Unite members working at the Jacob Douwe-Egberts (JDE) coffee factory in Banbury, Oxfordshire, celebrated a decisive victory today (August 4) as their strength and solidarity vanquished the threat of fire and rehire.
The 291 workers have overwhelmingly voted in favour of a deal that will see any threat of fire and rehire ended and their pay and conditions protected.
In a long-running dispute, JDE workers faced the destruction of their very livelihoods with the imposition of contracts that would have seen their pay plummet by £12,000 a year. Some workers even faced the loss of their own homes.
But they weren’t going to give up without a fight and in May, they began a continuous overtime ban that was followed by successive waves of strike action in May and June. It is estimated that by the end of May, production at the coffee plant dropped by 6m jars – or 300m cups of coffee – as a result of industrial action.
Meanwhile, the local community came out in force for the nearly 300 striking workers, with Unite staging several local demonstrations in Banbury that drew widespread public support.
The JDE workers even took their fight to Parliament in May, joining Labour MPs in a Queen’s Speech protest to call on the government to end the pernicious practice of fire and rehire, which has spread exponentially in workplaces across the country amid the pandemic.
Speaking to UniteLive at the Queen’s Speech demo, Unite rep and JDE worker Andrew Compton explained exactly what was at stake and why he was striking.
“I was very disappointed by the actions the company have taken especially given the amount of profits they had already announced,” Andrew explained. “There is absolutely no need – there’s never been any evidence to show that they need to carry this through. This is just a blatant attack on workers’ terms and conditions.”
Andrew said he and his family will “lose out on vast sums of money — it’s us ordinary families that are going to be taking this massive hit while the company won’t have to suffer at all”.
Unite also applied pressure on the global boss of JDE, a Dutch-owned company, with the striking workers writing a letter to JDE CEO Fabien Simon pleading for him to intervene. They highlighted the injustice of British workers being singled out for fire and rehire, while their Dutch colleagues weren’t, despite the company’s significant profits.
In their letter, the employees wrote, “We’ve worked hard through these frightening, tough times, helping to make your company very rich. Our reward? You’ve told us to take pay cuts of up to £12,000 a year or be sacked.
“Can you imagine how devastating that is? People are terrified, breaking into tears at work, not knowing how we will be able to make ends meet in a town where the average house price is £313,000.”
The dispute took a sinister turn as their fight carried on, when in May JDE Banbury plant bosses were accused of carrying out covert surveillance of workers and their families protesting at the company’s ‘fire and rehire plans’ in breach of data protection legislation.
Then in June, the company issued dismissal notices to workers refusing to sign the new fire and rehire contracts, a move Unite branded ‘corporate gangsterism’. Undeterred, the Unite members announced further days of strike action, as Unite reps worked tirelessly in the background attempting to bring the company to the table to negotiate an end to the dispute.
In late June, the striking workers reached a vital turning point in the dispute after Unite and JDE bosses agreed to suspend strikes to hold two weeks of intensive talks, with management agreeing to withdraw the dismissal notices and put off the fire and rehire plans until September.
Then, after two weeks of intensive negotiations turned into three, a deal was hammered out that saw the end of the fire and rehire threat.
The key components of the package include removal of the management’s controversial ‘fire and rehire’ proposal; safeguarding pay and employment conditions; and compensation if an employee has to change shifts. The JDE Unite members voted overwhelmingly in favour of the deal — by 81 per cent on a 93 per cent turnout.
Unite national officer for the food industry Joe Clarke hailed workers’ tenacity which was instrumental in securing the deal.
“We are delighted that our members have overwhelmingly accepted this deal in a democratic ballot – the scale of the endorsement shows that Unite’s stance during the dispute and in the tough negotiations reflected the wishes of the vast majority of the employees,” he said.
“The fact that ‘fire and rehire’ has been removed from the table is a major achievement for Unite and the Unite internal plant committee, and a tribute to the solidarity that our members have demonstrated throughout,” Clarke added. “Our members remain in the top 25 per cent of earners for this industry which is a key feature of the package now agreed.
“This outcome is as a result of an intense, high-profile industrial action and leverage campaign supported by the membership of Unite, the trade union movement and the community,” he continued.
“There is now an opportunity to rebuild relationships with the management in the months and years ahead. We are particularly keen to enter into constructive discussions about future investment opportunities at Ruscote Avenue,” Clarke went on to say.
“I would, once again, like to pay heartfelt thanks to our members, their families and the wider Banbury community for the tremendous level of support shown during the last six months.”
By Hajera Blagg