Journey to victory
Unite collective strength turned a bad deal into the deal members deserved
Workers at Europe’s biggest soft drinks plant were facing a pay cut in real terms at the highly profitable Coca Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) based in Wakefield. So profitable, that the company registered record profits of £1.85bn in the last year, up some healthy 37 per cent. However, CCEP clearly had no intention of sharing the rewards with its employees.
The hundreds of workers at the plant, believing that they were entitled to a fair share of the profits, especially given the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, knew they had to stand together to fight back. Across the different grades they were offered on average a 6 per cent increase and this simply wasn’t enough.
Balloting for action
Organised by their union Unite, the workers successfully balloted for industrial action and swiftly moved towards announcing strike dates. Originally some 14 days of consecutive action were announced, between June 14-28.
Coca Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) produce around 360,000 cans per hour and 132,000 bottles per hour. CCEP’s products include Coca Cola, Diet Coke, Dr Pepper, Fanta, Sprite and more. The plant also produces Schweppes, Diet Tonic, Bitter Lemon, Ginger Ale and Lemonade.
The announcement clearly had an impact. Industrial action would have had a major impact on supply across the UK and the employer knew they had to enter meaningful talks, as the the Wakefield plant produces more than 50 per cent of the UK’s Coca Cola.
On Tuesday 13 June, Unite had announced that victory was secured. Workers had voted to accept a negotiated settlement worth up to 18 per cent in increases.
We caught up with Unite regional officer Chris Rawlinson who told us more about the background of the dispute, the journey to victory and growing the membership along the way.
Where it all started
Chris reports: Back in February of 2023 we entered three days of pay negotiations with CCEP. As our very first meeting got underway the Unite convenor for the site (the senior shop steward) we were dealing with had written down 6 per cent on a piece of paper in front of us. This was the figure that had been passed down from the national body of Coca Cola as a maximum pay offer across all sites.
We felt that those three days were a complete waste of time, looking back, given the figure we knew that they were working with. They started with just an insulting 4% as an offer and after 72 hours of ‘negotiating’ they came back with the 6 per cent and told us they had moved heaven and earth to achieve it. It came with a veiled threat, if the union wouldn’t recommend it, the offer would drop to 5.5 per cent.
We left that meeting, held a discussion with the reps and decided we would not recommend that deal, especially given the sheer amount of profit the company had made recently. When breaking down that profit per head, it worked out to roughly £100,000 of profit per employee. The company could afford more.
The campaign begins
We started by hosting a series of pay briefings with the workers. We were aware that management had already begun communicating their version of the offer, and tried to undermine the union by telling members that they would have been offered 6 per cent rather than 5.5 per cent had Unite recommended the offer. So, it was important we explained the truth to them.
It was vital they understood that the company could afford more and they were certainly worth more and why we had rejected the deal.
To get an understanding on how the members felt, we conducted our first ballot. Every worker got a vote, both technical and clerical, so that we could ballot on-site. The result was clear, as was the strength of feeling, they had overwhelmingly rejected the company’s offer. We then informed the company we would begin an indicative ballot for industrial action immediately.”
Strength in numbers
Our messaging to members was clear, that although the membership density was decent, around 59 per cent to begin with so, to win, we must grow the union in the workplace and stand strong together.
We told the workers that the choice before them was to stand up for yourselves, together in this cost of living crisis and fight for what you’re worth or you can roll over and get what we are given, which was never enough.
Our message resonated. Over the course of the dispute we grew the membership, gaining around 120 new members which brought the density up to around 86 per cent and undoubtedly strengthened our negotiating position. That work to get closer to 100 per cent even after winning the dispute is ongoing with future efforts to increase membership underway.
A really effective strategy that worked for us in both recruitment and organising was asking the reps to map the workplace. Reps mapped each shift because technicians had a different work pattern to clerical staff. This way we didn’t miss a single member of staff with our communications.
Reps then identified the ‘organic leaders’ in those shifts and started increasing targeted communications to them, sending emails to members for example and building that engagement with their support.”
Getting what we deserve
We knew we had the best arguments behind us going into the dispute, we knew what the company could afford given the record profits. We took that argument into collective conciliation with ACAS, but even at the conclusion of that process, the company were still only putting forward the original offer that had been refused. The only change was that they offered the 6 per cent, which previously had been withdrawn due to our refusal to recommend, rather than 5.5 per cent.
Our next move was to undertake an indicative ballot process, which returned a 94.5 per cent return in support of industrial action, so we moved to formal ballot. In preparation, we managed to secure release time for the reps to attend legal training. This was essential to go through safe and legal picket line management and being strike ready.
It soon became clear what the company had planned while reps were on release. As soon as the reps were off-site, they sent in senior company managers to brief the technicians and clerical staff, telling them that industrial action wouldn’t make a difference and the original offer would be reduced even further if we were to strike.
We found that this actually emboldened the members even further. They felt angry and disappointed at such threatening tactics while reps were away.
Sensing we still had their staunch support, we then moved to the formal ballot. The question was very simple, were you prepared to take industrial action. Strike action was the only question on the ballot paper. We did not include an option for action short of strike action. A yes vote of just over 87 per cent followed.
We explained to members that Unite would fully support them during the process of action. We wouldn’t be just picketing, we would be looking at where we can put pressure on the company externally and through the media, launching a press campaign, creating a petition to amplify the dispute and much more.
One week prior to the first of our 14 days of announced strike action we were asked to meet with the company, which we accepted. At that meeting, management had softened their position on what they were able to offer and serious negotiations began.
After thorough negotiations, we reached an agreement on that day and put the offer to members via ballot, which was to close the day before the first planned day of industrial action. The result was emphatic, members had agreed to the deal and the dispute was won.
We felt, that with this agreement, everybody wins. Overall, the deal saw salaries increase between £3,476 and £3,876 in the first 12 months, with further increases to salaries from 1 April 2024.
The 18-month deal will see the lowest paid technician receive a 16.6 per cent increase to their salary, with the highest paid technician receiving a 10.2 per cent increase. The lowest paid clerical worker will receive an 18.1 per cent increase to salary, and the highest paid will receive a 12 per cent increase.
We were in no doubt, that the threat of industrial action and the strength and conviction of the members had brought an end to the dispute.
When you are involved in a dispute like this, it is important to get the immediate win right. The right pay deal was essential in the middle of such a hard-hitting cost of living crisis.
We had to make sure members are getting paid fairly for the work they do and contribution they make to such a profitable and reputable company. We achieved that but we have to now look to the future at the site, starting with continuing to grow the membership.
Only by belonging to a trade union can we continue to win protections at work and improved terms and conditions.
We showed what our collective strength could achieve, this time on pay, but only by keeping density high, staying organised and keeping a rep on every shift can we maintain our voice in the workplace.
- This feature first appeared on the TUC’s solidarity hub
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