Social dialogue at Suma

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Social dialogue at Suma

Suma Wholefoods is the UK’s largest workers’ co-operative. Based in Elland, West Yorkshire, It operates a wholesale business in natural foods, which it purchases, repackages and delivers across the UK. It has also developed a range of ‘own brand’ products which are manufactures externally. The business was founded in 1975 and converted to a co-operative in 1977. It is an industrial and provident society using ICOM model rules. It successfully operates an extremely collective management model without a management hierarchy, and with all workers being paid the same wage, and with all roles being shared and rotated. The co-operative now has about 140 members. There are in addition about 10 permanent workers who have not chosen to apply for membership as they do not wish to rotate functions. A key role is that of ‘rota person’ who draws up the schedule of who works in which role at any time.

Annual turnover is €32 million. Wages are about €36,000 per year, which is approximately the national average wage and is some 20% above the norm for the distribution sector. A share of the co-operative’s profits is distributed in the form of a wage bonus towards the end of each year, and this normally runs at one or two months’ wages.

It has its own branch of the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), which has some 25,000 members overall. About three-quarters of the workforce are members.

Suma has always had a predisposition in favour of trade unions, but for much of its life there has in practice been little interaction. In the 1970s, informal, approaches were made to the TGWU, to which several members already belonged, but were met with incomprehension. This century, UNITE (the successor of the TGWU) was also approached but showed no interest in recruiting Suma employees into membership or allowing them to set up their own branch. This changed in 1998 when the Bakers’ Union was delighted to have Suma’s employees form a branch.

Suma has a very civilised relationship with BFAWU, and can hold an open conversation with it. The union helps members to ensure they do not over-exploit themselves, and plays a very positive role in health and safety. A major issue is injury to workers’ backs, hips and other organs caused by carrying heavy sacks. Since the 1970s the maximum pack weight has fallen from 100 kg to 25 kg, which decreases the implicit discrimination against women workers. The union pays great attention to safety practices, and often brings workers from other factories to look at Suma.

The union has also sent an experienced official in cases of dispute, such as appeals against dismissal: its role is to see that the disciplinary and grievance procedures are followed correctly, and it has not always taken the worker’s side. It also helps dismissed works to find another job.

Source: Bob Cannell, Suma


Press article from the BFAWU website 10th October 2008

20 years and not out!

Celebrating 20 years of being in the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union are Suma workers John Hart, Gerald Johnston, Matt Pinnell, Graham Findley, Andy Collis, Frank Kane, Bob Cannell, Avtar Lota, Jon Knight and Julie Knott. Trying to become union members though was not an easy option for Suma workers and it took some grit and determination for these stalwarts to get this far. In 1984 Suma, based in Leeds at that time, approached a number of Unions in Leeds but got the ‘cold-shoulder’ as Suma was an industrial worker cooperative. Management unions weren’t interested as they were workers and worker unions regarded them as owners. Eventually Suma settled for the voluntary sector branch of the T&GWU though it was a bit of a pointless exercise as many of their issues were not relevant to Suma. However, when Suma re-located to Dean Clough, Halifax it was an ideal opportunity to change. Contact was made with various unions explaining their plight but many unions didn’t even bother to reply. However there was light at the end of the tunnel – BFAWU turned up on Suma’s doorstep the next day, agreed they could have their own branch and started to enrol members. Suma workers have had the help and support of the BFAWU ever since. Most of the benefits of being in the BFAWU have been fully utilised over the years by the members – except on one front – they have never had to get involved in pay rise disputes as they are all paid the same rate and democratically agree their wage. Suma union members are proud to have been part of the BFAWU for so long and have been supportive of various issues over the years including the Miners Strike.

Source: final report of MESMER project: