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Chep strike

Chep strike. Photo: Chris Neville

After 17 weeks of continuous strike, Chep workers are determined to keep fighting until they win and they need all of our solidarity, writes Chris Neville

In Trafford Park, Greater Manchester, Unite members who work for Chep have now been on continuous strike for over 17 weeks, the longest-running strike since the union was formed in 2007.

For those who don't know, Chep supplies pallets to other companies. If you've ever worked in a warehouse, you will be familiar with their distinctive blue colour. They are widely accepted in the UK as the supplier of the best quality pallets which they rent out to companies, maintaining ownership and repairing on return. Their business model of reusing their main product boosts their green credentials. They proudly proclaim themselves as sustainable and part of the "circular economy".

Of course, pallets don't repair themselves. This is done by a dedicated team of workers at their depots across the UK and indeed the world and it is tough, physical work. Chep is a massive, global company with operations in over 40 countries and business is booming, with the UK operation netting £70 million in profits last year.

At the Trafford Park depot, after grafting through Covid and seeing how busy the company was and with inflation steadily rising, the workers who repair the pallets decided to ask for a fair pay rise: 5.8%. Chep said no and offered 1.8% and then upped it to 2%. Incensed, the workers decided to ballot for strike and went out, on a 75% vote, initially for four days in December with the threat of continuous action should they not get their deal.

Needless to say, Chep wouldn't budge so the strike did end up running 24 hours a day, Monday to Friday, covering all three shifts. After the initial 12 weeks ended without a deal, they balloted again and got a whopping 94% yes vote.

Now in week 17, and with negotiations still at a stalemate, the prospect of another ballot for a further 12 weeks looms. The employer seems to view this as short term pain for long term gain. If they can quash the Trafford Park worker's demand for a pay rise, they can show the other depots what will happen if they push for one. On the other hand, if the Trafford Park workers win, they lead the way for other depots and indeed other workers to use as an example to back up their case for a fair pay rise. More importantly, they will show that striking workers can win.

Unite says that for Chep to make a deal and end the dispute would cost £67k or 0.01% of last year's profits. Unite has members at other depots who have apparently already accepted lower agreements. 17 weeks is a long time for any dispute to run and whilst the strength and determination of the workers themselves must be praised, questions need to be asked about the union's strategy to assist in putting pressure on the company to meet the union's demands.

Unite's tactic of leverage to assist strikes doesn't really seem to have been used to any great effect besides a few photographs of Unite officials holding banners outside some of Chep's customers. Depots where the union is weak, should be seeing a "tanks on the lawn" approach of organising with Unite talking to every worker at the gates, signing them up for membership, linking the reps with the other depots and coordinating further industrial action. We saw with the British Gas dispute what happens when workers are left isolated. That can't be allowed to happen again.

The strongest element of this strike is the workers. For most of them, this is their first strike. They have simply had enough of the company taking the piss with below-inflation pay rises over the years. This strike has been years in the making and some serious work has gone into recruiting members. Speak to them on the picket line and there are wonderful stories told over the bonds that have been forged during their time outside.

Particularly impressive has been the work of the picket supervisor, Gary. He speaks candidly of his experience at Chep and in the union. In a couple of years, he has gone from disillusioned member to militant organiser, driven by class-consciousness and with a fantastic tactical instinct. There was a brilliant online rally held by the Manchester Trades Council this week where Gary explained how much he has learned and developed as a result of this strike, paying praise to all those who have supported them.

Solidarity has not been in short supply. Various trades councils in the area have put events on, strikers have been invited to many meetings as guest speakers and the picket receives lots of visitors. Like other high profile strikes, this has helped bring trade unionists and activists together which will certainly be beneficial for the future. There is a resurgence of the constituent parts in the Greater Manchester Association of Trades Councils and the strike has provided a base for that.

I've heard on the picket line that one of the managers said at the start of the strike they wouldn't last four weeks. All signs are they are ready to do 36 if they need to. Every effort must now be made to stand beside these workers if they have to re-ballot for another 12 weeks.

They are suffering financially so please ask your union branch to donate to their strike fund: Unity Bank NW/1 Account 20217873. Sort code 60-83-01. If you can, get down to their picket line too. They are out from 6 am on Mondays to 6 pm Fridays at Village Way, Trafford Park, Manchester, M17 1HR.

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