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Tim Collins
Job title
Factory convenor
Workers at the Aintree Jacob’s Cream Cracker factory took 11 weeks of strike action to stand up to bullying and intimidation from management and fight for better pay. The factory’s convenor, Tim Collins, tells us how they won their hard-fought battle and gives insight into the effort needed to keep the peace after months of tension.
gmb picket line with paul nowak
Paul Nowak joins Tim and other striking GMB members on the picket line

I first came to the factory 17 years ago as a young lad. It was a good employer then, you could earn a few bob and people made you feel welcome. Most of us live local. You wake up in the morning and you can smell the baking. Family members brought other family members – my auntie worked here, then me and my wife came, then we got my brother a job and then my nephew!

We’ve seen a change over the past six or seven years where things have become difficult, and it makes you question if you want to continue working here. A lot of that is down to senior leadership at Pladis, but it’s down to management at the factory as well. Because of all the problems we negotiated for a full-time convenor a while back and I took over the position five years ago.

The dispute had been brewing for a while, but it came to a head following Covid. Every production line ran through the whole pandemic, the company never lost a penny, it was tens of millions of profit. What bonus did our members get out of it? We got Christmas Eve off. And the company was trying to bully people into training other people even though it wasn’t their job to. It used to be that you got paid £35 extra a week to train but now they wanted people to do it for free. Members were being dismissed when they were absent – we have an ageing workforce and many are female and have had complications from menopause, or have repetitive strain injuries in their shoulders, backs, legs or arms from preparing the dough, packing the biscuits and stacking the pallets. We’ve had people going off for mental health issues and the next thing you know they were finished on capability. It got really nasty.

I could see the way the company was going, and I knew we needed to be prepared to put up a fight. We first balloted for industrial action around the issue of people being asked to train when it wasn’t in their contracts, but we lost that by 0.1% of the legal threshold. At that point I gave the factory general manager an olive branch. I said: “This is an opportunity for me and you to put the foundations for the future”. But I got nothing back. He didn’t want to work together to make things better.

gmb strikers at jacobs factory
"Give us a payrise, not your crumbs" banner outside the factory

In October 2021 we submitted a pay claim – it was when inflation was bouncing around 7% or more and we wanted a fair increase to reflect the cost of living but also for working through Covid and not being properly paid for it. We didn’t hear anything until February – and it was an offer of 2%. We rejected it and it took them another three months before they came back with 3%, and this time it was conditional that people had training included in their contact for no extra pay. You can imagine how that went down!

I’ll never forget the factory manager actually said: “I’d like to see you ballot on pay!” He was so smug. So we thought: ‘Let him have it!’ and made him eat those words. We balloted on pay and this time 92% voted for strike action. It was phenomenal.

Realising we were going out was a pinch me moment, I’m not going to lie. It was daunting to have so many people all out at once – there were around 700 of us. But I was absolutely up for it, I was determined to make change for the membership and for the factory’s future. We gave the 14 days’ notice and didn’t give them any time to get back around the table with the empty words and promises. People had had enough, they’d had the life sucked out of them.

We started with discontinuous action. The pattern was Monday night shift for 12 hours, back in Tuesday morning, back out Wednesday morning, back in Wednesday evening, back out Thursday night. We were doing it deliberately to cause maximum disruption because it takes 12/14 hours to get the oven temperatures back up and the dough ready.

gmb strikers at jacobs factory
Staff on strike at night with support from passing by cars

I’ll never forget that first night, it was absolutely amazing. I hired a van and bought all the equipment, gazebos, heating, lighting, generators, everything. I’m one of them that looks after people and I felt a sense of pride. It was pretty lively. We were doing protests up and down the main road, we had banners, we were on social media live and Twitter. I’d go there at five in the evening after my day’s work, set up the picket line, and then finish in the morning.

One day we took the message to the company’s London headquarters. I just turned up at the picket line one morning with a coach and said: “Who wants a day out? We’re going to London!” And wow, the energy was absolutely electric. It was like something out of a film. There’s a little bridge over the lake by the offices and we walked over waving 50 brand new GMB flags with all our vuvuzelas and whistles. It was a load of scousers shouting: “What do we want? Better pay! When do we want it? Now!” I said to the head of security: “We want a director down here or we’re going nowhere.” And we got one! We told her how bad things were.

We thought they’d want to get back round the table and talk but they weren’t interested, so after seven and a half weeks of discontinuous action, we stepped it up to continuous. That was the moment everything changed – when everyone felt like they could do what they wanted and they couldn’t be bullied anymore. The picket line became like a party. Everyone was celebrating. The vuvuzelas were going, we had DJs, dancing, fire pits, a Christmas tree, everyone was bringing food. After the bad atmosphere inside, it was like we created a family again out there.

It’s surreal saying I have lovely memories of it because no one should have to go on strike – no one should be pushed to that limit – but we made the best of it, even though it was leading up to Christmas and the rain and the wind weren’t kind. There was one time when the roof blew off a gazebo when the storm was blowing a gale! We must have had 50 or 60 people underneath holding the frame and I’ll never forget the song Things Can Only Get Better came on the radio. I was wetting myself with laughter!

gmb strikers at jacobs factory
Gazebo collapsing in high winds but not disheartening strikers

We had so much support. All day long people were driving past with their horns going, people from the community would come down for a cuppa or drop off crates of pop or a couple of pounds. One morning I was out there at 3am and a comrade from Australia came by and gave us a massive barbeque! Paul Nowak, who was newly in post, came down to lend his support and we even made it on to Good Morning Britain. It was inspirational because we didn’t feel alone.

The police were called a few times – mostly by us. There were times when we felt that certain members of management were driving too fast or recklessly when they knew the picket line was in place. At one point a female member was trying to move out of the way of a vehicle and it clipped her and she fell over. Emotions did get the better of people sometimes and it was hard to manage it all. I had to say: “We’re going to hold our fort, we’re going to show the company and the rest of the nation what we’re about, but we’re not going to send the wrong message.”

It was blood, sweat and tears to get a deal on the table. It took negotiations through Acas. It felt like we were school children because they had the directors in one room and us in the other and them facilitating between us. Lisa from GMB was absolutely amazing throughout all of it – we were a partnership.

I’ll be the first to put my hands up and tell you we didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got the best deal that we could get. We’d started off with 2% and we settled on 6.5% with a £500 payment for cost of living. This means a lot of people have picked up over £2000 more than last year, so it’s an OK deal if you look at it. And we had been at a point where the company were forcing people to train or they were going to face disciplinary action or even lose their job, and we’ve had that removed – now people get paid £40 a month for doing that. That’s a huge success story, absolutely huge.

There has been commitment from the company to rebuild the trust and remove the bullying. They said they value the relationship with the GMB and they actually want to make change and build bridges. We’ve not met with them yet, so there’s a way to go. There’s quite a lot of members who didn’t want to end the action and they’re still quite down and beaten about it, but I’m telling them there’s a bright future ahead, we’ve taken part in an 11-week strike action, the company cannot ignore us. There will be positive change.

It been overwhelming to have a bit of normality back. You’ve got people having dinner with each other again in the canteen where no one was doing that before. That’s the part I enjoy, people coming together. I feel positive because I feel like we’re on a road where not just internally but nationally there’s a change within the union movement. I think our strike has had an impact on that because we’ve had a lot of others saying: “Wow, you’ve been quite inspirational” so I think the impact for us has been if you stand up together you can win. You can be heard.

Aintree Jacob’s Cream Cracker factory staff
Aintree Jacob’s Cream Cracker factory staff
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