How Prudential staff built to a strike against offshoring

Prudential workers are about to take industrial action for the first time since 1990. The dispute centres on the company’s proposals to move 90 roles to Mumbai. How did workers overcome low membership, low confidence and management tactics to take a visible part in union activities and be ready to strike?

Unite sticker "I support Unite members in annuities Reading. Save their jobs!"Back in May the company announced plans to move 90 customer service roles dealing with servicing and bereavement to Mumbai. At the time membership in the area was 39% and confidence was low.

The area has seen targets imposed upon it, measures constantly changed and people being managed out under “poor performance”. Although Unite often successfully represented individuals, management refused to listen to the union about the impact this was having on employees. They carried on regardless and collectively members felt they had no power to challenge the situation, feeling demoralised.

Whilst Unite were able to negotiate reasonable pay pots (3% pots but distributed unevenly) staff were told that money was tight because of the 2008 financial crisis so they were lucky to have jobs etc etc. This made members fearful of challenging or taking action. At the same time Prudential profits rose year on year, as did executive pay.

Then in May the company told these workers that in order to save £2m they would all lose their jobs as the work was going to Mumbai.

Management Nonsense

Let’s put the £2m in context. Last year Prudential Group made £4,007m in profits. The UK business made £1,195m in profits. The top 6 executives took home £31m between them.

The company also said that they could drive efficiencies by moving work to Mumbai – implying that Reading staff were inefficient and not capable of improving. They told staff that customers would not suffer any detriment as a result of the move. This was all clearly nonsense and the members were enraged.

At a members’ meeting the day following the announcement Unite reps told the members if they wanted to fight the proposals the union would give them 100% support. Reps explained we needed to increase our membership during the consultation period (May – end of July).

Some members were sceptical and fearful of taking action and challenging the company. However, after years of being beaten down by the management actions in the area members concluded they had nothing to lose. The members spoke to non-members and by the end of the consultation period member activity had increased our density (the proportion of workers in the union) in the area to 60%.

At the end of the consultation process not much had changed. The company accepted that not all the work could go and 18 roles were taken out of scope. This left over 70 roles “at risk” with the company rejecting a Unite counter-proposal to keep the jobs in Reading and to introduce a no compulsory agreement. Members then decided they wanted to have a ballot for action.

Anger at management was increasing as members’ voices were being ignored and with the increased membership confidence was building. The ballot was held over the first two weeks of August and on a turnout of 75%, 100% voted in favour of action short of strike and 97.2% in favour of action including strike.

The company were shocked, but rather than deal with the issues, they went about trying to undermine the ballot, using incorrect numbers to say only a minority had voted for action. The members knew otherwise and saw right through the lies. Anger was building all the time.

The members decided what action to take: a work to rule and non co-operation with the company to move their jobs.

Again, the Company ignored the voices of the members and told them they would carry on regardless and use un-licensed staff to do the training and auditing of the work being migrated.

Members getting active

The work to rule started on Wednesday 31st August and all members took part. The union organised leafleting outside the building and the members joined in handing out leaflets and stickers to members of the public explaining their action.

On Friday 2nd September the union organised leafleting outside the railway station in Reading and even more of the members turned up to participate. They felt empowered to join in and be active in the fight. This wasn’t reps doing stuff for them – this was members actively involved in union activity to fight for their jobs. Confidence soared, new members were recruited, and density is now just over 66% as the fight continues.

Ignoring all this, the Company just kept saying the work would go and that they would do what they can to find other roles for those who want to stay, but could offer no guarantees.

After the first week of action the work to rule was having an impact with the project falling behind as the company struggled to continue without the people who knew the work. With no movement from the company, members decided to escalate the industrial action and have voted, unanimously, to hold 24-hour strikes on 16th and 23rd September.

We have held members meetings every week since the announcement and as membership has increased so has attendance. The impressive and key ingredient is the participation of the lay members in the dispute. From recruiting new members to standing outside the office handing out leaflets, standing in front of managers wearing stickers saying that they want to save their jobs to then voting for two days’ of strike action – the workplace has been transformed. As non-members saw their friends and colleagues taking part they thought “I want to be part of this”,  joined the union and took an active part in the dispute.

Members are absolutely clear on what a victory would look like and have made it clear they won’t accept a fudge or the promise of jam tomorrow. They want their jobs saved and they are prepared to stand up and fight for this to happen.

We will share updates on the dispute via the WorkplaceOrganising Facebook page but please check out the PruSection – Unite Facebook page for regular updates and tweet messages of support to @Prusection or email

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Organising workers scattered across small shops

Large workplaces are much more likely to be unionised than smaller ones. So how do activists in Greggs bakeries and shops stay in touch with workers scattered across over 1500 workplaces?

Gregg's shop storefront

Photo: Unisouth

Greggs includes both bakeries and shops. The bakeries are the base of the BFAWU Greggs branches, with many branch officials working in the bakery, as drivers or as engineers. Branches also cover up to 400 shops each, often spread across a large area. The bakeries also deliver to franchise shops such as MOTO and Euro garages, but these are not in the same branches.

Branches typically only have 6-8 stewards. The facilities agreement allows just five days a year to travel round visiting shops and recruiting, but days unused by one steward can be used by another. In city centres with lots of shops it doesn’t take long to visit quite a few, but it can take a couple of hours to get to some more remote stores. Greggs have agreed to extra days where necessary to ensure all shops are visited at least once per year.

Face to face communication is the best way to recruit new members but we have had to find other approaches to work around the difficulty of covering so many shops as well as working in your own.

When activists meet up, we talk to employees in nearby shops before and after meetings, adding extra face time to the five days we are allowed.

We organise ourselves based on the employer’s structures. Each shop is in an area manager group. Each steward covers 2-3 area manager groups of shops. This helps us avoid duplicating work or missing out shops. We make sure there are posters in every shop letting all the staff know who their local shop steward is.

The employer holds weekly conference calls between shops. Shop stewards speak on these and let people know about union activities.

We use the branch secretary and full time officers to pick up any slack around recruiting in shops that are hard to reach or have been missed. They help revisit shops so they are visited more than once each year.

Every week the shop stewards ring shops to pass on union information and to see if there are any issues. Usually we give each shop a specific time they can ring back to discuss any issues, so everyone gets time rather than it being used up by a few. It makes a big difference having the buy-in from shop managers, most of whom are union members themselves. They keep the channels of communication open. Members in the shops have stewards’ numbers, so if management withdrew facilities or cooperation we could still function, but we wouldn’t have such regular contact. We don’t yet use social media to communicate between stewards and members.

Communication is vital. When you have limited facility time and a 150 mile round trip to see some members, regular telephone contact is the best way to keep them informed and to keep the union to keep up to date with their issues. Members who are actively listened to are more likely to stay members and speak positively about the union – even if it is usually by phone rather than face to face.

Members in Greggs are the biggest part of our union.

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2 sisters workers strike against cuts to pay for phony National Living Wage

Since George Osborne introduced his phony “National Living Wage” there has been a spate of employers cutting other benefits to fund it. BFAWU members at 2 sisters food group are striking to stop this.

2 sisters is one of the largest food companies in the UK. It owns brands such as Fox’s Biscuits, Goodfella’s Pizzas, Holland’s pies and Harry Ramsden’s as well as supplying ready meals to customers including Marks & Spencer.

To compensate for the huge rise in pay to £7.20 an hour (the new phony National Living Wage) for their lowest-paid workers 2 sisters is attacking other terms and conditions. BFAWU members at two factories are striking to stop this:

  • R F Brooks, Rogerstone, Newport (struck on 1-2 June)
  • Pennine, Sheffield (due to strike for the second time 5-6 June)

They want to introduce new contracts with slashed shift allowances, overtime payments and premiums for working weekends and bank holidays. They want to cut lieu time and paid breaks. They want to mirror George Osborne’s double standard of the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage by paying workers under 25 years old 50p an hour less for doing exactly the same job.

They have tried to bully employees into signing the new contracts by threatening to sack those who don’t. The threats are being focussed on migrant workers who may feel more vulnerable.

Workers are set to lose thousands of pounds a year. One couple at the Pennine factory in Sheffield will lose around £5000 each. This is the difference between keeping their house and losing it.

‘More for less’ is the 2 sisters food group’s slogan. Ranjit Singh Boparan and and his wife Baljinder Boparan who own the company are estimated to be worth £1.35 billion. He was the first billionaire in Birmingham. They are definitely gaining more on the back of their low paid workers earning less.

Please give your support to the strikers:

Pennine Foods, Sheffield:

  • Next strike set for Sunday 5 – Monday 6 June
  • Join the rally at 12:00 on Sunday 5 June
  • Messages of support to or
  • Donations made payable to BFAWU can be sent to “Pennine Strike Fund, BFAWU, Stanborough House, Great North Road, Welwyn Garden City, Herts, AL8 7TA.
  • Join the Pennine support group on Facebook

R F Brooks, Newport:

  • Messages of support to Dai Mort ( or
  • Donations payable to BFAWU can be sent to BFAWU Region 2, 19a West Bute Street, (rear) The Courtyard, The Docks, Cardiff, CF10 5EP
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Support Guards on Southern Railway

RMT members have been striking against plans by GTR (Govia Thameslink Railway) to compromise passenger safety and customer service with more driver-only trains. ASLEF members have also voted to strike.

RMT: Stay safe! Keep the guard on the train!

For more information on the dispute, see their Facebook page.

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Job evaluation and equality

Job Evaluation (JE) is becoming more prevalent throughout industry. Employers typically introduce JE for 2 reasons. The main reason tends to be to try and get a grip on rising salaries. The other reason is to help employers cover themselves from legal challenge where there are large salary differentials, often between men and women.

Junior doctors' picket with placard highlighting discrimination

Photo: BMA striking against discriminatory contract

Employers normally hire consultants to help them conduct the job evaluation. The Hay methodology is one of the most common approaches in Britain. Where a trade union is recognised, they will often be invited to participate in the JE exercise. Activists will need to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of becoming involved in any JE initiative. If groups of members are likely to suffer from pay cuts or pay freeze, there’s a real danger that the union will get blamed for any adverse impact. Likewise where significant groups of members are low paid and there are real possibilities that members salaries will rise then the union can be seen to negotiate positive outcomes for these members. Either way, there will always be winners and losers and any union engagement with JE must be done critically and without any up front commitment that the union endorses the outcome. We should always remember that when employers introduce these schemes they do so to protect their own interests and they have little interest in a fair outcome.

We work in a large engineering company with many UK sites and a gender breakdown of roughly 80 – 20 male v female. A decade and a half of performance related pay (PRP) had created massive salary differentials. We were aware of people doing the same job with £1000’s salary differentials. We have minority union membership and had challenged the company to introduce a transparent grading scheme to begin addressing these salary anomalies. The company are very conscious of their image and agreed that no discrimination on salaries could be justified.

The union agreed to get involved in a consultation process to help design the new grading scheme that would follow the JE exercise. We made sure our reps got training from the union which provided us with some really useful insights into how these schemes work and some of the pitfalls to watch out for. However, during the consultation we found that many of our concerns were ignored, which was a reflection of our low union density. The company were more interested in getting our endorsement than taking on board our ideas and concerns. The scheme we ended up with had a small number of wide salary bands with a 60% gap and significant overlap between grades. So someone at the top of a grade would be earning much more than many of the staff on the grade above.

However, the overriding view amongst union reps was that most members would benefit on the majority of sites as they tended organise in the lower paid areas. The national union leadership shared these views and didn’t want scupper a deal that would benefit the majority of existing members. This approach was self-defeating as it risked preventing us from expanding into the areas where we had fewer members – amongst the highly skilled growing majority of the workforce.

Reps conducted a UK wide salary census to allow us to see what the salary spread was. Unsurprisingly, we found that higher pay tended to be concentrated in the plant in the South East and that a large gender gap was apparent across all sites. We used this information to challenge the company and obtain detailed salary information in the consultation. This was really useful in that it confirmed our fears about the legacy or PRP in opening up huge salary gaps between those doing ‘equal’ or ‘like’ work and about the spread of pay across the sites. However, it also created a divide where some groups were encouraged to see those in higher paid areas as being “over paid”, suiting the company agenda.

To try and stop the race to the bottom, we were able to show that none of the consultants’ ‘benchmarking’ companies were comparable. We used this information to destroy the scheme’s credibility with the workforce. We then got comparable salaries from recruitment agencies to determine the rate employers were recruiting staff in the same roles and argued this was the ‘market rate’. We got information from the government Office of National Statistics’ (ONS) web site on skill shortages and the cost of living for our region and campaigned around these issues with newsletters and regular meetings. We created an atmosphere that convinced both staff and managers that the scheme was unfair. We found out that our own company had begun to recruit new staff at the maximum salaries and that a growing army of contractors was being hired to cope with people leaving and their inability to recruit and retain staff. This situation and our campaign put the company on the defensive and stopped them following the advice of the consultant to cut the salaries of those earning above the salary maximums. Instead, these salaries were frozen. The company refused to promote these staff as we suggested which confirmed our view that the exercise was less about fairness and more about controlling pay.

The Tories are finally going to force major companies to publish pay details on the gender gap. Legislation on the right to information for collective bargaining already gives reps access to information about pay distributions but the legislation will give activists an opportunity to use the data to campaign against discriminatory pay systems.

After the first year, we decided to use the salary data we got from the company to explore the huge gender based salary differentials to tackle low pay and discredit the wide salary bands. As none of the other sites were prepared to oppose the scheme, it was hard to secure a national strategy to do so. We held site-wide members’ meetings to work out a strategy. Members who were mostly male agreed that unfairness in the scheme could begin to be tackled by exposing examples of gender based discrimination.

We began looking around for advice and support. The union were nervous about challenging a scheme that ‘benefited’ most members. We found the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) website had some really useful information such as guides on Job Evaluation and and Job Grading. It had guidance which showed that the scheme the company had implemented was a ‘High Risk’ scheme and was likely to be unfair and discriminatory.

We held meetings of female members so they were comfortable to share their experiences and to find out what they were saying about the discriminatory treatment. Some of the women’s experiences were really shocking. One woman described how she had been told that she wasn’t getting a wage rise one year because the manager had decided to give it to her husband. He justified this by suggesting that the household would still get a cost of living increase with the husband’s wage rise. This had happened over ten years ago and the woman’s salary and pension had been affected for years. She was earning thousands less than men working on the grade below her. Another spoke about how she had been promoted after years of doing the team leader’s job but had only received a nominal increase with the promotion. Her salary was up to £20,000 below her peers. Others spoke about missing out on promotion because they had young families or had even indicated that they might one day want to have children. As we began to deal with these cases the company completely caved in with immediate salary increases and in one case backdated pay of over £20,000 to compensate for lost earnings and pension. We are now in discussions with the company about a strategy for dealing with these low paid women. The company have also finally agreed to a negotiate a transparent mechanism for promoting staff who have had their salaries frozen for a couple of years to remove them as potential comparators for low paid women. This development won’t stop us pursuing equal pay issues as the salary bands are so wide. It will lead to the promotion of staff earning above the maximum salaries which is what we argued for at the outset.

With low union density we have been able to use advice from the EHRC, salary information on the ‘market rate’ and salary data from the employer to campaign against low pay and to promote those above the salary maximums rather than cut salaries as has often been the case when JE systems are implemented.

As staff see that our strategy is forcing the company to make concessions, membership is growing again after a period of stagnation.

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