Much More than Marmite: The Unilever Strike

January 18, 2012

One popular newspaper has been running stories about ‘Marmite workers’ going on strike. For Unilever’s employees it’s much more than that

To associate Unilever only with one of the manufacturer’s more quirky products is an oversimplification. Unilever is a modern global organization founded by the entrepreneur and social welfare pioneer William Hesketh Lever.

The strike last month and continued today [January 18th 2011] is over the 21st (as well as the 19th century) issue of pension rights. It is believed to be the first in the company’s century of operations.

The Guardian describes the background to the strikes:

Before Christmas, Unilever, which produces goods such as Dove soap, Wall’s ice-cream, PG Tips and Marmite, was hit by the first ever national strike involving its UK operations after revealing plans for a pensions shake-up.
The firm, which employs around 7,000 workers, is looking to move 5,000 staff to a less generous career average scheme by the middle of next year. The remainder are already signed up to the new scheme, which was closed to newcomers in 2008.
On Saturday, leaders of the Unite, Usdaw and GMB unions said they would call for a series of strikes from 17 January, claiming new pension arrangements could cut retirement income for staff by 40%.

A personal view

Unilever recruited me as a technical manager in its Port Sunlight laboratories on Merseyside at the start of my professional career in the late 1960s. Even in proximity to the militant culture of the shipyards of Birkenhead and with Liverpool across the Mersey, Port Sunlight retained its paternalistic but cosy ethos. The laboratory and manufacturing sites were in walking distance from Port Sunlight’s model village built for the workers, with its Art Gallery, Bowls green and (open-air) swimming pool.

Later, as a management researcher, I retained memories leaving me with a largely positive view of big company culture and sensible employee relationships with ‘management’. Today, Unilever employees are facing up to changes to a century of tradition.

[Image is not of your editor protesting for pension rights]

How Long Will Adam Crozier Keep His Job?

October 22, 2009


The first day of the Postal Strike saw the question raised. How long will Royal Mail CEO Adam Crozier keep his job?

During the 2007 strike I suggested that the Royal Mail issue was too hot to handle for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the opposition’s David Cameron. I went in for gloom and doom, muttering about lions led by donkeys and the horsemen of the economic apocalypse.

Little seems to have changed since then. The battle lines are now drawn up over implementation of the fragile agreement reached after the last dispute. The various players in leadership roles appear to be digging in for a fight with few obvious winners. Billy Hayes of the Communications Union (CWD) provides the rhetoric of Trade Union leaders of two or three decades ago. It is unclear whether there is much to be gained, beyond keeping faith with the anger and frustration of his membership.

According to The Communications Union (CWU) [Oct 13th 2009]

Royal Mail is rolling out those changes with little or no concern for the views or interests of our members, the hard-working postal staff .. Worse still, we have seen an alarming rise in bullying and harassment cases with managers using the flimsiest of reasons to sack postal workers with long service. The CWU has offered a three-month no-strike deal in return for negotiations and a suspension of the current changes which are forcing postal workers into industrial action.

The combined challenge of competition, pensions and the need to adapt to a rapidly changing world of communications makes change necessary. Royal Mail’s current approach clearly isn’t working so we’re seeking intensive talks to establish a national agreement that will pave the way for rolling out the change that the company desperately needs.

The Leadership of the Royal Mail

Nor is Royal Mail demonstrating convincing leadership in this matter. If there is a strategy, it is about keeping a low profile. A colleague charitably suggested to me that its CEO Adam Crozier may be deploying a do-nothing strategy, letting the Union self-destruct. It must be a very subtle strategy. It flies in the face of conventional wisdom which suggests it important to demonstrate that corporate leaders are pursuing a sound plan.

Mr Crozier is regarded by many as asmooth but ruthless business operator. His initial appointment might have been over-influenced by his bravura display in his previous job at the Football Association. There seemed little to justify the Royal Mail appoitment in a CV showing time at Saatchi & Saatchi, and Pedigree Petfoods.

At the time that it may have made sense as part of a tough double act of Leighton and Crozier. One tough and abrasive, one tough and smooth.

In an earlier blog I suggested that

Allan Leighton has an appetite for self-publicity as inspection of the Royal Mail website reveals. He presents himself as a dynamic (and somewhat terrifying) leader. In public he attempts to soften the image by implying he is very much one of a team, operating closely with CEO Adam Crozier.

Maybe Leighton saw in Crozier a promising sidekick in a double act. But those skills become less valued when a leader has to act as solitary lightening conductor for political storms…

Which might be the position Mr Cozier finds himself in, now that Allan Leighton has been has replaced by the equally decisive Don Brydon.

Adam Crozier, Royal Mail’s chief executive, could be forgiven if he were a little apprehensive about the Government’s appointment of Donald Brydon as chairman of the state-run postal service. Mr Brydon, who becomes a non-executive director of Royal Mail immediately and is to take over the chairmanship from Allan Leighton at the end of March [2009], has a history of disposing of chief executives. In a recent interview, Mr Brydon, 63, pointed to three examples: the chief executive of Allied “got chopped”; the chief executive of ScottishPower “got chopped”; and he “changed” the chief executive at Smiths, the engineering company, of which he remains chairman

What Next?

Mr Crozier will sooner or later make an appearance above the battlements. One influential commentator, Kevin Maguire of The Mirror, is already calling for his head.

There will be other losers in and outside Royal Mail. It adds up to a potentially gory tale of leadership and its challenges.