STREET, England — Hundreds of trade unionists and working people from the local area, and as far away as Wales, London and Manchester, joined a march here Nov. 13 in solidarity with striking Clarks Shoes workers fighting against wage cuts.
“They never thought we’d strike. They never thought we’d stay out. And they never thought we’d win this sort of solidarity,” striker Pete Darbo, who’s worked at Clarks for 17 years, told the Militant. Over 100 workers at the company’s distribution center here in southwest England’s Somerset county have been on strike since Oct. 4.
The march, called by the strikers’ union, Community, and the Trades Union Congress South West region, was greeted by shoppers of all ages who lined the streets applauding as the marchers wound their way through this village of 12,000 people. Shop workers left their posts to join the tribute.
“I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Theo Simon, a warehouse worker and member of the Unite union, who joined the march.
“This is the first strike in Somerset since 1988,” Dave Chapple, a retired postal worker and secretary of Mendip Trades Council, told the marchers. “This rural county is today a center of labor solidarity.”
“If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere,” said Pete Mayor, a bed manufacturing worker and member of the GMB union.
Postman Mick Mansel joined a contingent of Communication Workers Union members on the march. He told the Militant, “Back in the ’70s, I thought with a strong union and Labour governments, workers’ wages and living conditions would improve. In my 33 years as a ‘postie’ I’ve learned something very different.”
A warm welcome was extended to three workers from the Pilgrim’s meat factory in Ashton, Greater Manchester. Also members of Community, the workers brought a solidarity card signed by 80 workers at the plant.
“For Clarks bosses to cut your wages from 11.16 pounds to 9.50 [$14.95 to $12.73 an hour] in times when inflation is rising can only be described as a kick in the teeth!” the meat workers’ card reads. “When the pandemic hit, bosses across the country called us ‘essential’ workers. Now it is becoming clear they meant essential to their profits!”
Striking Actavo scaffolders, members of Unite at the British Steel plant in Scunthorpe, northeast England, sent a solidarity message from their picket line by video.
“The only thing that companies understand is when we stand up and fight,” said Paul Elliot, a member of Community at the giant Llanwern steelworks in Port Talbot, South Wales. Two dozen Llanwern steelworkers had joined the picket line Oct. 22. In a letter to the union, Clarks bosses allege the steelworkers’ solidarity visit amounted to a revival of outlawed “flying pickets,” where groups of striking workers travel to other workplaces to picket and shut down production.
Bosses also claim striking workers have shouted homophobic abuse at strikebreakers, attempted to damage their cars and scattered nails across the road. The bosses’ allegations were reported in the Nov. 11 Telegraph, a national daily.
Speaking at the rally, Community General Secretary Roy Rickhuss responded to the bosses’ claims: “Don’t let them divide us! Stay solid! Stay strong!” Also on the platform was the Trades Union Congress deputy general secretary, Paul Nowak, and strike leader and shop steward, Trevor Stephens.
“The company says they’ve raised their offer to 10.03 pounds from 9.50 an hour,” Stephens told the Militant. “Not only is that offer combined with a no-strike clause, not only does it not remove all the other attacks they’re making, it’s also not a raise – it’s a wage cut of 1 pound 13p an hour! We rejected it out of hand.”
Stephens told the rally the company denied threatening workers with what’s known here as “fire and rehire,” firing workers if they refuse to sign new contracts with worse wages and conditions. “They say what they’re doing is ‘disengage to reengage.’ If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck!” Stephens said.
Picket-line stalwart and strike leader Francis Foley was eager to pass around a statement the trade unionists received from a group of students from Hong Kong studying in colleges around the U.K. Hong Kong-based venture capital company LionRock bought a controlling share in Clarks just prior to announcing the wage cuts and attacks on sick pay and annual holidays.
“We want to bring your struggle to the attention of Clarks workers and other workers in Hong Kong,” the Power to Hongkongers message reads. “And we hope your example will help reinvigorate their spirits and help them fight growing exploitation and repression.” Working people joined mass protests and strikes for political rights and against Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong in 2020.
“Many Hong Kongers have come to the U.K. and find themselves in low-paid work with few rights. They need a strong and assertive labour movement too. Solidarity!”
Two workers from the Greencore food factory in London, where workers don’t have a union, brought a solidarity card signed by 25 workmates.
Send messages of support to Daniel Francois, regional organizer, Community, 10 Bath Mews, Bath Parade, Cheltenham, GL53 7HL, U.K. Tel: 01242-708090; email: [email protected].
Hugo Wils is a Community member and worker at the Pilgrim’s meat factory in Greater Manchester.