Link to this page: http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/448/5348
Organising a fightback at Somerfield
"Join the union to change the union"
A YOUNG shopworker, a member of USDAW and a shop steward, recently spoke to the socialist about organising in his workplace. Supermarket chain Somerfield was taken over by a consortium involving Barclay's Bank last year. They've been making big changes, including trying to introduce new contracts.
APPROXIMATELY SIX weeks ago, management informed staff that that the company was planning a "management restructure". In our store about fifteen jobs would be condensed into eight. All affected would face redundancy but be allowed to reapply for the new positions.
The workers affected are disinclined to reapply, as in most cases it looks like the same job for less money.
When this news came through, we were told by management that: "USDAW has been informed of the changes". After chasing USDAW we found out that they had indeed completely capitulated to what the company wanted to do.
The response from the area organiser was: "The union can't interfere if a company wants to change its business practices"!
This left myself and the other rep at work in a difficult position. People were looking to us but we knew the union had already given up on them.
At first, we kept saying we'd try and find out what redundancy packages the union was going to negotiate and whether people getting the new jobs would have their terms and conditions protected.
But it started to become clear that the union wasn't even doing anything on this. In fact, the area organiser started going on about having agreed to confidentiality with the company. In other words, they weren't going to tell us anything else, even though they clearly had information!
Letter of complaint
Obviously the mood was turning against the union by now. Only one worker had joined as a result of the restructure and a number were starting to talk about quitting because it was a waste of money.
To try and cement things together a bit I drafted a letter of complaint to the union which also outlined a four-point plan of what could have been attempted in these circumstances. All union members (who weren't on holiday or off sick) signed the letter and seemed quite enthusiastic about it.
We sent it to the regional organiser and national Somerfield officer. I also took copies of the letter into the other store in the town and the rep there took it and said she'd get people to sign it.
But even before we'd put the letters in the post, the company hit us with another series of changes - the "New Model Project". No doubt this was one of the things the union was treating as "confidential" seeing as yet again they didn't bother to contact us about it!
Due to all the mergers and take-overs, there are 16 different contracts across the company. Some workers are on relatively good contracts. Some people in our store get six weeks holiday per year and £6+ per hour for stacking the shelves.
Obviously the company doesn't like that, so it wants to get rid of those benefits and wheel out a brand new contract for everyone.
The basic idea, at first anyway, seemed as though they would take from some workers in order to give a tiny bit to the rest. The way they've posed the briefings is very much: "Are you going to stand for someone getting two weeks more holiday per year than you, for doing the same job?"
Again, USDAW has "been informed" but this time they've already agreed to the changes and will be recommending acceptance to the membership, who will be balloted. The union never once consulted the rank and file before, during or after negotiations. No attempt was made to speak to any reps. No organisers visited any stores to see what the mood was like.
We were only told about the "New Model Project" on 13 June. On 17 June (Sunday) I popped into work to get some bread and came across a member of staff walking around with membership slips for the union - she'd already signed up three new members. They were very keen to be able to vote in the ballot. Everyone was talking about it.
I rushed home and wrote a leaflet outlining a: "Join the union to change the union - vote against their recommendation" strategy. I phoned the other rep and got him to make suggestions and discussed what we could do.
We printed off a batch of the leaflets to test them out. We gave them out and ten people in our store signed up to the union. The following day another 13 signed up.
That meant 26 staff in a store of about 70 joined in order to vote against any bad deal the union had negotiated.
The other 21 union members were already aware of the approach we were trying to take via the letter and all spoke glowingly about the leaflet.
People started coming to me with different ideas of how to get the leaflet out to other stores (some crazier than others!).
The next day, myself and the other rep decided to visit the other stores in the area to see what the mood was like there. What we found was very encouraging.
When we said we were visiting to talk about the contract changes, workers at first assumed we were from the union and started having a go at us. When we explained we were there unofficially and showed them the leaflet and made our argument, people warmed to us massively. Even the managers - as they're just as affected. One manager even signed up to the union!
We were given free rein in all stores. Staff took bundles of leaflets for their colleagues and to put up on noticeboards. We gave out 350 in all across nine stores.
We managed to sign up eight people into the union. The distance we had to cover in the space of a day meant we could only spend half hour in each store, so this was very good. We even met a young worker interested in the Socialist Party.
The company was not too happy with our "initiative" - especially as we'd gone round the other stores in our uniforms to make it easier to talk to the workers. Our being quick off the mark was fully vindicated when the final details of the new contracts emerged the following week.
Sundays and bank holidays will now be "normal working days", all premium payments for Sundays and bank holidays will end, we will only be entitled to take off four bank holidays per year and this will come out of our holiday entitlement, there will be no sick pay for the first six months of employment and the maximum entitlement is being halved. Needless to say there was a further explosion of anger from all workers!
The following week the union finally organised a briefing session for reps. When the reps asked why, considering the mood, a recruitment drive had not been launched the second the union found out about the changes the union officials tried to blame the reps for the weak membership rather than looking at their own failures to give people any reason to join.
When the example of us visiting stores and building the membership was used to highlight what the union could have done with their resources as compared to our one day and 350 leaflets they didn't seem too pleased again! Apparently the leaflet has got them in trouble with the company. Good! I've never been too happy about my union and the company that's savaging my job being best mates!
The silver lining in all this is that there will be a ballot of all union members. Considering the mood a "no" vote is quite likely despite the fact that the union is recommending acceptance of the new contracts. Then it will be up to the workers to get organised and campaign for a fighting, accountable and democratic union to defend their jobs and force back the company's attacks.
In The Socialist 13 July 2006:
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Youth and Education
Socialist Party campaigns
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news and analysis
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party National committee report