Enter your email address to stay in touch

Unite’s ‘tough cookies’

Not even flood clean-up can make Unite ‘crumble’!
Ryan Fletcher, Monday, May 9th, 2016

After the floods brought by Storm Desmond’s wrath in December devastated Carlisle, entire neighbourhoods were turned into giant building sites.


And as well as wrecking more than 2,000 homes, the floods also destroyed livelihoods.


At one of Carlisle’s biggest employers, Carr’s Biscuits, the deluge gutted the entire factory – posing a risk to hundreds of jobs.


At the time Unite was in meetings with Carr’s parent company United Biscuits (UB), on behalf of members employed at the company.


Relations with UB had been rocky over the previous few years but, after concerted efforts and negotiations by Unite, progress was being made.


It was at one such meeting that Unite UB convenor Matt Gould and Unite national officer Rhys McCarthy suggested sending Unite engineers from other UB factories to assist with the rebuild.


Following the helping hand, the Carr’s factory is now back up and running and relations with UB have improved so much that Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, visited the Carlisle site (April 29) to see for himself the hard work of the union’s members.


Nineteen-year-old engineering apprentice Liam McBerney, along with fellow apprentice Tom Auld, 22, were two of those who volunteered from the UB McVitie’s factory in Manchester to help with the clean-up.


At the beginning of the two Unite members’ four week secondment the Carr’s factory was a depressing place to be, said Liam.


Rebuild it from scratch

“It was bad. When we arrived the water had gone, but there was still mud, sewage and waste everywhere. It stunk. The staff were just doing what they could to clean it up. They basically had to rebuild it from scratch,” Liam explained.


Tom said it wasn’t just the factory that was depressing, “Lots of the houses were gutted as well. It was a real mess.”


“It was weird. The factory looked like a building site and we all looked like something out of ET or MI5, because we had to wear protective chemical suits,” said Tom.


The lads were joined by five more engineers who volunteered from UB sites across the UK. Working with Carr’s regular staff, who put in long, arduous and irregular hours to get the task completed, the Unite volunteers helped manage to get the factory running again within 14 weeks.


“We were working 12 hour days. But from starting in horrible and wet conditions to seeing people back at work and producing biscuits again was amazing.


“Stripping a factory down to its components and building it back up is not something you get to do very often – that’s a great experience for an apprentice,” said Liam.


Both Liam and Tom are 17 months away from completing a degree level qualification in engineering. The pair says that their apprenticeships keep them busy and give them a real sense of pride and achievement. Both are also planning on staying at McVitie’s, because they enjoy it so much.


Conditions weren’t always as good as they are now at the factory, however. When he first started in 2013, Liam said the atmosphere between the management and the engineers was “hostile”.


“Morale was at its lowest at that point and that rubbed off on us as apprentices,” Liam explained.


‘Massively improved’

“But since Unite got involved there’s been big changes and things have massively improved.”


One of the reasons Unite decided to help in Carlisle was to demonstrate that the union was committed to improving their relationship with UB, explained Manchester UB convenor Matt Gould.


He said, “We’re a progressive union and we want to be proactive, rather than just sitting back and waiting for things to come to us.


“It’s fair to note that in the past industrial relations couldn’t have been worse, but it was time to say ‘let’s pack this in and start getting on with each other.’


“Also it’s not just the company that suffers during a flood, it’s the employees as well.”


The goodwill culminated in Unite general secretary Len McCluskey visiting the factory for a tour at the end of April and meeting with employees, including Liam and Tom, who travelled from Manchester for the occasion.


Tom said, “He was impressed and thanked everybody for the all work they’d done. He’s someone you hear about a lot but don’t really get to meet, so it was good to say hello. All the hard work really paid off when I saw the factory back on its feet. It was great.”


National officer Rhys McCarthy praised the efforts of all the Unite members who helped with the recovery and said they demonstrated the positive impact a unionised workforce has on a business.


He said, “There was a Dunkirk spirit from our Unite engineering reps, apprentices and members in being the first to go in to start the clean-up following the devastating floods at the United Biscuits site.


“It’s a testament to the important role Unite plays and why strong unions work and make such an impact.


“As we know this is not always easy but our shop stewards and members have put in the hard graft to make sure they are respected and valued by the company and when you have a disaster like this it has paid dividends.”





All for one! Unite’s ‘biscuiteers’ meet general secretary Len McCluskey (left to right) reps Matt Gould, Tom Fisher, Alan Strong; apprentices Tom Auld and Liam McBerney; national officer Rhys McCarthy and regional officer Mally Carruthers 


Related Articles