By Ann Orr

In May, Hovis workers in Belfast won an 8% pay increase over two years through a determined, all-out strike that lasted for 11 days. The actions of this workforce are an inspiration to others in the sector and beyond, as employers across the private and public sectors are trying to use the economic crisis sparked by Covid to attack wages, terms and conditions, or as an excuse for miserly pay-offers.

This was the first strike at Hovis in nearly 30 years. Socialist Party members, who visited the picket lines throughout the strike, were told by workers about their anger, built up over years of low ‘pay-rises’, a significant wage-gap compared to colleagues in Britain, and actions by the company during the pandemic. Like with other workers who Covid highlighted as being essential for the functioning of society, the praise and compliments for “feeding the nation” quickly disappeared as the company tried to say they couldn’t afford more than a 3% increase – that after the company reported pre-tax profits of £19.2 million at the end of 2020.

Workers’ action hits bosses’ profits

As the Socialist Party stated during the dispute, when it comes to pay-rises for workers, management claims of “can’t” generally mean “don’t want to”. But Hovis workers showed that it is possible to force change when we organise and take determined action. By striking, they hit the company’s income and reminded the bosses that it is the workers who make their profits. Management stopped working from home during the dispute, and even appeared on-site over the weekend, but could do nothing to produce bread! 

Keeping wages as low as possible is a standard strategy by bosses to maximise profits. Hovis perfectly illustrates the limitations of the capitalist system which, even in an essential area like the food industry, is motivated by the desire to make and increase profits. As one striker commented, his proposal to deliver bread to hospital canteens at the beginning of the pandemic was unsurprisingly ignored. 

If this company was publicly owned and democratically run in the interest of providing affordable, sustainable and healthy food, the situation would be completely different. Workers would collectively control their work; they could supply schools and workplace canteens with bread at low cost; and many more options would be available. Capitalism’s drive for profits means the current system is a barrier to such possibilities, which would benefit not only the workforce but working-class people generally.

Challenging the race to the bottom

Like elsewhere, Hovis workers have seen a gradual worsening of terms and conditions. Several years ago, a consolidated pay-deal was passed, scrapping additional pay-rates for anti-social hours – an important change for a workplace that operates 24/7! Now, workers in different parts of the company and even in the same sectors are on different contracts, and Hovis – like other employers – is using agency staff consistently. As we pointed out during the strike, this is a well-established tactic to weaken union organisation in workplaces and must be resisted, with workers collectively organising to improve overall terms and conditions. 

In the past, Hovis had training programmes and apprenticeships, which are now nearly unheard of, meaning the essential skills of this workforce are not being passed on to a younger generation of workers. This was also a major issue during the Harland & Wolff shipyard occupation, where workers won their demand of restarting apprenticeship programmes. It further underlines both the lack of options for young workers but also that, collectively, we can challenge this!

Solidarity in action

These workers – organised through their unions, Unite and the Bakers’ Union – showed that, when we organise and stand united, we can win. The strike was successful because of their united stance and the strength of feeling on the issue at stake. The rejection of the bosses’ initial, slightly increased offer by 84% of the workers after over a week of the strike was a strong signal to the company that the workforce was not to be underestimated, and that they were determined to win greater concessions. Undoubtedly, this was a reason for the improved offer which followed two days later. Even this final and much-improved offer was still rejected by 20% of the workforce, indicating that some felt they could achieve even more. 

Discussions about unions co-ordinating future pay claims across different employers in the sector should be progressed, and would further strengthen the power of workers. A glimpse of the impact of solidarity was also given when striking Queen’s University creche workers visited the Hovis picket on the first day of the strike – an act of support that was then returned by Hovis strikers a few days later, when they joined the NIPSA members at their protest at the gates of the university.

Build a united fightback against this rotten system

A lesson for the wider workers’ movement from the Hovis dispute is that polite negotiations with employers about wages or terms and conditions are not sufficient, especially in the current context. Organising on the ground, bringing together unionised and currently non-unionised workers, and building strong relationships between unions are vital in preparing for the further battles ahead. 

With the economic fall-out of the pandemic and the already weak position of the economy here, we are likely to see further attacks on workers’ terms and conditions, or unacceptably low pay-offers. With the phasing out of the furlough scheme – which, at the beginning of 2020, supported 1 in 7 jobs – a wave of job losses is also likely in coming weeks. Companies across the UK have turned to fire-and-rehire tactics to push wages, terms and conditions downward. This is a particular danger for young workers, who are over-represented in the services sector and in precarious jobs. Challenging individual employers through workplace organising and also strike action will be essential. We also have to recognise that a broader, socialist challenge is necessary to this capitalist system, which is not only resulting in gross inequalities but also proving it is incapable of offering a decent future for young people and workers.