Fire and rehire – Unite is just not taking it
Unite members have had enough of a new insidious workplace abuse – and are taking action
‘Fire and rehire’ – where employers force their existing, often long-serving workforce onto new contracts with vastly inferior pay and conditions – has spread throughout the UK amid the pandemic much like the coronavirus itself. Although the tactic has existed for some time, it has exploded in popularity among ‘bully boy’ bosses in this time of crisis. The TUC found that already one in 10 workers had been threatened with fire and rehire during the pandemic, with that number set to grow dramatically as furlough ends.
But Unite and its members are not going to accept this ‘new normal’ without a fight.
The fire and rehire dispute at a Jacob Douwe-Egberts coffee factory in Banbury is among the highest profile on-going cases in recent months, with nearly 300 workers, Unite members, taking multiple days of all-out strike action in May against proposals which would see them lose up to an astonishing £12,000 a year.
The striking workers have also held a continuous overtime ban since the May 1, which, taken together with strike action, has decimated coffee production – an estimated six million jars of coffee production, or 300 million cups of coffee, have been lost since the dispute began.
Still, intransigent bosses have dug their heels in and have doubled down on sinister tactics by in attempting to ban summer holidays to thwart the overtime ban and even filming JDE workers and their families on picket lines.
As of writing, the dispute continues. And so too does the fight at London lettings firm Goodlord, where more than 20 members of Unite, employed in Goodlord’s referencing department, began indefinite strike action in February over fire and rehire contract changes that resulted in annual pay falling from £24,000 to £18,000.
The referencing staff, many of them young people who were told by bosses to simply move in with their parents or move out of London to survive the vicious pay cuts, are the lowest paid at the company. They are also the only group of Goodlord's workers to have been singled out for fire and rehire attacks.
In March, Unite wrote to the Living Wage Foundation urging it to end its accreditation of Goodlord over the cuts, which take wages to below the Foundation’s London living wage of £21,157. The Foundation has since confirmed that Goodlord has lost its accreditation, leaving the company’s reputation in tatters.
Indefinite strike action at Goodlord will continue into the summer – new strikes have been called following the dismissal and hostile targeting of union members while on strike, as well as Goodlord’s use of agency labour during the industrial action.
Other on-going fire and rehire disputes this year include a dispute at Brush Electrical, where engineers, Unite members, voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action after the company announced plans to fire and rehire them.
The proposed contracts include reductions to overtime rates, allowances, holidays and other terms and conditions that would result in a pay cut of between £10,000 and £15,000 a year.
The affected engineers, who service generators around the world, sent a loud and clear signal that they would not take this threat to their livelihoods lying down – they’ve now commenced their all-out strike action, which will take place every day, since May 25 until mid-August.
Meanwhile, over at Weetabix, hundreds of workers are gearing up for a fight over a similar fire and rehire threat. The dispute involves engineers, Unite members, at the company’s factories in Kettering and Corby.
Weetabix has issued the engineers with new contracts and work patterns, which will result in major cuts in shift allowances. There will also be a move to require more day working than shift working, further contributing to the cut in pay. Some of the affected engineers stand to lose up to £5,000 a year – they’re now balloting for strike action.
““Fire and rehire is ripping through our workplaces like a disease. Weak law lets bad bosses force through brutal changes to contracts, sometimes taking thousands of pounds off wages that families need to get by. It’s a disgraceful practice that’s outlawed in much of Europe and should be here. Unite is fighting for UK workers to be treated with the same decency. We won’t stop until the law is changed to protect working people from attack.”
Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary
For all those workers now fighting fire and rehire in their workplaces, they can confidently hold out hope that victory is well within their reach. After all, many Unite members have won this same exact fight in their own workplaces in recent months.
Bus drivers employed by Go North West in Manchester is an extraordinary case in point. After taking a record 82 days of strike action – Unite’s longest strike action in history – with the help of a groundswell of community support across the North West, including from Mayor Andy Burnham and former Coronation Street actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, the company finally backed down in May.
Crucially, the company has agreed to Unite’s demand that it will never use fire and rehire in any form, a move that will safeguard pay and conditions for thousands of employees across the Go Ahead Group.
The deal was struck following high-level negotiations led by Unite general secretary Len McCluskey with senior company representatives at Go North West’s parent company, Go Ahead Group. The drivers now no longer stand to lose thousands of pounds in wages every year.
Back in April, workers at aerospace parts firm SPS Technologies likewise celebrated a victory against fire and rehire. The workers took more than 10 days of strike action in March against proposals that would have resulted in its Leicester staff losing up to £3,000 a year.
Like Go North West, the company backed down. Workers voted overwhelmingly in favour of a deal that would see initial reductions proposed by the company slashed by more than half. The new agreement also covers a range of terms and conditions, including overtime pay, sick pay, paid breaks and shift premiums.
Meanwhile, British Airways cargo workers, most of whom work at Heathrow airport, vanquished their own fire and rehire threat after bravely taking nine days of strike action over the Christmas and New Year period, which caused significant disruption.
The workers were gearing up for more strikes later in January, but after intense negotiations a deal was agreed that was accepted overwhelmingly by staff.
The deal not only ended fire and rehire, but also scrapped compulsory redundancies, and improved pay protection for staff whose pay sits above the new agreed rates.
Also as part of the deal, there was an increase in pay for a significant proportion of staff, and members who did not sign the new contract and were dismissed were all offered their jobs back on the agreed terms – result!
End fire and rehire campaign
While Unite members fight fire and rehire in their individual workplaces, Unite knows that the only way to stop this growing threat in all workplaces is to scrap this insidious employment practice for good.
That’s why in April Unite launched a major national campaign, End Fire and Rehire, that aims to secure a simple amendment to existing employment legislation to completely outlaw fire and rehire – as is the case in most European countries such as Ireland and Spain.
Unite argues that not only would outlawing fire and rehire benefit millions of people overnight, but it would also support responsible employers while making clear to those with fewer scruples that such practices are not tolerated in this country.
In May, as part of the campaign, striking workers from JDE and Goodlord joined Labour MPs in a protest on a boat on the river Thames calling for an end to fire and rehire in the Queen’s Speech. The day before, Unite members staged demonstrations in Birmingham, Leeds, Crewe, Mansfield, Wolverhampton and Stoke-on-Trent.
Although workers across the country were let down by the government – which has still so far failed to end fire and rehire, on the day of the Queen’s Speech – the fight goes on.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey explained why this fight is so vital. “Fire and rehire is ripping through our workplaces like a disease,” he said. “Weak law lets bad bosses force through brutal changes to contracts, sometimes taking thousands of pounds off wages that families need to get by.
“It’s a disgraceful practice that’s outlawed in much of Europe and should be here,” he added. “Unite is fighting for UK workers to be treated with the same decency. We won’t stop until the law is changed to protect working people from attack.”
You can find out more about Unite’s End Fire and Rehire campaign, and how you can help, here. You can catch up on all our fire and rehire disputes on UniteLive here.
By Hajera Blagg