Asda's escalating dispute with GMB turns into political row

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Asda's conflict with one of Britain's biggest unions has reached new heights as management threatened to scrap the organisation's negotiating rights at a second major depot in a dispute which has been taken to ministerial level.

The supermarket giant is threatening to tear up a bargaining agreement with the GMB general union at a key centre in Dartford, Kent, a week after being forced to pay £850,000 to another group of employees at Washington, Tyne and Wear, for unlawfully offering them a financial inducement to vote away the union's negotiating powers there.

Management is trying to introduce a new "modern" agreement at Dartford which the union believes will water down its ability to represent members and enforce a work rate which will cause muscular damage to employees. A senior manager has warned that the union will be "derecognised" a week tomorrow if it fails to sign up to the new arrangement.

A letter on 6 February from Marie Gill, Asda's head of industrial relations for the distribution network, to Jeff Goswell, GMB regional officer, says: "Unless we can make substantial progress within the next four weeks in negotiations concerning the new arrangement proposed for Dartford, the existing collective agreement between the GMB and Asda will have to be terminated." Fresh talks on the issue are due today.

Meanwhile, the dispute over the Washington depot turned into a political row over the activities of the public relations consultants Portland. The firm, founded by the former No 10 spin doctor Tim Allan, drew up anti-GMB leaflets at the Tyne and Wear centre before a ballot on union rights.

An employment tribunal judgment decided Portland's material was "very hostile to trade unions and highly disparaging of the process of collective bargaining".

Portland charged Asda £50,000 for its work including a £14,000 success fee. Mr Allan worked for Tony Blair for six years in the 1990s, including a year as Alastair Campbell's deputy in Downing Street.

Paul Kenny, the acting general secretary of the GMB, has urged the Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Culture and Media Secretary Tessa Jowell to reject invitations to attend events arranged by Portland.

Asda is also involved in a dispute with the GMB over the amount of work completed per shift at a warehouse in Wigan. Management wants each worker to increase his "daily pick rate" from 1,100 boxes to 1,400 - similar to a proposal at Dartford.

Each box weighs between two and 20 kilos depending on what they contain. The union argues that employees risk muscular injuries at the higher level and have called for arbitration.

A spokesman for Asda, which is owned by the US retail giant Wal-Mart, said: "All we've done is say that we don't want negotiations to drag on for another 10 months."

Mr Allan was unavailable for comment.