Much More than Marmite: The Unilever Strike

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]

2 Responses to Much More than Marmite: The Unilever Strike

  1. Paul Hinks says:

    Hi Tudor –

    I do sympathise with the position that the Unilever workforce are facing – in my mind they’re right to feel aggrieved and to protest.

    I’m thinking about the longer term implications of the proposal and how this might play out in affecting the culture and relationship between staff and the ‘management’.

    In my mind, erosion of T&Cs (inc. pension benefits) is likely to erode trust between the workforce and the Unilever management team. More so, such a change could influence the existing culture – ultimately impacting the performance of the organisation as staff begin to question the true values of the organisation they’re working for.

    This may sound quite extreme, but changing a benefit that employees value greatly, and one which they recognise is linked to their longer term welfare, is indeed a bold move by the Unilever management team.

    I do believe ethical leadership is an important factor in creating a strong, dynamic, high performance culture. Employees are often touted as an organisation’s greatest asset; an organisation with a strong culture based on trust, is more likely to produce great results than an organisation with a workforce which is challenging the ethics, morals and motives of those steering the ship.

  2. It will be interesting to obtain some comments from inside the Organization.

    [Hint to leadership students: An interesting story for DOL?]

    I have an unread copy of a quite recent book on Unilever somewhere, which I intended to review…

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