On the 19th of May Thames Valley SolFed coordinated a day of action against Holland & Barrett as part of the national SF anti-workfare campaign. Pickets were held in both Reading & Oxford.
The Reading Holland & Barrett branch is situated in a narrow, pedestrian-only alley that always attracts a steady flow of passers-by as it opens onto two very busy streets. It is an ideal location to organise a picket because people can’t avoid it very easily. Thames Valley SolFed members, together with a Reading IWW comrade, had very good visibility. We leafleted outside the shop for about 15 minutes before the community officers and a copper turned up. They moved us on because our presence was a potential ‘breach of the peace’. We therefore split into 2 groups and leafleted at both ends of the alley.
People’s reactions were by and large very supportive. Many people stopped to talk to us to find out more about the workfare programme and/or Holland & Barrett’s involvement in it. The shop’s manageress’ reaction was far less sympathetic. After she found out about our presence she came to argue with us that we were barking up the wrong tree because the Reading branch has recently had a young woman working there unpaid for a month and she had been so happy with her experience that she came back voluntarily for additional days. The message apparently being that it is okay for companies to make people work for nothing but is not okay for people to object about it.
We told her then and we want to repeat now that this is missing the whole point. It is totally irrelevant that some people enjoy their unpaid work experience. The point is that they should get a proper and decent salary for the work they do.
In Oxford, TVSF members were joined by others sympathetic to the anti-Workfare campaign.
Oxford has two Holland & Barrett shops, one in the Westgate shopping centre and the other in the Golden Cross Centre by the covered market. We started at the Golden Cross branch but as the footfall there was very low, we decamped to the Westgate centre.
There, we were immediately met by the manager who said she had no objections to our presence and offered us a cup of tea which we politely declined. Soon afterwards however, having had great response from passers-by, Westgate Security turned up & told us we had to move as it was private property. We again politely declined. Some fifteen minutes later the police arrived and we had a lively discussion about the law regarding permissible places to protest. We pointed out that the manager had said we could be there. The cops then went to talk to her and, wouldn’t you know it? – she had changed her mind! Apparently, we were causing her takings to be “well below what was expected” so well done, us!
We continued our discussion as the officers didn’t seem quite sure about the legal status of the ground we were standing on but eventually they went and got the Centre Manager who officially asked us to leave. I spoke to the police about possible consequences of refusing and he told me that if we didn’t leave we would be charged and prohibited from entering the Centre for three months. After a brief discussion among ourselves, we decided to leave.
At the Police’s suggestion we went back to the other shop, shadowed by them and Community Support Officer reinforcements. At one point there was about three times as many police/security as picketers. This actually helped as it piqued the curiosity of the public. We had some lively chats, not least with the the manager herself! She became quite angry and abusive but after we refuted all her “arguments” in front of the public onlookers she left us to it.
All in all, we had a positive response from 99% of the passers-by & got our message across very well. At both the Westgate and the Golden Cross centre we had a good response from workers in the surrounding shops – no doubt because the issue of workfare strikes so close to them and their own jobs. This is certainly not the end of the Anti-Workfare campaign in Thames Valley.