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 unite@prudential.co.uk.

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