I’ve been following with interest the spate between US owned ASDA and the GMB union, it’s an issue which has great potential for localised employment disputes to become wrapped up in national and international politics.
For anyone not familiar with the row in February this year the retailer was fined Â£850,000 by an Employment Tribunal for breaking trade union laws by offering a pay rise to 340 workers at a depot in Washington, Tyne & Wear if changes were made to working conditions. The union accused the company “of trying to bribe their way to a union free company.”
At the time the company pointed out that the staff concerned worked for a depot they bought and that ASDA “protected the workers’ existing terms and conditions.”
“After many requests for them to be brought into line with an Asda owned and operated depot close by we gave them the opportunity by ballot whether they supported the move. They voted against any changes and were kept on the existing terms.”
Then in April this year the company agreed to recognise the union averting the threat of a strike. However the GMB wants to negotiate on national basis for all their members but the two sides disagree on how many members there are. This disagreement is the cause of the new strike threat.
Initially the company was bullish about the possibility of a strike saying it would do all it “lawfully can” to stop the strike disrupting their business – not an unreasonable stance for any business to take. This prompted the union to remind the company, and employment agencies, that it’s against the law to break a strike using agency workers.
ASDA claims there were “serious flaws in the ballot process with people who don’t even work for Asda being sent ballot papers” which they “have tried raising this with the union but they have ignored us.” and so the company is asking the courts to stop next Friday’s walkout.
As everyone reading this probably knows, ASDA is owned by the US retail giant WALMART which in December was fined $172 million for failing to give staff who worked more than six hours an unpaid 30 minute lunch break. The company is also facing a raft of lawsuits in the US including a class action involving more than a million current and former female workers who accuse the firm of discriminating against women over pay and promotions.
Unlike that of the parent company, the ASDA brand is highly respected in the UK and the low cost offerings of the chain are a real boon to those on lower incomes – here in Southwark the Old Kent Road branch has offered local residents their first real alternative to the nearby Tesco store.
The company has helped create large numbers of jobs, often in employment black spots and recently offered staff two weeks unpaid leave for the World Cup.
Of course any irregularities in strike ballots need to be properly investigated by the courts but the danger for the company is that a combination of ever growing anti-Americanism and a run of employment dispute related headlines will make it easier for their opponents to claim they are trying to import their parent’s dubious approach to worker’s rights.
Other blogs covering this issue: