On Wednesday, Unite the union’s longest strike in its fifteen-year history came to an end. Pallet workers at the CHEP site in Trafford had been fighting a pay dispute since July last year. By the time they claimed their victory, they had been out on strike for twenty-one weeks.
‘You don’t want to be out on strike for twenty weeks… but we never would have gotten what we wanted without doing this,’ said Graham, a worker and lead representative at the pallet supplier’s Manchester site. When we spoke, he was sitting in his car outside the picket line that had been standing strong twenty-four hours a day since 17 December, when the strike began. A passing driver beeped their horn in solidarity, a sound the sixty-six strikers had heard often over the previous five months.
Graham has worked at CHEP for seven years, and for him, the strike had been building for a long time. When they finally went out last winter, though, nobody could have anticipated that things would last so long. ‘To be honest with you, I thought we’d get it closed out quicker than we have,’ Graham told Tribune—but he recognises it’s something that needed to be done.
CHEP workers were considered key workers throughout the pandemic, when pallets were in high demand. In that period of increasing uncertainty they never wavered, and despite CHEP, a global company, turning over high profits during Covid, the workers accepted a 1.8 percent pay rise in 2020. In July 2021, however, things had changed.
‘When it came to last year’s pay award, we went in for around 5.8 percent, and they offered 1.8 percent when even CPI inflation was at 2.2 percent,’ Ian McCluskey, Unite North West’s regional officer, told Tribune. ‘Year on year, this company, which does exceedingly well and has boomed throughout the pandemic, didn’t want to put any of it on the bottom right hand corner of the payslips for these lads.’
For CHEP’s Manchester workers, this offer amounted to a lack of respect. ‘It’s a really physically demanding job, and we worked all the way through the pandemic,’ said Graham. ‘So we just felt that we weren’t being treated with any fairness.’ On top of that, the cost of living crisis meant that Graham and his colleagues would have been earning less in real terms than they were seven years ago. ‘We just took the step,’ he said.
While that step was a step towards fairer pay, it was also a step toward a hard winter. Workers constantly manned the twenty-four-hour picket no matter the weather, burning unused pallets to keep warm.
In nearly thirty years working for CHEP, this was the first time fifty-eight-year-old Martin* had gone on strike. Another strike had taken place years before, but the site was divided. ‘After that strike, we got together,’ he told Tribune. ‘So next time, if anything came, we would be able to strike together.’
It worked. In their five months of striking this year, not one worker gave up—and Manchester’s CHEP workers managed to secure themselves an above-inflation pay rise of nine percent in total, three extra days of annual leave, and a £1,000 lump sum, accepted by seventy percent of members. ‘It was a long fight,’ said Martin. ‘But we got there in the end.’
‘I’m very proud of Unite’s reps and members at CHEP,’ Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said in a statement. ‘This was a tough dispute, but the workers stood their ground and won an excellent deal. The workers knew that the company could afford a fair wage, so they kept up the fight and they won.’
McCluskey added: ‘The mood is victorious against this employer, yet tempered with the fact that nearly thirty percent rejected the offer. This is a great starting point and a victory indeed, but it’s only the start. These brave pickets have demanded a voice in this workplace, which is now secure. We must make sure that they now put it to good use.’
To help win the strike, Unite’s organising departments attempted to engage with customers on the supply chain and the general public. As a result, the popular support was resounding: from giving out food to picketers and beeping their horns in a show of solidarity to rallies across Manchester and London in support of the strike, it’s little wonder that it ended in a victory. ‘The support from some of the public has been fantastic,’ said Martin. ‘It was great to see the humanity that was out there.’
According to McCluskey, that’s partly down to the fact that this fight was always about more than just money. It was getting workers a fair deal in terms of both pay and voice—and not just at CHEP, but everywhere.
‘This battle, and I think the solidarity that we’ve seen from everywhere, is down to the fact that this is becoming an important dispute, and not just for these lads, but for working-class men and women up and down the country who are facing similar issues with their employers,’ McCluskey said.
Graham agreed. ‘When we actually made that step out onto the picket and people started visiting [us] from all the different unions, we realised how widespread our cause is. People told me that it’s important that we win, because then it sets the tone—it can inspire others, and I never really thought of it like that at the beginning. But it does make sense.’
‘Workplaces need to get organised and hold hands,’ McCluskey adds finally, ‘because one thing’s for sure: there’s nothing that we can’t achieve together.’