We need decisive action to halt devastation
• by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser
· Nearly 500 workers and their families at the last major manufacturing site in Glasgow’s East End, McVitie’s biscuits, are facing the devastation of outright closure by the owners, Turkish giant, Pladis.
This is the company who enjoyed rocketing sales, production and profits during the pandemic, largely through the self-sacrifice and commitment of their workers, leading to revenues of £2.1billion and profits leaping up by 120 per cent to £186million last year.
And Pladis is itself one component of the vast conglomerate Yildiz Holdings, which became the world’s third-largest biscuit company after seizing ownership of United Biscuits in 2014, and thereby McVitie’s.
It’s no struggling corner shop, clobbered by the Coronavirus crisis, but a thriving, booming multinational with factories in 14 countries, and with absolutely no excuse for slaughtering the jobs of workers who risked their lives to ‘feed the nation’, as Pladis bosses themselves declared the McVitie’s workers were doing, as they compelled them to work right through the life-threatening pandemic.
This one act of industrial vandalism sums up all that is rotten about the profit-driven capitalist system, where people and their lives are sacrificed for profit maximisation. Where marauding multinationals hunt the globe in search of cheaper labour.
The entire trade union movement needs to rally round the McVitie’s workers. As part of that, the STUC should look at calling a mass demonstration to display the unity of workers and communities against the profiteering industrial vandals in the Pladis boardroom. The phenomenal potential public support to be tapped in a Demo is already clear from nearly 50,000 signing the workers’ online petition.
And the GMB and UNITE national leaderships should make sure no McVitie’s factory is prepared to handle any work transferred to their site out of Tollcross: if they get away with this, your jobs and children’s jobs could be next!
Glasgow City Council should pass emergency measures to prevent the Tollcross site being flattened and sold by land speculators—like Yildiz Holdings and its property portfolio.
And if the Pladis plunderers refuse to reverse their plan to shut down the factory, the Scottish Government should be pressured into taking over production, to harness the skills of all 470 workers, and collaborate with the unions and other industry experts to develop a plan of socially useful food production, with the necessary investment that the capitalist owners have repeatedly refused to carry out. To halt this destruction of jobs, livelihoods and entire communities.
The Action Group/Task Force that’s been set up should enlist the expertise of the workers and their unions to help draft plans for socially useful production, to employ the skills and dedication of nearly 500 workers and feed the people, not the profits of a multi-billionaire company with no loyalty to those who produced their wealth.
Historically, the Cooperative movement produced food, as well as selling it. Why can’t the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council take such a bold step now, as thousands go hungry every day and queues form at foodbanks in this food-rich nation?
· Please take one small step in solidarity with the McVitie’s workers: sign the petition here
Feed the people, not Pladis profits
Richie Venton discussed the threatened closure of McVitie’s biscuit factory in Tollcross, Glasgow with GMB union convenor Peter Doherty and GMB deputy convener Steven Porter
McVitie’s has been in Tollcross since 1925. How was the closure announced? Was the union consulted in advance?
The factory manager took workers into a warehouse and said this is David Murray. He’s the company president. He thanked workers for what we did during the pandemic but announced they propose factory closure.
His whole speech lasted three or four minutes, at most. There were no questions allowed. He then just walked out again. He arrived and left in a blacked-out car with a couple of burly minders. We were completely blindsided.
What was the reaction of workers?
There was total disbelief and shock. The last time there was any such talk it was announced in advance not to go to work but to go up to the canteen, which was all decked out.
On this occasion they brought one shift on and then halfway through the shift they cleared a big part of the warehouse. Senior managers were asking me what was going on, but I didn’t know.
I was taken into a room along with the Unite convenor at 2 o’clock and told to stay there. So I couldn’t be with the members.
At ten to 3, the factory manager took us to where the meeting was being held in the warehouse, but by the time we changed into safety boots and walked there, David Murray was already halfway through his speech.
Workers then started asking us, the union, “Did you know about this?” and we took the flack at first. They’d obviously planned it this way.
But once staff learned the truth, now they’ve turned on the management, although we’ve known for the last four years of the threat to the factory because they often met under the heading ‘Keeping Tollcross opened’.
They got a modernisation programme agreed which took all our bank holidays and made overtime compulsory every second weekend.
It went from being 8-hour shifts to being 12-hour shifts. One week two 12-hour shifts, and the other week, five 12-hour shifts.
With an ageing workforce that is horrendous for older workers, being on their feet on a concrete floor that length of time. We get 95 minutes’ break spread over the 12 hours, but it’s still a day-and-a-half working, to put it a better way.
The workers range from people aged 20 to some aged 70, but there are certainly a lot in their 40s, 50s and 60s. There are a lot of long service workers in here.
Is that partly because of relatively good wages?
Yes, it’s fairly decent wages and always has been. And it’s a second family in here. You see more of them than your own family, because of the length of shifts. It’s a tightknit, family orientated workforce.
Hence why it hit people so hard when Andy Millar lost his life in such tragic circumstances. He’d worked here 37 years, was well known and liked throughout the four shifts. He had his own problems, but always had a smile on his face and a lot of devilment in him.
Why do you think Pladis want to shut Tollcross?
With the pandemic they made an awful lot of money. We performed well over the last three years, but they’ve always been looking to shut it. Tollcross is an older factory.
Since the Turkish owners came in it’s become much more English orientated. There’s a big site in Harlesden, London, the jewel in their crown, and a big distribution centre in Leicester.
Pladis have factories in Turkey, Egypt, Israel, all over Europe. They can get cheaper labour in Egypt and other places. When Pladis took over, initially we thought great, they’re a biscuit company. Previously the owners, Blackstone, were just a collection of directors.
But it turns out Pladis are only interested in the brand name. We used to produce a lot of Digestives biscuits, now that’s produced in Egypt. Eventually they will try to take it all abroad. We’ve said to the unions in other UK factories “It’s coming to a cinema near you,” so we need the unity to stop that.
They also own the land at Tollcross, and Pladis have a portfolio that buys and sells land, Yildiz Holdings. They have an interest in flattening this place. We’ve asked Glasgow City Council if there are any requests for planning permissions in sight, but we’ve not heard back yet.
We estimate it would cost £20-25million to close the Tollcross factory, with redundancies, removal of asbestos, and the antiquated drains that we’ve always had problems with.
Surely, they could just open a new site, such as near the Clyde, and rejuvenate the place? British Telecom and DHL have moved there. But they have an appetite for closure.
There’s great transport links here, with the M74. We’ve been performing well in the past three years, so they can’t say it’s down to the workforce. Other sites have shiny new machinery, ours is 60 or 70 years old and we’re still beating them in performance. If they took the ropes off our hands, we could be even more productive.
What happened during the Covid-19 pandemic?
People were told to still come into work, because we’re feeding the nation. We were given a slip of paper each in case we were stopped by the police. People were scared and anxious about the dangers. We had to fight to get some who should be shielded.
I have an elderly mother. I dreaded the thought of bringing Covid back into the house to her. I ended up in hospital with Covid pneumonia and so did my 79-year-old mother. Unknown to me she was in the next ward.
I fought to get two drugs rather than go on a ventilator. My wife and boy ended up with it too. Coming back to work I’m terrified of catching it again and I’m on three medications that I’ve never had before. And that applies to a lot of people in here. We were literally putting our lives at risk for them.
At the very start there were no preventative measures taken. They gave us six weeks’ pay as a bonus. It was like dirty money. Getting stuff in place was a fight. A fight for common-sense measures.
It was us, as union reps and healthy safety reps, that got all the things implemented, like one-way systems; a second door to locker rooms; screens; sanitising stations, and single sink use. We fought and got a lot. But they were making so much money during the pandemic, these measures were only a drop in the ocean for them.
If Pladis persist with closure, what should the Scottish Government do?
They should retrain people for different jobs. A lot of them have been here since school and don’t know anything else. A lot of older workers are not computer literate and need upskilling by the Scottish Government. If we can’t stop the closure, then we should fight for enhanced redundancy.
We’re told they’re bringing in an outside manufacturing manager, from a contract company, and a HR manager who boasts about the number of places they’ve closed. We don’t think they have any intention of keeping Tollcross open. They just want to show they’re following the process.
What about using the skills and investing or adapting the equipment to produce for a nation that suffers terrible food poverty and foodbanks?
I think aye, but the other problem is that after the Scottish Government’s bailout of Ferguson shipyard I’m not sure if it has the stomach for this. In the past we have seen management buyouts and co-ops. There’s certainly a loyal, hard-working, multi-skilled workforce who, given the chance, would definitely produce.
Would the factory be adaptable to new products?
The equipment is antiquated. There are five or six ovens. A lot were brick built inside and the bricks are collapsing. It’s just been firefighting to keep things produced, stripping one oven to repair others. And a lot of the ovens are at the end of their life because of the type of burners.
It would take a lot, about £60million, to get the site up to scratch. New machines, ovens, mixers, the roof, and so on.
So would it be better to invest in a new site?
It would be better to go to a new site and focus on certain products. For example, there’s a lot of money in mallows for Marks & Spencers, and shortbread is a big seller. Nigeria is one of the biggest markets for shortbread, where they can’t get enough of it, they love it!
Has the Scottish Government already invested in the factory?
The government gave £1million for training and upskilling, but it’s rather dubious how the money was spent. We saw a lot of people after two weeks of training being told to just sign off, even though they were still not confident of what they were doing. We advised them not to agree to sign off the training.
They were just being rushed through, not getting the training we used to get, where we knew every nook and cranny of the machinery.
What can the wider trade union movement do to help?
Highlight it. It was great the press being there at the rally on Saturday. We need to keep it in the public eye, show that it’s not yesterday’s chip poke. And the longer this goes on we’ll be taking further action.
We have a great workforce, and we work hard, so it’s just not acceptable to be cast aside.