Asda hatched secret plan to sack union members

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The Independent Online

Asda and one of Tony Blair's former advisers plotted to dismiss a group of the supermarket chain's employees if they refused to give up union rights, according to e-mails disclosed in proceedings bought against the supermarket by the GMB union.

An internal management memorandum declares that any employees failing to sign up to a new "modern" agreement at the company's depot in Washington, Tyne & Wear, should be removed from the workplace "as soon as possible". Tim Allan, the head of the public relations firm Portland and a former deputy to Alastair Campbell at No 10, explicitly agreed with his clients.

Mr Allan wrote back to Asda that it would be better to be clear about the consequences of a failure to sign up rather than resort to a "fudge". Mr Allan, still close to senior Labour ministers, said the strategy would make "victory easy to manage". He added: "We shouldn't have a situation where people can claim they did not know the consequences of the ballot."

Last month Asda was forced to pay £850,000 in compensation to staff at its Washington centre for unlawfully offering them a financial inducement to vote away the union's bargaining rights. It emerged that the company was also consideringdismissing "hardy refuseniks", as Marie Gill, the head of human resources for Asda's distribution network, says in her e-mail to Mr Allan.

In the event of a 70 per cent Yes vote, her memo says: "Any colleague who refuses to sign the new contract will be given notice to terminate their employment.... We may have a group of hardy refusniks [sic] who cause some disruption - and they may get some sympathy from the rest of the workforce. Our strategy would be to give them a couple of weeks to sign up and if they refuse we could then terminate and pay them in lieu of notice - thus getting them off the site asap."

The revelations come after a decision by the GMB to press ahead with a strike ballot among staff at the group's 19 warehouses.

Fraser Kemp, a senior Labour MP,tabled an early day motion in the Commons yesterday congratulating the GMB on its successful legal action against Asda to protect union rights.

The Employment Tribunal in Newcastle said material distributed by Portland to Asda was "very hostile to trade unions and highly disparaging of the process of collective bargaining".

Paul Kenny, the acting general secretary of the GMB, said: "The tribunal nailed Portland as a union-buster, these e-mails nail Tim Allan. This is disgraceful considering he worked in No 10 for a Labour Government."

A spokesman for Asda said the e-mails between Ms Gill and Mr Allan were "simply an exchange" as to the possible actions if employees voted for "The Modern Alternative" and the minority did not want to respect the wishes of the majority. "Colleagues did not vote for this package and therefore no changes to working practices took place. So all the e-mail refers to, is a hypothetical situation that never arose," the spokesman said.

A spokesman for Portland said it would not comment on advice given to clients.