There are eight depots similar to us around the UK but we’ve not been in contact yet and this is definitely something that we do need to look at going forward…
… and maybe get a combine committee? …
… yeah, get a combine, get the company to realise that this is not just Manchester, the director did try alluding to the fact that we’re the only ones making a stand, almost as if to say ‘all the other depots are happy’ but we know they’re not. Pontefract have accepted the offer but we know we’ve accepted offers in the past that we weren’t happy with.
Do you think there’s a new mood among working-class people?
100% yes. The reason why, I believe, is the working classes in this country have been lied to that much, some of them have become immune to it, but I think over a period of time now, they’re starting, and I think Covid has played a big part in it. Covid has allowed a little bit of a light to shine on some of these companies, especially with people who’ve been working during the pandemic, listening to stories about how important they are, but not seeing a reward in their pay packet or better conditions of work. People are just sick of it and we’ve had over a decade of Tory rule which doesn’t look like changing in the near future. I just think workers have had enough, that’s why I hope that we’re actually inspiring others by doing what we’re doing. I didn’t realise when we first came out, I didn’t realise the impact we were having, but seeing the support we’ve had, and listening to what people have said when they’ve come to visit the picket, and to see people driving past us, beeping their car horns. Maybe they’re driving into work and they’re thinking the same thing, ’hang on a minute, they’re out there doing it, why can’t we?’
Our American comrades have been fighting Amazon in Seattle, where the company HQ is, fighting to defend a socialist councillor who introduced an Amazon Tax and whom Bezos and others have tried – and failed – to get rid of. What do you think about Amazon?
To me Bezos is the ultimate example of the capitalist system. To put it in a nutshell he seems to be hellbent on taking over the world, he’s getting his fingers in everything. You hear these statements like ‘own nothing, be happy’ yet these small groups of people, these billionaires seem to want to own everything! If unions aren’t in these workplaces, fighting for workers then these are worrying times. I know that they’re trying to keep unions out in Great Britain in particular, when you hear some of the stories about people being afraid to take toilet breaks because they might miss their targets, where does it go from there?
What do you think about the ‘greenwash’ from Amazon, the claim that they’re an eco-friendly company?
I find it laughable. He sits on his yacht in the middle of the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, preaching about climate change, then he’s flying his rockets into space, people find it laughable. To be honest, this sort of stuff is just fuelling people’s anger. I attended the Kill the Bill march in Manchester, people are coming out now, I looked around and there were a lot of young faces. I’m 40 and I used to think to myself that maybe young people weren’t engaging as much as me, and they are now, we’ve seen it. It’s very easy to get stuck in a rut with your job, you go to work, you do your job, you have your family life, you sort of switch off, but doing something like this, it’s been something like a reawakening on a personal level where it’s made me realise that there is a movement, there are people rising up.
Would you see yourself as a socialist Gary?
I was brought up as a socialist. I do have a lot of socialist views but I don’t particularly class myself as left wing nor right wing either. To be honest I got a bit disillusioned in the 2000s under the Blair era. We all believed in the 90s that Blair was going to drive something forward, my dad was a big supporter of Blair. I think a lot of working-class people feel let down. It’s worrying with the way the Labour Party has gone and the way it’s moving now because they seem to be purging the left, with Corbyn and Long Bailey all side-lined now. This new brigade of Starmer and Reeves coming through doesn’t fill me with much hope that the Labour Party’s got anything left.
Do we need something new, do you think?
I believe we do, yes. The policies at the last election with Corbyn, I don’t think they were bad policies, it was the way the media portrayed Jeremy, but under Starmer I don’t think we’ve got a cat in hell’s chance.