A statement to the Good Funeral Guide from the GMB

Charles Cowling

The co-operative movement has a history to be proud of. Founded by working people for working people, its principles were formulated by the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844.

Given its origins, it makes you blink and/or howl with disbelief to learn that Co-operative Funeralcare, the People’s Undertaker, has derecognised a trade union, the GMB. This seems to fly in the face of its foundational principles and to disqualify it as a high-minded ethical organisation.

The consequences of this betrayal for the People’s Undertaker and the wider Co-operative movement have been, from time to time, humiliating. The Co-op was banned by the Glastonbury Festival in 2007 and from the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in 2008. It has been condemned by the TUC for its victimisation and harassment of shop stewards, and excluded from all involvement with, or sponsorship of, TUC activities.

Find out about the GMB campaign here.

To date, I have succeeded in eliciting no statement from Funeralcare in its own defence, despite offering it an empty platform to speak from. It has a case to answer and a duty to do that.

I am, though, pleased to publish below a statement issued to the Good Funeral Guide and, therefore, to all funeral consumers, from Phil Davies, National Secretary of the GMB union.

From a worker’s point of view the Co-op, founded by the Rochdale pioneers to give working people a decent place to shop, is probably the worst company in the UK. Nearly every large town and city in the UK has a Co-operative. The Society used to boast that it could look after working people from the cradle to the grave. Travel shops, banks, biscuit factories, furniture factories and every sort of production of UK goods was once part of the Co-operative’s portfolio. Its own adverts on the TV each night congratulate itself on caring about the environment, caring about African farmers’ rights and helping the less well off people in the world.

You would think that a simple right to belong to a UK trade union of your choice and have that trade union recognised would be enshrined in the principles and policy of the Co-op Funeralcare. Well, the so-called caring Funeralcare Division of the Co-op derecognised the GMB in Mach 2007. By doing this the company has broken International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions and taken away the rights of workers to belong to a recognised trade union.

The reason the Co-op give is that they want to deal with fewer unions, so why do they still recognise UCATT, a union that only has around 30 members in Funeralcare and no other influence in the funeral industry? At the time of derecognition the GMB had around 500 members working in most parts of the UK, but mainly in London and the South East.

The real reason was that the GMB wanted to see proper pay and conditions for its members. The GMB was not prepared to see its members being bullied and intimidated. Managers within Funeralcare are well paid, while those decent and hardworking employees who arrange the funerals and conduct the funerals are given the lowest of wages in an industry where Funeralcare makes massive profits. These profits are never shared equally with those workers at the sharp end, and when mistakes are made because the workers are overworked and underpaid, manning levels have dropped and more work has been put on the arrangers who not only have to deal with the bereaved but now have to chase up any bad debts within their own community. This development must have repercussions within their own area of work.

Finally, the consumer, in this case the family, and those responsible for arranging funerals, are vulnerable to exploitation, and organisations that are independent are needed to monitor the activities of large funeral companies such as Funeralcare. The GMB will continue to support its members and will continue to fight against injustice within the industry.

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