We deplore the Clarks shoe company for its threat to “fire and rehire” workers at its Westway warehouse in Street, and commend the workers for their decision to resist, going out on strike since 4 October in defence of their pay, working conditions and livelihoods.
Even before the pandemic the company’s fortunes were flagging. Shoppers moved online, store rents went up and company losses ballooned to £172 million. Scenting an opportunity for cheap and easy pickings, the private equity vultures began to circle.
Overturning a long tradition of relatively benign management under the stewardship of the Clarks family, the company was “saved” by LionRock Capital, a Hong Kong-based private equity company which bought out the Clarks family. LionRock rapidly made it clear that the “salvation” of the company required a ruthless attack on the pay, working conditions and job security of all the people that worked for it. After initially axing 900 job, Clarks put the jobs of all its remaining 4,000 shop staff up for “consultation”.
When workers on the Westway site were faced with the choice to accept inferior pay and conditions or lose their jobs, they voted by 88% to go on strike. Community, the union representing them, says the terms which Clarks are forcing on Westway workers would push them into financial destitution and even homelessness. The company is pushing for its employees to accept far-reaching reduced conditions, with everything from a reduction in hourly wage, sick pay and annual holidays, to a mean-spirited removal of 10-minute coffee breaks and complimentary hot drinks. Worst hit are long-serving workers whose loyalty to the company is being rewarded by hefty pay cuts.
The bosses have tried everything to break the strike, from drafting in agency staff to act as scabs to falsely accusing strikers of intimidation and hate speech! Now after stonewalling for months, it is reported that Clarks has finally agreed to go to arbitration with ACAS. How that pans out remains to be seen (ACAS is not as “independent” as is made out), but what the strikers have already made clear by their courageous stand is that it is not up to workers to pay for the failures of capitalism, but rather to fight for the interests of the working class. In making this stand, the strikers deserve our wholehearted support.