July marked my fortieth anniversary of being in full-time employment. The last 32 of these years have been at Polyflor Ltd, the Manchester flooring firm.
Over those years, I’ve seen pay disputes come and go. They’ve pretty much all followed a standard pattern: the union reps and management sit down; the demands are followed by offers, followed by balloting. That is the order of the day.
This year wasn’t the first that our workforce had rejected the management’s ‘full and final offer’, and—as has happened on a handful of previous occasions—a postal vote for industrial action followed the initial offer’s rejection by 90 percent of members.
What was a first—and, if truth be told, surprised both union reps and management alike—was the resounding mandate not just for an overtime ban but also for undertaking strike action in pursuit of the pay claim.
This dramatic hardening of the workers’ position didn’t come out of the blue. A series of poor decisions by the management had bred a sense of resentment and eroded what had been over a century of a reasonable working relationship between company and workforce.
Things took a nosedive in 2015 when the long-standing All Employee Share Ownership Plan was discontinued. Despite working for a very profitable business, Polyflor’s directors decided that workers would no longer be included in that success – which had taken the form of company shares.
Messing around with departmental designations, which negated the wording of long-held works agreement rules, followed by repeated changes to shift patterns merely served to further antagonise the workforce. Since the appeals and grievances against these changes were heard by the very architects of those changes, they fell on deaf ears and were dismissed.
Spring 2020 arrived, and the usual start date for forthcoming pay talks was swept aside by the pandemic. Pay uplift discussions were understandably left until we knew the full impact of the crisis; workers were furloughed straight away, and work didn’t resume properly until around July, when about 90 percent of workers were back.
In response to the economic uncertainty, James Halstead Plc—the parent company and sole shareowner of Polyflor—reduced the already announced dividend payments. Many other worried enterprises did so too, and this was viewed by all as a prudent move.
But it soon became clear that demand had bounced back, and a large amount of overtime working was now needed. The withheld portion of dividend previously mentioned was reinstated, making 2020 yet another in an unbroken chain of big profit years for investors.
Yet all was quiet on the pay rise front. Autumn turned to winter, which turned to spring. All the time, the management mantra was to work through the crisis before we talk about pay increases.
Whether it was Covid-19, Brexit, or ships jack-knifing in the Suez, there was always a reason for management to avoid discussing the need to improve workers’ pay.
It’s at this point I maintain that the following sequence of events became unavoidable.
The employer answered our opening gambit with a full and final offer – a percentage pay rise for the last year was rejected by management and replaced by an offer of a £1,000 one-off lump sum or £1,000 worth of company shares.
What metaphor should I use here – ‘light blue touch paper and stand well back’? Or possibly ‘stroll through the streets of Pamplona waving a red rag’? At this offer, the pent-up frustrations of workers exploded.
As mentioned earlier, an overwhelming rejection ballot followed by management refusing to renegotiate led to a strike vote. It took very little of this anger to have the desired effect, thankfully – an improved offer of £1,400 and a buy-out of a longstanding attendance bonus was proposed on generous terms after a two-hour long action by all workers that same week.
Both our GMB regional organiser and the internal reps believed that this was the best deal we were likely to get, given the management’s declared ‘red line’ on a percentage uplift on wages for last year, and so this was balloted on with a GMB recommendation to accept.
That’s the last time I’ll be recommending any offer to my colleagues. It was made patently clear to me and other reps that while they appreciate all our efforts on their behalf during the pandemic, we should never again to make recommendations one way or the other. They want to be represented, not led.
As it turned out, they ignored us, and the second offer was turned down by 70 percent of members. The factory’s fortnight-long annual shutdown arrived at that point, and before we could return to work, the employer declared we were being laid off for another week, possibly believing our resolve would be diminished.
Some of us received as little as £75 in take-home pay for the week, after some weak excuses about how we couldn’t be furloughed. Possibly they believed we would cave in and return like obedient lambs – they were in for a surprise.
Picketing, as we all know, is six bodies maximum. And with our factory entrance being down an obscure side street—and therefore capable of making little impact—our membership turnout was 40-45 employees each time we gathered. This means that we held ‘demonstrations’ on the nearby main road.
When the employer insisted on us all wearing identical hi-vis apparel bearing the company insignia, there was always the obvious possibility of such a move backfiring. Such garbs coupled with GMB-branded flags and placards made both a uniform and quite a distinctive display for the huge volumes of passing traffic.
As our demos coincided with morning and evening commutes, we gained a great deal of support from commuters. One bloke was observed to have donned a parrot mask with the company logo on too, and was seen waving at passing motorists, all of which resulted in a fair amount of coverage on local social media.
We received assistance from the union at a district and regional level, with support, guidance, solidarity, refreshments, and branded merchandise being brought to the demonstrations (and I’m still being asked if there’s any more of those GMB coffee beakers).
It was these combined efforts that brought the employer back to the negotiating table. Polyflor asked us what it would take to settle the claim. In response, we asked for three percent for the last year paid as back pay, and another two percent for 2021, to which the management begrudgingly agreed.
Am I calling this a win? No – what I am saying is that this was a just and fair outcome. I hope the employer will now realise they have to treat union members with more dignity and respect, and that workers will realise the power and collective strength they hold.
Lessons have been learnt from this ‘exchange’, and both sides will be reluctant to repeat this summer of discontent in Manchester, but GMB members now know that by standing firm together, they can achieve their goals and aspirations.
In any other year but this one, if you had asked any Polyflor worker how far they would go to pursue a pay claim, the answer would have been simple: anything short of a strike.
But that was before we were bloodied and insulted by an attitude that took us for granted, and didn’t give us the dignity we deserve. As tends to happen after industrial action, many workers return to work feeling fearless, revelling in the defiance they took.
Commenting on these newly emboldened workers, our site convenor Roy pointed out that ‘the genie is out of the bottle, and I’ve no idea how to get it back in’ – something that other employers should consider before neglecting their workforce after this crisis.