Camaraderie, organisation and doing the maths

Heart Unions Week: UniteLive looks back B&Q Wincanton pay win

Reading time: 6 min

This February marks the one year anniversary since 450 B&Q workers in Wincanton won their fight for fair pay after bravely striking for months. During Heart Unions week this week, UniteLive looks back at this key win.

The B&Q distribution centre in Bassetlaw, Nottinghamshire, is built on the remains of Manton Colliery. The colliery closed in 1994 but the industrial action that took part there during the 1984 miners’ strike is an indelible part of the area’s history.

The past is the past, however, and for most of the 450 Wincanton workers employed at the distribution centre, their decision to strike over poverty pay rates in November 2021 meant they were heading into worryingly uncharted territory.

The strike was a success and resulted in a 10.75 per cent pay rise. But during the four months it lasted it was up to Unite convenor Patrick McGrath and his team of reps to keep members’ morale up and the picket line solid. This is the story of how they did it.

“Before you even think about strike action, you’ve got to prove to the members that the dispute is winnable and the employers have got the finances to provide a decent pay rise. You’ve got to do your homework and get people onside,” explained Patrick.

With Wincanton recording profits of £47.3m during 2020 and some staff having to use foodbanks, the argument was strong enough to secure a vote for strike action. More daunting than agreeing on paper to strike, though, is showing your face on a picket line.

Patrick said, “People were frightened to come on the picket line at first. We kept saying ‘everything you’re doing is legal. We’re within the rules and they’re not going to sack 450 of us’. The key is to keep people informed and updated.”

Once people’s fears were allayed, the picket line would often see more than 200 people attending. The next challenge was getting people there at the right times and keeping attendance up as the dispute dragged on.

“It comes to down to the day to day. It’s not always going to be summer. We went out in November and it was freezing cold. It was about keeping people involved, having hot drinks and snacks on hand and making the picket lines interesting with music and visits from different supporters and the press,” said Patrick.

“The danger was that people would get bored and return to work – if you get one dwindling off someone else would follow. So we kept reminding them that it was winnable. The reps made sure they were going about taking to members – making each individual a part of the dispute. It worked for us.”

There were times when being on the picket line could be dispiriting, for example when the striking workers saw the amount of agency workers leaving the site after the end of the night shift.

Questions arose about the impact the strike was having when so many workers where still clocking on, “but we reminded people but that it was just one shift and on the others there’s nothing happening”.

“Camaraderie on the picket is important. It was suggested that we rota people for the picket line but we felt it was too stringent, we just wanted people to come and the best way to do that was to encourage,” Patrick said.

“We made sure there were lots of banners and flags and during the holidays and weekends people brought their kids down. When the kids were at school, people would come ten ‘til three.”

Even when a number of strikers had received fines from a private company for parking on a service road leading to the warehouse, where restrictions had never been enforced before, morale remained high.

“There was also a complaint about flags hanging from some railings apparently obstructing the footpath. But when the council official did an inspection he could see everyone was friendly and nothing was being obstructed. He even showed us where the service road boundary ended so people wouldn’t get tickets,” recalled Patrick.

Having a good humoured picket line helped to garner support from the passing public. It was also a direct rebuttal to criticism from Bassetlaw MP, Tory Brendan Clarke-Smith, who refused to support the strike and seemed “to have us all down as donkey-jacket wearing thugs”.

Nevertheless, some people did not want to join the picket line, but ‘what we achieved was keeping them on-board with the strike and not going into work’ said Patrick.

“During the dispute we kept going with branch meetings so people could come down and find out what was happening. At a normal branch meeting you might get a dozen, we were getting two or three hundred,” he said.

The result of the collective action was an over 10 per cent pay rise, as well as much more interest in individuals becoming an active member of the union.

Patrick said, “Before the majority of people would say well ‘I don’t get into trouble, I don’t need the union’. I think the dispute has been an eye opener. I’ve got people ringing me up and saying ‘when’s that branch meeting?’ who never used to attend at all. That’s great because every year now I want to be getting my members a decent pay rise and that requires everyone to pull together.”

By Ryan Fletcher