The Perils of Partnership – Workers Protest John Lewis

April 30, 2009

Sacked workers from Stead McAlpin in Newcastle

Sacked workers from Stead McAlpin in Newcastle

John Lewis has always managed to maintain a fluffy public image. Maybe it’s the word “partnership” that floats around its public persona, or the general homeliness of its retail acreage. But it’s a massive and abusive corporation nonetheless.

Superficially, it all seems nice. It’s corporate website boasts that “The John Lewis Partnership is a visionary and successful way of doing business, boldly putting the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does.” It relates how the 69,000 permanent employees of the company are “partners” who co-own the firm’s properties, although I do note a grammatical clanger when it describes how they also own “a production unit and a farm with a turnover of nearly £6.9 billion last year.”

That’s some farm!

Despite the propaganda, John Lewis is using the recession to cut back on workers’ rights and downsize its British manufacturing operations. Workers at Stead McAlpin, a textile manufacturing firm based mainly in northern England, had thought that being under the John Lewis umbrella guaranteed some basic rights, such as severance pay. But last month, workers at the firm which was sold by John Lewis to Apex (“a boutique investment bank”) in 2007 had a nasty surprise.

As the Socialist reported, while John Lewis had assured workers that their severance packages would be honoured when Apex took over, many of them were taken aside and given just fifteen minutes to leave the premises. At plants in both Carlisle and Newcastle, workers left with no severance benefits and with some even having to apply for wages owed to them by the firm.

John Lewis is refusing to contribute to honour the promises that it made befor the takeover, leaving sacked workers in a desperate position.

As Chris Oats from the Carlisle plant put it, “We were textile workers up against professionals. I asked the personnel head: If we are all co-owners, what part of the business do we own? He replied: Tough decisions have to be made.”

Carolyn Benn found that the promises of John Lewis, like the chimera of their chummy business model, had vanished into thin air. “The factory used to be like an extended family” she said, “but we didn’t even get time to say goodbye.”

Workers in Newcastle have taken to the streets, protesting outside John Lewis in the city centre. They aren’t susceptible to the propaganda any more. As Alan McDermott puts it, “it was only a democracy until their profits were threatened” adding that “then there was an inner steel ring to defend: big pensions; big salaries and big pay-offs for the bosses.”

Meanwhile, workers who were kept on by Stead McAlpin are well aware of the situation. As Chris Hughes told the Socialist Worker, “The administrators asked the 60 of us who are left working at the factory to do overtime last week, but we refused. To do it would be a betrayal of the people who have just been sacked.”

By selling off its operations to a “boutique bank,” John Lewis believes that it has divested itself of responsibility to honour promises that it made to its employees. This is fairly mundane trickery – the usual round of manipulation and shirking that characterises corporate Britain, including the John Lewis Partnership.

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