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UK: Wal-Mart Faces Asda Workers' Strike

by Jonathan Birchall and Andrew TaylorThe Financial Times
June 22nd, 2006

Wal-Mart is facing the threat of a potentially damaging strike at Asda, the UK subsidiary that accounts for about 40 per cent of its international sales, in a dispute with one of the country's largest unions over bargaining rights.

The GMB union, which represents about half of Asda's warehouse workers, on Wednesday announced plans for a five-day strike from June 30 – coinciding with the final stages of the World Cup football tournament. The strike will be followed by what the union described as a "comprehensive" programme of actions.

The threat of a strike comes as Asda has been struggling to improve its performance in an intense battle for market share in the UK with Tesco, the largest UK grocer, and J Sainsbury. It also marks the retailer's worst clash with organised labour since it acquired Asda's partially unionised operations in 1999. Wal-Mart is aggressively opposed to dealing with unions in the US and Canada, where it has successfully resisted organising attempts by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

Phil Davies, GMB national secretary, said that he saw "a clear clash of cultures between the way workers do business in Britain and the way Wal-Mart does business". The union believed that Wal-Mart was "gearing up to try to break this strike", he said.

The union wants Asda to bargain directly with it on behalf of all the workers at its 20 distribution centres in the UK and is pushing for payment of a £300 ($550) bonus that it argues was unfairly withheld last year. The union said it would consider legal action if Asda attempted to minimise the effects of the strike by hiring casual workers from employment agencies.

It has also said it would mount surveillance cameras outside Asda's 20 distribution centres to ensure that the company did not use non-union temporary workers to break any strike.

The company has pledged to minimise the impact of a national strike on customers, but says it will stay within the law. It planned to use employment agencies only in the normal way to cope with fluctuations in seasonal demand and to cover staff on holiday.

Asda is considering whether to bring legal action of its own against the GMB's handling of the ballot that approved the strike.






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