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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

On the High Street

by New Worker correspondent

DRIVERS and shunters working for Home Bargains, the Liverpool-based chain store whose 500 branches have replaced Woolworths on the nation’s high streets, have won an inflation-busting 11.4 per cent rise. As might be expected, the increase in hourly rates from £15.85 to £17.67 over two years comes with a cost — however workers have accepted changes to shift and payment schedules by a large majority.

Unite regional officer Steve Gerrard doffed his cap to respectfully thank Home Bargains for the deal that means drivers’ annual salaries will reach £36,278: “We believe this is an industry leading pay deal, which rewards our members for their hard work. It comes at a time when other retailers have demonstrated the greed ethos which has resulted in terms and conditions being slashed in other areas of the retail sector,” before concluding that: “Home Bargains is a very successful and well known high street chain. When it approached the workers to change their terms and conditions we negotiated a deal which worked for the staff and recognised the contribution they make to the effective operation of this huge network of stores.”

Also in the lower reaches of the retail sector, a long-running strike at Matalan has been called off. Since August at Matalan’s Northern Distribution Centre in Knowsley, Merseyside, more than 500 workers have been on strike after management made a pay offer that was in fact a real-terms pay cut. Some strikers had even erected tents outside the warehouse.

A new deal was voted on Monday resulting in workings agreeing to accept an a new deal, which GMB recommended its members to accept saying, in a joint statement: “Employees and their welfare has always been the focus and GMB and Matalan have been working hard together to resolve the issue.”

The victory was hard-won however. According to GMB senior organiser, Neil Holden, there have been 14 separate days of action since August, which often saw up to 300 members demonstrating at a picket line across any given week.

Workers first voted to walk out after management made a pay offer that would give some a worthless 1.5 per cent rise — “equivalent to a real-terms pay cut” that was described at the time as “frankly insulting”. Later GMB demanded a £135 back payment for each of its members. “A lot of members are quite upset. I’ve not seen a strike like it in 20 years,” Holden said. “Our members have lost more money than they are going to get back now, but this is principle. If Matalan get away with it this year, they can get away with it every year.”

Matalan claim they offered a 4.7 per cent increase in April, which was amongst the highest in the sector, but this would only meet the recent increase in the minimum wage.

The long strike has taken a toll on the workers. GMB branch secretary at the million square foot warehouse, Claire Hargreaves, told the Liverpool Echo that: “Some of them are going to food banks now. It’s appalling. It’s in work poverty and Matalan should be aiming to get away from that and not just pay a pittance all the time.”

One 54 year-old woman worker said that: “After 18 years I’m still on minimum wage — and that’s an insult”. She also added that: “They’ve taken that much off us — we used to get a monthly bonus and a quarterly bonus, they took that off. So all that’s gone because that’s what’s been in the pay deals. Last year they offered us four per cent but they took off 100 per cent attendance allowance. That would be £500 for some people who have been five years without a day off and they took that off it.”

Other workers were not impressed by an offer of a £25 voucher to spend in Matalan stores after weeks of missed pay.

There was worse news for the 2,900 employees of rival BonmarchÉ, which has collapsed into administration putting 318 stores at risk. At the same time, workers at another long-established chain store, Watt Brothers of Glasgow, faced immediate redundancy. Two hundred were made instantly redundant at 10 stores whilst only their Glasgow flagship store was kept open for a clearance sale to benefit vulture shoppers.

Whilst the retail trade is notorious for low pay, those who work in warehouses and deliver the goods can exert powerful leverage over the bosses who dread the sight of empty shelves. Short sharp continuous strikes are far more effective than days here and there.