Blog: Dean BestUnilever compared to Willie Walsh as strikes begin

Dean Best | 18 January 2012

Workers at six Unilever sites today (18 January) held industrial action around the UK in the latest protests against the company's reform to its pension scheme - and the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate was compared to perhaps the bete noire of the country's union movement in recent years.

Staff at Unilever plants in Essex, Cheshire, Norwich, as well as at R&D and IT sites on the Wirral, north Wales and Bedfordshire held the latest strikes over the Marmite and Pot Noodle maker's plans to close its final salary pension scheme. The strikes are part of a rolling programme of 11 days of industrial action at those facilities and others around the UK.

Unite national officer Jennie Formby visited the picket lines and told just-food that the turnout was "very high". Workers, Formby said, were frustrated at Unilever's "refusal" to hold discussions on the plans and she said the company's stance suggested it was "trying to out-Walsh Willie Walsh", the former chief executive of British Airways whose moves to reform the airline led to fierce disputes with unions.

Unilever announced plans to make changes to its pension scheme last April. A period of consultation with workers led, Unilever claims, to some modifications to its plans but did not win over union officials, who, the company says, walked out of talks in August.

Since then, the two sides have been locked in what appears to be an intractable dispute. No more talks have been held, union officials insist they are open to fresh discussions but claim Unilever has turned down an offer to meet through conciliation service ACAS. Unite claims Unilever's plans would see some employees lose up to 40% of their expected pension and believe Unilever has no justification for ending the scheme and replacing it with an "inferior" alternative.

Unilever has said the change is "a tough and necessary choice which reflects the realities of rising life expectancy and increased market volatility" and has vowed to press ahead with the new scheme, which is due to be introduced at the start of July.

However, many of its employees are unconvinced by that argument. They claim Unilever's pension scheme is well funded, point to the consumer goods giant's rising profits in 2010 and say it admitted there was no financial necessity for the changes.

Formby reiterated that Unite would be open to more talks. "The ball is in their court," she said. "You cannot find resolution without conversation and dialogue." However, reflecting on Unilever's position she added: "It's hard to see how anything can change, rather than get worse."

In a statement, Unilever said it was "deeply concerned" at what it called "disproportionate action" from unions. "The reality is that the union representatives had multiple opportunities to help shape the greatly improved final outcome of consultation we reached in October, but unfortunately they decided to walk away from talks," the company said.

Unilever repeated that the changes to the pension scheme were a "tough and necessary choice" and added: "We believe the provision of final salary pensions is a broken model which is no longer appropriate for Unilever. It is our responsibility to protect the long-term sustainability and competitiveness of our business, and to do so is in the best interests of our people."

The statement also included a line from Amanda Sourry, chairman of Unilever's UK operations, who said: "It is currently not clear how the dispute with the trade unions will be resolved - but we are continuing to urge our employees who have participated in industrial action to give further objective consideration to the very competitive new arrangements which are unavailable at most other companies in the UK."

Unilever, then, looks set to press ahead with its plans. A prolonged period of strikes could, in theory, hit production and the stocks of Unilever products in stores and force the company to the table (Formby says today's strikes have hit output; Unilever says it has put plans in place to ensure its products are available).

There could be some damage to Unilever's reputation among consumers but the average shopper would likely only notice if the availability of the company's products was affected.

Perhaps one issue for Unilever to watch is whether workers in other countries grow restless. Formby claims there is support among Unilever staff in Europe for the stance of UK employees and says Unite is planning demonstrations on the Continent.

As of now, however, there is only a stand-off, with more strikes planned between now and the end of the month and Unilever set to implement its changes.


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