Arnaouti Bakery workers’ strike (1997)

August 1, 2008

The five-week strike at the Arnaouti pitta bakery in Tottenham, north London in April/May 1997 had to be seen in the context of other disputes in this area, including JJ Fast Foods dispute in 1995/6. These disputes, several short-lived walk-outs and a factory occupation (Tudor Gold) have taken place amongst low-paid immigrant and refugee workers.

Wages and conditions at the Arnaouti factory were appalling – £3.37 an hour for day workers and a 37p addition for the night shift. A contracted 72-hour week consisted of six 12-hour shifts. If work ran, out workers were sent home without pay, often in the early hours of the morning. Permanent staff got two weeks holiday, but ‘casual’ status could last for years. There was no sick pay or pension.

The strike was provoked by management trying to cut a tea break. The workers walked out on Sunday evening (13th April) and refused to return to work on Monday morning. In all, 65 workers joined the strike, only 13 of whom were ‘permanent’, the rest ‘casuals’. The active strikers were mainly Somali, with one Kurdish worker. Some of the strikers had joined the Baker’s union (BFAWU), whose office was nearby, but the union played no part in instigating the strike. In fact, the union official, a member of the Socialist Labour Party (SLP), was away during the first week of the strike, and unaware of it.

Somehow, a report on the strike appeared in the ‘Morning Star’ on Wednesday and was picked up by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), who visited the picket line. They helped the strikers make placards and wrote down a list of demands on the first leaflet for the strike, which was headed ‘Socialist Worker’, and had a tear off slip for the party at the bottom. They also set up a bank account and did a collection sheet in the name of Haringey Trade Union Council (HTUC), which they dominated.

With the workers they agreed to call a mass picket for 7.15 am on the following Monday morning (21st April) and contacted Haringey Unison, some of whose members were involved in Haringey Solidarity Group. HSG sent the appeal sheet out with our mailing and announced the mass picket on our telephone tree. The mass picket was quite well attended with about 40 people, including the strikers, about 10 members of the SWP, six from HSG and two members of the Socialist Party (SP), fomerly Militant. Myself and somebody from the Socialist Party spoke to a prominent member of the SWP (and Secretary of HTUC) about setting up a support group for the strikers. We were told “a support group already exists – it called Haringey Trades Council”.

My second morning on the picket line drew my attention to the weaknesses of the strike organisation. The strikers didn’t arrive until about 9am, after several scabs had gone in. When they did arrive they seemed reluctant to picket vehicles or scabs going into the factory. There were several scabs from the original workforce, as well as new workers recruited to scab by agencies (H&S in Tottenham amongst others), some of whom looked like school leavers. The strikers managed to turn around a Somali who had been called up by the boss from his ‘casual’ list.We spoke to a driver from Kent and persuaded him not to collect a delivery of pitta. Other drivers were sympathetic but said they would be sacked if they didn’t make the deliveries. The postman also crossed the picket line. It is likely that consistent picketting could have had some impact on the company. As it was, the time of the picket was put back to 9am officially, but even then attendance was sporadic.

The SWP took strikers to visit the Tesco’s distribution depot in Harlow where the workers were in the shop-workers union USDAW. Tesco’s bought 90% of the pitta bread made by Arnaouti. Tesco’s management apparently ‘went ballistic’ when they heard that strikers from Arnaouti had spoken to workers and union reps at the depot.An USDAW full time official predictably distanced himself from any contact with the strikers. The SWP also took the strikers into some workplaces including a large rreeting of Haringey Unison where a good collection was taken. Socialist Party members also took the strikers along to some meetings of refugee groups in London.

When the Bakers Union regional official returned, he contacted the employer and the employer’s federation, the National Association of Master Bakers (NAMB). The union also approached Tesco’s, the main purchaser of Arnaouti bread, and asked them to “distance themselves” from the company. Tesco’s sent a food inspector to the plant, for which the factory was cleaned up, but continued to trade with Arnaouti. Last year Tesco’s made £675 million profit. The strikers and the union also called a demonstration for Friday 2nd May, a date opposed by the SWP on the grounds “everyone would be celebrating the election the night before”. The union, which is very small, had no strike fund, but made a national appeal to a hardship fund. None of the money collected was paid out until after the strike was over.

Members of the Haringey Solidarity Group flyposted for the demonstration and leafletted the Mayday march in Islington with the union leaflet about the strike. It didn’t prove possible to get a meeting of HSG members together to discuss the strike. I worked on a bulletin (optimistically numbered one). Without any discussion by HSG, or any forum to discuss it with the strikers, it had to be fairly non-controversial, and was largely based on an interview with two strikers that appeared in ‘The Socialist’ the SP paper. The leaflet was headed ‘Support bakers’ strike against poverty pay”. Our comrades in the Turkish anarchist group, ‘Fifth of May’, translated it into Turkish. I showed it to some of the leading strikers for approval. We distributed it nationally and at the Mayday festival in Finsbury Park on the following Monday.

By now the strike, and the possible threat to the Tesco ‘s contract, had brought the boss to negotiate. The boss met with a committee of four of the strikers at the Arbitration service (ACAS), without the union official present, on Wednesday 30 April. He offered the strikers a return to work on previous conditions, with the promise of ‘further negotiations’ over their grievances. The strikers rejected a return to work without any gain and the meeting was adjourned until Friday. In the meantime there was the election, and the SWP were ecstatically happy when we met at the picket on Friday. The union had meanwhile called off the demonstration ‘as a gesture of goodwill’ while ‘negotiations’ took place.

As a ‘non-subscribing’ member of the National Association of Master Bakers, the boss gets the advice of the NAMB but does not sign up to agreements it makes with BFAWU over pay and conditions. It seems that the advice he got showed him how to sack the strikers legally. At the reconvened ACAS meeting on Friday he asked for a list of the strikers. In spite of warnings from a member of the SWP and the union off icial, the strikers handed this list to the boss, who used it to send out letters of dismissal over the bank-holiday weekend.

The sackings (which could have happened on day one) caused a crisis in the strike. Many of the strikers seemed unaware that they could be sacked. The strike leaders were reluctant to call a meeting of the strikers in the light of this crisis in the strike. Eventually a meeting happened on 21st May with 16 strikers in attendance. The SWP issued a leaflet entitled “Socialist Worker says How to win the strike”. But this meeting was really about tidying up the debris – the strike had effectively collapsed.

What do we, as libertarian socialists and anarchists, have to learn from the strike? Firstly that it took place. There will undoubtedly be similar strikes amongst low paid immigrant and refugee workers. These workers face multiple problems – of language, of legal status, of isolation, of racism – along with the problems shared by many ‘British’ workers, such as low pay and casualisation. They are unlikely to know their legal rights or lack of them. On the plus side they are likely to have limited loyalty to British trade unions and their methods. There is a potential for strikes to get ‘out of control’ of the trade unions. On the other hand the obstacles against them are significant.

What is our role in strikes like these? For the SWP it is easy – their aim is to recruit members. At the end of the strike they claimed that two strikers had joined the SWP and several were ‘interested’ in Marxism 97, the SWP summer school. How ‘interested’ I don’t profess to know.

For HSG, the issue is solidarity. We wouldn’t be worthy of the name if we didn’t offer what practical support we can. However, we can never be a sustitute for the self activity of the workers themselves, or the lack of it. Strike support work often feels very difficult since we are not the main players and can never be. (Mind you, it often feels the same when you are involved in your own strikes, as I was at the time). It’s also hard watching strikes go down in defeat. Although we shouldn’t overstate the defeats any more than the victories- the strikers I have met since the strike have found other jobs on similar wages. Our job isn’t to make life at places like Arnaouti’s more acceptable – “longer chains, bigger cages”.

It’s doubtful if the strikers got much idea of our politics or organisation. They came to one of our meetings. They seemed to think we were connected to the Socialist Party. They were grateful for any support they got.

What’s wrong with groups like the SWP, in this situation, is not the practical support that they give but the control they seek toexert over support work. They have learned from the JJ Fast Foods workers strike, where a support group was able to have a significant input into the course of a strike, with the SWP noticably absent. They are keen to control support work around future strikes, using their control of moribund bits of the ‘official’ trade union movement like Haringey Trades Council, if necessary.One SWPer made this explicit in a pamphlet he wrote, published by HTUC,on the Arnaouti strike. As in the anti-Poll Tax campaign, they argue that the workplace is “the starting point of a real revolutionary struggle for power”and oppose action in the community. Setting up support groups for strikes is dismissed as “community action” as was the call for a boycott campaign against Tesco’s.

Although a boycott campaign wouldn’t have had any significant effect on sales to working class consumers it would have given supporters the chance to publicise the strike more widely; and potentially the bad publicity would have made Tesco pull out of the contract with Arnaouti. However, a campaign run by the union would always have been in the hands of the lawyers. As the union official pointed out, the case of Middlebrook Mushrooms versus TGWU (1993) makes it illegal to interfere in the contract of a third party, in this case Tesco. In spite of formal opposition to anti-trade union laws and a Socialist Labour Party leadership, BFAWU is not going to take any risks of fines or sequestration.

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