Coffin makers go on strike

Co-op coffin makers reject below 5 per cent pay offer

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It’s an increasingly familiar story – workers described as “essential” at the height of the pandemic, then quickly forgotten as the cost of living crisis takes hold, are now taking a stand by going on strike.

But the latest workforce to follow this trajectory had a particularly sombre – but crucial – duty as Britain’s death toll escalated due to Covid-19 – that of making coffins.

The 50-strong workforce at Co-operative Funeralcare’s Glasgow factory, the largest of its kind in Britain, rejected a pay offer of less than five per cent – at a time when the Retail Price Index of inflation stands at 12.6 per cent. The company claims it “offered all of our colleagues at the coffin factory a fair pay increase”, and that “the combined base pay and production bonus for roles within the Coffin Factory remain highly competitive”.

Workers began their strike on Monday morning with a picket outside the factory, and will remain on strike until Monday November 7. Unite has now given notice of a further week of strikes from November 14 to 21 – if talks beginning on Tuesday at conciliation service Acas fail to find an alternative way forward.

“Many workers are long serving and loyal to the Co-op and the work is seen as a career that matters to the community and not just a job,” says one striking Unite member. “Members take pride in the job they do and went above and beyond specifically during the pandemic. Members are fully aware of the importance of their contribution to families at a difficult time.”

The paltry pay offer is particularly galling because the Co-op claims to be a different kind of business. “The Co-op states that it’s ‘founded on a set of values and principles describing a different, fairer and better way of doing business’,” the member says. “It’s really hard to see that just now. The current cost of living crisis is really affecting all of us at work, and it’s disappointing the way the Co-op have responded to this and also disappointing how they have approached these negotiations with it – taking the threat of industrial action before they would come to the table. We hope that Funeralcare will live up to their values – but sadly we are yet to see it.”

The mandate for strike action came in August, when 96 per cent of workers voted to down tools on an 86 per cent turnout. Bosses then made the offer of less than five per cent – which was rejected by Unite members in a ballot which closed in mid- October.

Unite Scotland regional officer Willie Thomson says, “They’ve been faced with a significantly below inflation pay offer from the employer, and the worst cost of living crisis in 40 years. The cost of fuel, the cost of heating, the cost of food, the cost of mortgages are all rising. Our members are asking for the employer to recognise those circumstances and make an offer that’s higher.

“Our members were essential workers during the pandemic, they were working when a lot of us were at home. They were ensuring that there was a significant supply of coffins at that time, and now they feel let down by the employer – an employer that as a co-operative like to say they do things a wee bit different. But that’s not something that our members recognise at this moment in time.

“We have given notice to the employer today of a further week of action, that will start on November 14, so really it’s incumbent on the Co-operative to get back round the table and to make an offer that can resolve this dispute.”

He says the Co-operative Group’s failure to recognise the cost of living crisis in spite of its historic connections to the trade union movement was “the most disappointing thing” about the dispute.

“From speaking to our members, some of whom have worked here for almost 40 years, this is the first time they’ve been forced to take this type of action. So really you’d hope the Co-op – we’re meeting them soon at Acas – will come forward with an offer with a view to ending this dispute.”

The Glasgow factory produces more than 100,000 coffins a year, and is the only UK coffin production site for Co-operative Funeralcare. The company recorded profits of £12m last year.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham added, “Co-op trades on being different to bad employers. It should not be proposing a real-terms pay cut for their Funeralcare workers, especially when they can well afford to pay fairly.

“We will fully support our Co-op members in their fight for better jobs, pay and conditions.”

By Conrad Landin