Unite members working for Great Bear distribution recently organised a factory gate meeting at the Unilever Port Sunlight factory to protest at the dismissal of a Unite shop steward and the company’s refusal to pay full sick pay for workers self-isolating.
The meeting, organised by Unite North West, showed how protests and workplace meetings can still be organised safely and effectively.
Everyone observed social distancing rules. When the organisers were explaining why the meeting took place, they made sure that they explained to local residents who were watching and listening why the meeting had been organised and how they were adhering to social distancing measures.
Steve Gerrard, the Unite officer who organised the meeting, said that the managers of Great Bear locally had decided to ignore the guidelines of the national company on paying full sick pay during the pandemic. It had said that workers who were ill or self-isolating would only get statutory sick pay. They could legally do this because the sick pay system at Great Bear is a discretionary scheme, with no contractual agreement for full sick pay.
A Unison health worker gave a message of solidarity and said that the Safe and Equal campaign had been organising on this very issue. Following some debate, the meeting voted to begin the process of organising strike action.
This protest demonstrated that physical meetings, where there is debate and collective decision making, are the most effective and democratic form of organising. Instead of the union being a distant agency that represents people individually, branch members here could see that they themselves are the union, and their dispute with management could best be responded to collectively and strengthened by solidarity from other workers.
The movement can organise these meetings and protests safely, and we should do so.