Belfast Hovis strike
Workers win concessions but settlement falls short of pay parity
1 June 2021
Hovis workers picket the Belfast plant.(Image: Declan Roughan/PressEye)
Last week (24/05/21) workers at the Hovis bread bakery in Belfast ended their 11-day strike after union members voted in favour of a new pay deal. The trade unions involved (Unite & the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union) say that the settlement includes a 4% pay increase per year for two years, with the first increase backdated to January 2021. Sean McKeever, regional officer for Unite, hailed the outcome of the industrial action as a “huge victory for these workers”; a view echoed by BFAWU official Laura Graham, who claimed that workers had achieved a “significant victory”.
To get a better sense of the strike and its outcome we need to examine the lead up to the strike and the issues involved. The central issue in this dispute was “pay parity”. This is a very common issue in labour disputes in the north (across both the public and private sectors) and points to the significant differential in wage rates between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This is particularly stark when it comes to workers who are employed in the same company or public service and are essentially doing the same job as their direct GB counterparts but for less pay. In the case of Hovis, it was estimated by trade unions that the differential was 10 per cent. This was the basis of their demand for a 10% pay increase. Hovis did not dispute there was a differential. Indeed, its claim that bringing wages in Belfast into line with those in GB would mean a 15% pay rise suggests and even wider gap. However, the main thrust of company’s argument against parity - and one that is deployed most commonly by employers - is that wages are determined not by national pay rates but by local conditions. A spokesperson for the company stated its position very bluntly: “Our pay is dictated by local market conditions, but is set to be competitive with every comparable industry in that region.” On this basis Hovis made an offer of 3% each year for two years – an offer it believed was “fair and reasonable”.
A failure to reach agreement on pay saw the commencement of industrial action on the 14 May. What was notable is that this action took the form of an all-out indefinite strike. This sets it apart from the familiar work to rules and token one day strikes that are the standard in most disputes. The continuous eleven days of strike action made the Hovis dispute the most sustained industrial struggle carried out by any group of workers in the north for many years.
In terms of shutting down production and preventing the movement of stored products it was very effective. There was no production at the Belfast facility during the strike and, as the days passed, there were increasing reports that Hovis bread products were missing from shelves in supermarkets and retail stores. Given that its Belfast operation produces 35% of all bread sold in Northern Ireland the consequences of the strike had a very visible impact. In the wake of the strike the company admitted that the dispute had “caused significant disruption to our customers and end-consumers”. What was a particularly effective tactic for the workers was the maintenance of a 24 hour picket at the site. This impression is reinforced by the attempt (which was faced down) of the PSNI to use Covid regulations to have the picket removed.
It is clear that the management at Hovis underestimated the determination and militancy that workers would display in the fight for higher wages. However, the same can also be said of the trade unions. It is doubtful that officials wanted to engage in strike action and they would have been alarmed at how it was escalating. This is revealed in their statements in the wake of the strike which, while heaping praise on workers for their resolve, also expressed regret that it had taken place. Unite described the strike action as “entirely avoidable” while BFAWU said it was “unfortunate it took strike action to achieve this raise.” This completely ignores the fact that any concessions won by Hovis workers were a direct result of the strike action.
The official trade line was repeated by the various political figures who associated themselves with the strike. Most notable amongst these was People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll who congratulated the strikers but also claimed that “they should never have been forced to stand on a picket” particularity as they had carried out essential work during the pandemic. He said it was wrong that Hovis workers in Belfast were paid less and he was “glad they have won”.
So did the workers at Hovis win a victory? To answer that we need to examine the settlement and compare it to what was demanded by trade unions and what was initially offered by the employer. We should remember that this dispute was around the principle of pay parity and that unions demanded a 10% rise to bring workers in Belfast line with those in GB. In response the company offered a rise of 3% in this financial year and the next. Under the terms of the settlement workers will receive a 4% rise this year and next with this year’s rise being backdated to the start of January. While this certainly represents an advance for workers at Belfast Hovis it does not achieve pay parity. Also, a rise over two years (which is eroded by inflation) has less value than an uplift within one year. What has been achieved is a partial victory. It shouldn’t be dismissed (particularly given the effort required to achieve it) but at the same time it shouldn’t be overstated or presented as something it’s not.
The issue of parity, in terms of pay rates and working conditions, is primarily political in nature. Workers in Northern Ireland are worse off, not because of the region’s geographic position, but because the labour movement here (and across Ireland as a whole) has been divided and thereby weakened by partition and sectarianism. The northern state was founded upon sectarianism and sectarianism continues to be the main regulator of every area of society including relations between labour and capital. Without challenging the root cause of what divides workers, the potential of trade union struggles, even on the terms they set for themselves, is limited.
This is compounded by the fact that the trade union leaderships are fully in support of the political structures that are hostile to their members and to the working class more generally. For example, on the issue pay parity, it was the Stormont executive that broke that in relation to the wages of staff within the health and education sectors. More broadly, the promotion of Northern Ireland as a low-cost location for foreign investors (which is explicit about lower wage levels), is the central blank of the Executive’s economic strategy. If the trade leaderships support this, how can they make an argument for parity?
There is an obvious contradiction here and we have seen many times how it is resolved. This has come out most clearly around the numerous efforts the efforts to preserve up or restore the Stormont structures which have seen various agreements cobbled together. What was common to all these agreements is the programme of austerity that was attached to them. The trade unions have supported nearly all of them, except for the Stormont House Agreement (2014), which they formally opposed. However, this was position was reversed within a year with ICTU’s endorsement of the even more pro-austerity Fresh Start Agreement (2015). In a statement the body said it was endorsing the agreement in the belief that running an “oppositional campaign against our own politicians” would be “catastrophic”. The trade unions have endorsed every subsequent agreement and its accompanying austerity programme, including the most recent New Decade, New Approach (2020). In an earlier period was claimed the local political institutions would defend workers now workers are being asked to make sacrifices to preserve these institutions.
The Hovis strike, and the walkouts at various food processing plants over safety concerns around Covid last year, show the potential for militancy amongst sections of the working class in the north of Ireland. As society emerges from the pandemic employers will be seeking to recover losses while workers will resist a return to the old normal. These are the dynamics that can produce a rising level of class struggle in the near future.
The experience of the Hovis strike shows that workers have to fight hard to make even modest advances. When such action becomes more generalised it will inevitably raise more general questions. These will relate to the role of the trade union leaderships and also the sectarian nature of the state in which we live in. The history of the labour movement in the north of Ireland, which has seen upsurges in working class militancy followed by heightened sectarian conflict, illustrates the potential for both advances and retreats that exist under conditions of rising class struggle. The role of socialists in this struggle is to raise awareness of that history and use it to shape a working-class programme that will provide a firm foundation for unity. Acting as cheerleaders for trade union leaders and ignoring or downplaying the divisions that exist amongst workers is not up to the task we face.