Clarks picket. Street, Somerset. October 2021. Photo: Sean Coote Clarks picket. Street, Somerset. October 2021. Photo: Sean Coote

Clarks strikers are sceptical about management’s figures and standing firm against intimidation, reports Sean Coote

Community Union members at Clarks Distribution Centre in Street, Somerset, are in their fifth week of strike action over the fire-and-rehire tactics deployed by the new owners, Hong Kong based LionRock Capital.

Since March this year, the private equity firm has had a 51% controlling interest in the business. Previously, the Clark family had run the company as majority shareholders since 1825.

The new contract terms presented to warehouse staff include a reduction in pay from £11.16 to £9.50 per hour, amounting to more than 3K a year, an end to paid thirty-minute meal breaks and daily ten-minute tea breaks (spent queuing at the vending machine; kettles are barred), as well as cuts to sick pay and redundancy entitlements.

I spoke to Community Union rep and picket organiser Trevor Stephens (an employee of seventeen-years standing) about the current situation. Many of his colleagues, some of whom have been with Clarks for as long as forty years, face the very real prospect of losing their homes. The pressure on families is enormous, and the mental health of staff members is being severely affected. An employee, who hadn’t had a day off sick in 34 years, collapsed and cracked open his head due to the stress of the situation, and was signed off for five weeks.

The year of the pandemic saw Clarks register a £17.2 million profit. That’s apparently now been turned into a loss of £180 million, despite investment in the region of £100 million. How such figures are collated, and how money is shifted around, remains a source of suspicion and mystery to Trevor and his colleagues. Given their treatment at the hands of Clarks new owners, it’s not hard to see how this happens.

Trevor had just returned from his individual ‘consultation’ with management. After nearly four weeks, strikers have to begin working their notice period if they fail to sign up to the new terms, and ‘after twelve weeks we can get sacked for taking industrial action’. Despite the very real hardship, something like 70% of warehouse staff have so far refused to sign.

The management line is that the new contracts are about equity and fairness, but as Trevor points out, ‘we’re the only ones getting a pay-cut – all the ones in HQ, and all the corporate, didn’t have their pay touched at all’. Neither are floor supervisors seeing their wages slashed.

Pickets have reported seeing ‘many new faces’ driving into the premises. Those ill-informed or desperate enough to cross the picket line have apparently been given three-month contracts on the minimum wage.

Solidarity and fightback

The local community has stepped up. ‘We’re thankful for the support we get out here.’ As well as a cacophony of car horns, individuals and business such as Iceland, have been generous in their donations of food and drink, and postal workers have refused to cross the picket line.

Trevor and all the men that gave me their time are aware of the forces arrayed against them, but they’re in no mood to give up the fight. They’re certainly not alone in their struggle. A TUC poll this year found that one in ten workers have been faced with fire-and-rehire tactics. Trade-union membership is on the up, as is the militancy that’s the correct and only response in the face of the bullying, intimidation, and greed of bosses nationwide.

By refusing to accept that it’s those on the shop floor that should take the hit for management and structural failings beyond their control, the members of Community Union are an example to the left, and to working-class people everywhere.

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