'Hold firm and stick with your gut feeling'
The TUC speaks to Unite member Dave Croft on how he and his colleagues fought back against being forced to work with asbestos
When senior management decided it wanted to save costs, workers at Magenta were forced into an impossible decision: start working with asbestos or, for short-term contract and apprentices, risk losing your job. For other workers, it meant moving sections.
Magenta Living employs over 100 workers to look after repairs and maintenance for over 13,000 properties mainly covering the Wirral.
But when the new senior management wanted to save costs and bring more services in-house, new working process and policies were going to be imposed on workers.
Previously, workers were trained to identify asbestos and if required, specialist contractors were employed to remove it. However, under new rules, workers at Magenta Living were expected to be exposed to asbestos.
We spoke to Dave Croft, a Unite member who works for Magenta Living, about the campaign.
Where it all began
Dave said: “It all started a few years ago when a new director and new senior management were brought in to save money.
“One of their ideas to cut costs was a change in the company’s asbestos policy. Workers would now be expected to work with potentially life-threating asbestos which had previously been dealt with and removed by a specialist.”
“It felt like things were being imposed on us, rather than management working with us. Several possible asbestos working suggestions were put forward by Unite reps (including a small specialist team) and declined by management.”
Dave told us: “Despite training being offered, workers did not have a proper say in this change. It was never the case that workers were consulted about what they wanted. Instead, employees were forced into an impossible position: start working with life threating asbestos or potentially risk losing your job. Some employees were reduced to tears.
“Asbestos is still the biggest workplace killer and, particularly in Merseyside, it is a huge cause of ill health amongst the community. Even low levels of exposure could make someone incredibly ill. It felt like this was more of a notification than a consultation throughout all of this.”
Time to strike
Dave told the TUC: “It became more and more apparent that we were being backed into a corner. Management was buying the materials and mandatory training of staff to work on Asbestos had commenced.
“Despite the whole policy change being a cost cutting exercise, this must have come at huge expensive to Magenta.
“An Asbestos Skip and relevant PPE had been delivered to our depot and the Asbestos works was rolled out without any agreement with the union. That’s when we knew we had to act. We had previously asked Magenta to delay the rollout whilst we balloted our members, but this request was declined.
“The result of the ballot was overwhelming in favour of action. Workers were being backed into corners without any meaningful consultation with senior management. The only way out of it was to send a message by withdrawing our labour and going on strike.”
Holding your nerve
“We had an effective system when it came to how we picketed. The strike lasted for four weeks over an eight-week period (one week on and one week off) and we would stand outside Head Office. We would also have a morning and an afternoon rota, so we knew who was on the picket and at what time of the day.
“Throughout the strikes, senior management became more and more hostile. They started to use intimidation tactics to try to knock us off course and end the strike: coming to pickets’ lines, suggesting that we would lose our work to contractors, being TUPE transferred and also calling in staff on a one to one basis and talking to young apprentices about the implications of going on strike. But we didn’t cave in. We held our nerve and continued to strike.”
Getting a result
“When management finally got round the table with us, we settled on a deal which was a decent result for us.
“Management conceded that those who weren’t happy to work with asbestos even after training wouldn’t be forced to.
“This was a huge relief to staff who had been very worried about their health and safety at work.
“From the beginning this had always been about the staff having a choice from a union perspective.”
Hold firm and stick with your gut feeling
“My advice to other people in a similar position would be to hold firm and stick with your gut feeling.
“Don’t cave to intimidation from senior management, divide and conquer are their tactic of choice.
“I’d also say stay together and work as a team. If it wasn’t for other workers supporting us on picket lines and deciding to take strike action, we wouldn’t have got the result which we ended up with.”
- This article first appeared on the TUC’s website here.