The strike at Mondelez (formerly Cadbury’s) plant in Coolock, Dublin, forced the management to withdraw their attempt to outsource 17 stores staff.
The 350 production workers at the plant staged a strong picket on Monday and Tuesday 7 and 8 March. SIPTU and UNITE workers stood together, supported by staff gathered at the gates, and brought to a halt the 24-hour production line.
Only management passed the picket line and, with no workers, nothing moved in the factory. All deliveries from the Cadburys chocolate crumb plant in Rathmore Kerry, were cancelled. As one worker said afterwards, the strike showed that they could deliver a 100% effective picket and stand up to management’s long running attempts to attack workers’ conditions.
Pulling the strings
The picket was called off on the Tuesday after unions and management at the Workplace Relations Committee had come up with a deal. It was clear that the outsourcing had been stopped. But the workers in the plant were left in the dark as to what else the deal contained. As we go to press, the unions have called a full meeting in Liberty Hall for Saturday March 12 recommending acceptance of the deal.
Management’s plan for the Coolock plant was to introduce new chocolate making technology and concentrate on Twirl, Flake and Dairy Milk brands for sale in Ireland and for export. They wanted to slim down production to maximize Mondelez’s already massive profit margins.
Their proposals involved many changes to existing work practices. Changes to shift working, for example, would involve the evening shift now finishing at 11pm instead of 10pm, making getting home more difficult for those workers who do not live locally. These aspects of the deal will remain in place.
The company appeared to offer a sweetener of a pay deal of 1.5% over two years –but this was well below the private sector norm. The union agreed to this and further cost cuts in the store area, provided that the company dropped it outsourcing plans. In playing outsourcing off against other issues, the union now finds itself swallowing claw backs in conditions that many workers are not happy with.
Over the years, Cadbury workers have seen their numbers cut by three quarters, increased casualization, and felt the threat of closure hanging over them. During this dispute, the management in Zurich threatened that they would leave and take the production to Poland.
Union officials appeared to accept that the firm’s viability was under threat. Siptu Offcial, Gerry McCormack, while opposing any outsourcing, stressed that the main fear was whether the company had a long term commitment to the facility.
The company has invested in new machinery in the Coolock plant – not a sign that they are prepared to up and leave in a hurry. The restructuring plan of the company was to pave the way for a €11.7 million investment in new chocolate making technology. Moving location is costly and disruptive for corporations. And while workers were picketing the company, with valuable assets inside, the company was not in a position to dictate terms.
There are further battles ahead. Craft workers fear that in the restructuring their work will be outsourced and downgraded. The company has already proposed that the grades of fitter and electrician would be merged into a new Maintenance Technician, with different terms and conditions. The (misnamed) Labour Court, under deputy chairman Brendan Hayes, formerly of SIPTU, ruled in favour of this. Again the union has insisted that outsourcing is the main threat, and indicated that it is willing to negotiate on terms and conditions.
With the WRC intervention, the decision about whether to continue the strike was taken out of the workers hands. Some workers felt that they were being held over a barrel by management and that the WRC was playing into Mondelez’s hands. If an emergency meeting of the workers had been called while the picket was on, everyone could have agreed democratically whether the deal was acceptable.
The strength of strike showed that outsourcing could be stopped. The strike presented a real opportunity to redress the balance in favour of basic union rights.
But organising a strong, accountable union committee, answerable only to the workers they represent – not to Kieran Mulvey nor official negotiators – will be key to ensuring that workers’ rights are fully defended at Cadburys’ in the future.