Usdaw conference 2019
Usdaw united on need for fightback – now keep pressure on for action
Socialist Party members in Usdaw
The annual delegate meeting of retail and distribution union Usdaw had definitely turned a corner this year (see interim report ‘Shop workers demand action on pay, jobs and the right’ at socialistparty.org.uk).
This was helped by the departure of openly Blairite general secretary John Hannett. Paddy Lillis, his replacement, has tried to position himself as less rigid and more of a ‘moderate’, like Dave Prentis, the right-wing leader of public service union Unison.
The joint pressures of Deputy General Secretary Dave McCrossen, who identifies with the union’s Broad Left group, and Socialist Party member Amy Murphy, Usdaw’s newly elected president, are clearly having an effect.
The debates felt far less restricted this year with Amy in the chair. Under the previous president, Jeff Broome, crucial debates felt stage-managed, with pre-arranged delegates supporting the right-wing leadership’s positions picked to speak.
This year’s turnout for the Broad Left caucus was larger than last year, with around 30 attending. The Broad Left has met in several regions over the last year ahead of the union’s divisional council meetings, with Socialist Party members such as Broad Left chair Iain Dalton being the main driving force.
Jeremy Corbyn addressed the union’s conference, and re-committed to many good policies from the ‘workers’ charter’ in his 2017 manifesto.
Unfortunately, he missed the opportunity to point a way forward on the major issues of the day. Corbyn could have used the platform to make his case for a workers’ Brexit, and call for trade union action to force a general election and end the Tory government.
One of the starkest differences was that the conference floor and union leadership were largely in sync. Up until this year, motions committing Usdaw to action were largely opposed by the right-wing leadership.
For instance, in a naked attack on the Socialist Party, Hannett even resorted to calling the National Shop Stewards Network a Socialist Party ‘front’ to defeat a motion to affiliate last year.
This year, Scott Jones and Isai Priya of the Socialist Party put forward motions calling for “struggling” shops to open their books to trade union scrutiny, and calling on Usdaw to support the ‘jobs and homes, not racism’ campaign.
Not only were these propositions enthusiastically supported by the delegates, but the union’s executive advocated support for both, as well as all the propositions reported in the last issue of the Socialist.
However, it is one thing to agree to a position, and quite another to translate it into action. It is clear from the Morrisons pay offer that the union’s negotiators aren’t firmly putting the £10-an-hour position.
Usdaw’s launch of the ‘Save Our Shops’ campaign and national days of action are important first steps. But the union has been very quiet on nationalisation of closing shops, despite a previous conference calling for that.
Usdaw members will need to continue to pressure the union bureaucracy to turn outwards and develop mass campaigns on these and other issues. By organising public campaign stalls and demonstrations, and preparing members to take strike action, the union could attract new membership and win the fight with the bosses and this utterly divided Tory government.