Outside a giant B&Q warehouse in Worksop Frances O’Grady is braving the icy rain to talk chat to members of the Unite union fresh from an 11-week long dispute.
This is classic red wall territory. Worksop forms part of Bassetlaw, the Nottinghamshire constituency won by the Conservatives at the 2019 election by more than 14,000 votes. The distribution centre is on the site of what was once the Manton colliery and – in a move redolent with symbolism – a Unite picket line was set up where miners had gathered during the year-long pit strike of 1984-5.
There is one crucial difference. Whereas the miners eventually lost their industrial battle, O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, is greeted by workers celebrating victory. Having balloted to reject a 4% pay offer, Unite members at B&Q’s main UK distribution centre stood firm. Eventually, the 450 warehouse workers secured a 6.7% pay deal backdated to July. With recognition and bonus payments on top they will receive the equivalent of a 10.75% rise.
“The workers from B&Q are a great example of what is possible, affordable and just,” says O’Grady. “They should never have had to go on strike to get a fair share but they were determined. They were in it for the long haul.”
O’Grady is visiting Nottinghamshire to see for herself how workers are coping with Britain’s cost of living crisis and dismisses the idea that excessive pay rises are making the problem worse.
“It is plain to see that it is not pay rises that are driving inflation. According to the Bank of England’s own estimates real [inflation-adjusted] wages are going to fall again this year. Working families are victims of inflation, not the cause of it,” she says.
“I don’t see wages taking off. I don’t know how anybody can make that case. I don’t find the comparisons with the 1970s convincing. If we don’t get wages rising again we will hold back economic growth. There is plenty of evidence that working families are really struggling, and not just low-paid workers. Middle-income people are feeling it too.”
Comparisons with the 1970s are certainly inappropriate when it comes to the strength of organised labour. Trade union membership is less than half of its 13.2 million peak in 1979, and down to 13% in the private sector, according to the latest government figures.
But although strikes have been made more difficult by measures passed by Conservative administrations, it is still possible for workers to take action if they go through the necessary legal hoops. In recent months, two factors have emboldened workers to stand up to their employers: shortages of labour and making ends meet.
At a Worksop hotel, O’Grady listens to workers from the Riverside bakery in Nottingham explain why they are balloting for industrial action. Current rates of pay for operatives who make quiches for big supermarket chains including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer are £9.02 an hour – 11p above the minimum wage.
From April, the bakery workers have been offered £9.61 an hour – again 11p above the minimum wage – but the employers have sought to claw back some of the increase by pegging premium rates at the weekend at the old £9.02 an hour rate. A spokesperson for The Compleat Food Group said increases of between 6.5% and 9.5% to basic rates represented “a very favourable offer”.
Results of the ballot will be known on Tuesday, but the union is expecting a big majority in support of action. Cheryl Pidgeon, Unite’s regional officer for the East Midlands, said: “I’m really proud of them. I’m really proud they are fighting back. The company says nobody else is getting this, but nobody else stood and fought.
“The workers at this site have been key workers throughout the pandemic, feeding the nation whilst risking their lives at work. The company refuse to open the books, but we know they made profits last year as the volumes went up and workers were being run ragged re: production requirements.”
O’Grady says the bakery dispute is an example of a company looking to fund a wage increase by redistributing the pay bill so that workers are worse off. She says the big-name supermarket chains need to stop turning a blind eye to what is going on.
“I don’t know how whoever thought of it sleeps at night. All those who are supplied by the bakery need to take a share of the responsibility,” she says.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent energy prices soaring even higher, the Bank of England was forecasting a record 2% drop in living standards this year. Andrew Bailey, the Bank’s governor, was slapped down by 10 Downing Street for saying workers needed to show pay restraint to help tackle inflation.
O’Grady is on the Bank’s court of directors and will not talk directly about Bailey’s comments, but says in general terms there is a danger of people in power being out of touch with people’s lives. The list of out-of-touch people, in the TUC general secretary’s view, includes Bassetlaw’s Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, who told a Unite member questioning why he had not backed a VAT cut on energy bills to save £15 a month by cancelling their union membership.
“There is nothing left to squeeze”, she says. “With strong unions, working people at least have a chance of a fair shot. If you set out to weaken unions then you are deliberately weakening the bargaining power of working people. When I go out on the road I get angry but I also get encouraged. People have to believe we can win but we have to organise.”
One of those organising low-paid workers is Vicky Wass, a care worker and GMB union rep for Bassetlaw. “I have got members going to food banks or doing two jobs, and even then, finding they can’t make ends meet.”
Wass’s message is a simple one. For many workers it is a question of eat or heat, which may explain the rumblings of discontent in red wall seats.
• This article was amended on 7 March 2022. An earlier version was incorrect when it referred to Bassetlaw’s Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, and said he “told the B&Q workers they would be better off accepting the 4% and cancelling their union membership”. In fact Clarke-Smith told a Unite member questioning why he had not backed a VAT cut on energy bills to save £15 a month by cancelling their union membership.