By Mark Thomas
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How supermarket workers buck the trend

This article is over 5 years, 1 months old
Issue 447

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) has long had a reputation as a right wing force in the labour movement, a bulwark of the right inside the Labour Party and a voice for “moderation” inside the TUC, where it champions the utility of cosy “partnership” deals with employers and avoids even the occasional language of confrontation.

Close to Tony Blair throughout the New Labour era, the union nominated Andy Burnham in the 2015 Labour leadership election and, learning nothing, backed the hapless Owen Smith in the 2016 attempt to depose Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet there are signs of at least a desire for change among a significant layer inside the union. Early last year the election for the union president was won by the Broad Left’s candidate (and member of the Socialist Party), Amy Murphy. This was followed by the Broad Left candidate for Assistant General Secretary, Dave McCrossen, also defeating the candidate supported by the union machine.

And Usdaw certainly matters. After the three big “general” unions which organise across industrial sectors (Unison, Unite and the GMB), Usdaw is among the largest “industrial” unions that primarily organise a single industry. With 431,000 members, Usdaw is a comparable size to the Royal College of Nursing and just slightly smaller than the new National Education Union (the result of the merger of the NUT and ATL), making it the fifth or sixth largest union in Britain.

And though it does organise beyond the retail sector, the core of Usdaw’s membership is the major supermarkets. In fact it essentially rests on four collective agreements with key supermarket chains, which between them represent two thirds of Usdaw’s entire membership: the Co-op (40,000 members), Morrisons (46,000), Sainsbury’s (32,000) and the jewel in the union’s crown, Tesco, where the union has 170,000 members and the largest UK private sector collective agreement.

Such recognition agreements combined with the expansion of the giant supermarket chains as the retail sector reorganised over the last few decades goes much of the way to explaining how Usdaw has been able to buck of general trend of declining union membership.

So whereas overall union membership has more than halved from 13.5 million at its high point in 1979, falling to under 6.5 million now, Usdaw today stands at just 19,000 members less than it did in 1979, with membership rising more or less consistently between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s.

But achieving this has come at a price. Organising in an industry with high levels of labour turnover has meant a constant drive to recruit new members. Usdaw needs to recruit 90-95,000 new members a year just to stand still. This has meant turning the union into a giant recruitment machine and relying on considerable access to new staff being granted by the supermarkets it organises in.

As well as granting the Usdaw reps access to induction sessions for new employees to encourage them to join the union, Usdaw has its own Organising Academy, with agreements by Tesco and others to release those selected by the union from work to attend the Academy for six months. In addition, Usdaw has negotiated extensive release time for shorter periods for union members to visit other workplaces to recruit (known as “Stand Down reps”).

In return for such access in Tesco, Usdaw agreed to a system of shop forums, which include both non-union members and managers that discuss shop issues and national issues such as pay. Yet neither shop forums nor the wider Usdaw membership have any vote on the pay deals negotiated at top.

Yet the union’s expansion has come to a halt in the last three to four years, with membership no longer growing, even marginally shrinking for the first time in a quarter of a century. The crisis in the retail sector has not left the major supermarkets untouched, with increased competition from low cost entrants to the market such as Lidl and Aldi (neither of which recognise Usdaw), slowly but steadily increasing their market share by undercutting the big players. The result has seen the big supermarkets launching a wave of attacks on premium wage payments for unsocial hours and even shop closures, reversing decades of headlong expansion.

This has feed into frustration with the union’s close relationship with the supermarkets. This year’s Usdaw conference saw a highly contested motion calling for members in Tescos to be given a vote on the national pay deal, clearly pass after a card vote. And last month this was followed by a shock vote by Usdaw members in Morrisons who rejected the latest pay offer by 2 to 1.

But translating that into even token action will come up against a union machine deeply invested in its arrangements with the supermarkets, no doubt fearing that any sign of confrontation and militancy would see the employers threaten to withdraw the access it grants to the union to recruit — in turn threating the subs’ base that funds the full time apparatus of the union.

It will require going beyond changes at the top of the union’s lay structure and trying to develop networks of activists in the supermarkets able to organise protests over pay, or even walkouts on the shopfloor, to push the union to ballot for strikes.

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