In his thirty-five years as a brewing operator at the Budweiser Brewing Group (BBG) factory in Samlesbury, Lancashire, Colin Smith has never had to go out on strike. But amid rapidly rising inflation and a severe cost of living crisis, he has found himself helping to organise its first ever walk-out.
Staff in all departments of the brewery—brewing, packaging, logistics, utilities, and engineering—were offered a meagre three percent pay rise by BBG in May, a clear real-terms cut with CPI inflation reaching 9.4 percent this month and RPI at 11.8. When workers and members of the GMB union balloted for industrial action, more than seventy-five percent voted to strike for the first time in the site’s fifty-year history, and around ninety-five percent voted for action short of a strike.
That month, more than two hundred workers at the site refused to work overtime, complete any training, or engage in face-to-face handovers, and before its end a series of strike dates had been announced for June. When more pay talks fell through, another thirty-six-hour strike, spread over a number of shifts, took place earlier in July, with the action leading to reports of potential risks to stocks of beer—the factory produces Budweiser, Stella Artois, Becks, Boddingtons, and Export Pale Ale—just in time for a heatwave.
Colin, who’s also a union rep for the site, tells Tribune that the cost of living crisis was the main incentive to strike. ‘Some people are enduring the cost of living crisis, other people are not,’ he says. ‘We’d be asking the shop floor to take a 6.4 percent pay cut, and people are seeing red.’
BBG argues it has never matched inflation; Colin says they’ve never had to. ‘We’re in a unique situation financially,’ he says. ‘The economy is tanking, and inflation is getting worse. So while they’re telling us to go back to the shop floor and recommend to our shop floor members the three percent rise, we can’t do that.’
Mark Best, also a union rep and a brewing operator of twenty-nine years, tells Tribune there’s a lot of anger on the shop floor, with workers feeling ‘disgusted’—and not just by the pay offer, but also by the company’s approach to negotiations. Even workers who didn’t vote to strike have realised the urgency of action. ‘This is the kind of feeling that’s building up,’ he says, adding that there is a ‘strong distrust in management, and a bit of contempt for them, really.’
The disappointing pay offer has been magnified by the fact that workers at the brewery were considered key workers during the pandemic, called ‘beer making heroes’ by bosses and on posters around the site. ‘We worked all the way through the Covid-19 crisis, putting our own lives at stake and the lives of our loved ones,’ says Colin. Managers weren’t required on site during this time because they weren’t considered essential, but Colin says they were recently given an £18,000 bonus, while shop floor workers have been offered nothing. ‘It feels like a real slap in the face,’ Mark adds.
On top of that, Mark and Colin both say they have noted management ‘pressuring’ people to come in to work. ‘When we voted for strike action, we went for a meeting and we were told we couldn’t intimidate people if they wanted to work—and we haven’t,’ says Mark. ‘We’ve been brilliant and done everything professionally.’
If anything, he adds, it’s management who have been intimidating, with some members of the team taking workers’ names and registrations as they go back to work after striking, ‘just to make [them] feel uncomfortable.’ Colin says that management have been taking people’s swipe cards from them as they’re leaving the site for strike action and swiping them out, clocking them out of their shift—something that would usually be considered a ‘sackable offence’.
When asked about name collection and swipe cards, a spokesperson for BBG said that ‘data collection’ was done ‘in the best interest of employees to ensure they were only deducted for the exact hours they participated in the strike’ and that ‘all employees are required to swipe out when leaving the site for both fire safety reasons and for the purpose of clocking in and out,’ as was ‘made clear in all employee briefs prior to strike dates,’ with some employees ‘passing cards to the gate manager to be swiped out for simplicity’.
Other workers were being forced to park off-site during their strike hours, Tribune hears, including a worker who had recently undergone knee replacement surgery, in response to which BBG cite ‘fire safety reasons’ and that ’employees were not ‘working’ on site during those periods. ‘This is all compounded by the company’s decision to threaten not to pay any back pay from the dispute if an offer was not accepted by 21 July—a deadline BBG says has now been postponed.
These tactics have had some effect, Colin says, with workers feeling worried and nervous—but they’re also adding fuel to the fire. In fact, the longer the dispute drags on, the more solid the workers are; since it began, Mark says, union membership at the site has ‘shot through the roof,’ from around 185 to more than 265.
‘We’ve shown a united front and I don’t think the management team expected it,’ he continues, adding that workers are getting very involved and approaching reps with new strike dates. Colin also notes that the 21 July deadline only saw workers ‘digging their heels in even more.’
If a reasonably improved offer isn’t put on the table, Colin says the union is looking to ‘ramp things up,’ with plans for four twenty-four-hour strikes throughout August, spread across shifts for maximum disruption. ‘People are angry now,’ he says. ‘It’s going to come to a conclusion, and it’s going to be sooner than we think.’
In a statement to press, a spokesperson said that the company did not expect beer shortages. ‘Budweiser Brewing Group has a positive and long-standing relationship with the GMB. However, despite open negotiations, the GMB have confirmed industrial action at our Samlesbury brewery. Whilst we have not yet reached an agreement, we continue to work toward a mutually acceptable solution.’ The full statement can be read here.