'Second-class citizens': unions go to the wire in battle with Asda

'We can't let this drag on for 10 more months. We need to make progress'
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The Independent Online

If someone said Asda and the unions were at each other's throats, you might assume they were actually talking about Wal-Mart. The supermarket chain's US owner has a resolutely anti-union stance in North America, even going so far as to close down branches where workers formed unions. The giant is viewed as all that is wrong with corporate America, by the labour movement at least.

But now Asda is embroiled in its own row, with the GMB union. Over the coming weeks, staff in the chain's 21 depots will be balloted over industrial action, while in the stores a consultative ballot is being carried out - with workers being quizzed about their attitudes towards the company.

"If you are a member of the union, you are almost regarded as a second-class citizen," argues Giovanna Holt, a senior organiser for the GMB who worked at Asda for 10 years. "Where you have a good, constructive working relationship with unions, it delivers in spades, but this company won't acknowledge it."

The GMB's complaints are many. It accuses Asda of trying to do away with collective bargaining in depots, and is unhappy about bonuses not being paid.

There have also been isolated incidents that the union sees as proof of a wider malaise. These include Asda having to compensate workers for racial discrimination at its Lutterworth branch in Leicestershire, and the £850,000 it had to pay staff at the Washington depot in Tyne & Wear for unlawfully offering them a financial inducement to give up union rights.

What the GMB fears most, however, is that Wal-Mart's policies are beginning to filter through. It claimed last autumn that it had discovered documents detailing a so-called "chip away" strategy aimed at removing unions from depots entirely.

"This is a multinational company with millions and millions of pounds of investment," says Ms Holt. "You can't fault the diversity and harassment policies on paper - they are first class. So if the managers are following them, why are we still winning settlements? It's not solely a UK thing. The Wal-Mart influence is there."

Asda, not surprisingly, paints a different picture. "They are making it their business to have a go at us," says a company spokeswoman. "We have been working with the GMB since the mid 1960s and it's worked really well. We fully admit that we sometimes make mistakes. We have come out and said how sorry we are. But they are starting to accuse us of things that aren't true."

The GMB says Asda is trying to abandon collective bargaining at its depot in Dartford, Kent. This it rebuts. "We're not trying to move away from collective bargaining but to adapt agreements," says the spokeswoman. "They haven't been changed for 10 years and there are parts that are now actually illegal."

Talks got under way in Dartford last April and, the spokes- woman claims, there remain just "a few sticking points". "We said, 'we cannot let this drag on for another 10 months. We need to make progress and get this new agreement in place'."

It's all in the telling, of course: the GMB accuses management of threatening to tear up the bargaining agreement if workers failed to sign the new deal by a specific date.

Although most of the rows have concerned Dartford and Washington, a national ballot is under way, with the union seeking a "full national recognition agreement" and payment of bonuses. The timing could not be worse. Asda has struggled recently to fight off Tesco and a resurgent J Sainsbury and it emerged last month that sales and profits targets had been missed for the third successive quarter.

"Asda has an awful lot on its plate," says Richard Hyman, the chairman of retail consultancy Verdict. "It hasn't been firing on all cylinders for 18 months or so. So having to deal with trade unions is not an ideal addition. It must be a big source of irritation for senior management."

Neither side is prepared to back down and that, arguably, is a bigger risk for Asda. Many of its customers will be union members, and with the row being played out so publicly, against the backdrop of the anti-union Wal-Mart, they could have a lot of sympathy for the cause.

Yet consumers don't always have the courage of their convictions. As Mr Hyman points out: "An awful lot of people in Britain today are sympathetic to the survival of local stores - but don't shop there. People will do what suits them."

Proof of that is in the mammoth profits churned out by Wal-Mart, despite the bad press. However, Asda operates in the union-friendly UK and does not have the option of ignoring workers' organisations. So it has to find a way of living with a union that has taken so furiously against it.