Ryan Aldred, Usdaw Plymouth and District General Branch secretary (personal capacity)
The shop workers’ union, Usdaw, recently launched its ‘New Deal for Workers’ campaign, expanding on its previous ‘Time For Better Pay’ campaign, with additional demands, many of which the Socialist Party welcomes.
But it falls short of the proposition raised at Usdaw’s 2019 annual delegate meeting (ADM) for a workers’ charter, tailored to account for specific aspects in relation to different sectors. It was also argued that the development of a workers’ charter should be accompanied by a strategy to build and gain recognition in other big retailers, particularly Aldi and Lidl.
One of the central demands is a minimum wage of £10 an hour. We of course welcome any and all increases in the minimum wage. But it’s important to note that the £10 an hour commitment was agreed at Usdaw’s ADM back in 2016. At the 2019 ADM it was pointed out that the minimum wage demand needed to be revisited as “it will be relatively less than when we first adopted the call several years ago.”
Accounting for year-on-year inflation from 2016 to 2019, the figure rises to £11.20. Considering the further rises in inflation for the first half of 2020, it comes closer to £12 an hour.
It is for this reason that Usdaw members in the Socialist Party are calling for an immediate £12 an hour minimum wage, £15 in London to reflect the higher cost of living. During the current pandemic this should be accompanied by a hazard bonus for workers risking their health, both in key sectors and working for non-essential retailers that have resumed trading.
However, while this is what we would put forward as a minimum, we would argue that there is room for larger increases, particularly in the supermarket sector. Supermarkets reported record sales during the pandemic, making £2 billion extra in the month of March alone. As one Tesco worker put it, “we deserve to be on double our wages”.
Some employers will try to recoup losses to their profits by cutting hours to make up for an increased hourly rate. Therefore, any new deal for workers has to raise demands for a higher minimum wage alongside a call to end zero and low-hours contracts.
Usdaw’s general secretary Paddy Lillis recently claimed that there would be a “day of reckoning” on low pay. As leader of one of the UK’s largest trade unions, which organises in one of the lowest-paid sectors of the economy, he is well placed to initiate such a reckoning.
Unfortunately, his words have yet to materialise into any serious action, beyond launching the charter, which wasn’t put forward to the executive council, or indeed any of the union’s democratic structures.
Currently, none of the ‘big four’ (Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Tesco and Co-Op), which Usdaw has recognition agreements with, has a wage rate of £10 an hour, despite it being union policy for the last four years.
If there is to truly be a ‘day of reckoning’, the union should immediately enter into negotiations with recognised employers and demand wages which reflect members’ status as key workers. This means taking up the call for £12 an hour for all workers.
Where supermarket bosses refuse, the union should demand that financial books be opened to trade union scrutiny while building a serious and sustained campaign of strike action to secure better pay and conditions.
In the last decade, a rejected pay offer from Tesco wasn’t followed up with industrial action, and similarly, more recently when a pay offer was decisively rejected by Morrisons members.
If a lead had been given in rejecting the latest round of mass redundancies in Tesco for instance, thousands of jobs could have been saved. Despite its weaknesses, Usdaw has over 400,000 members, which is an immense source of collective strength. If that collective strength were to be harnessed through the development of serious campaigns, up to and including a programme of industrial action, it would quickly shift the balance of power out of the bosses’ hands and into the hands of workers themselves.
The British Retail Consortium has said that now is “not the right time” to be arguing for wage increases. For the bosses there will never be a right time to deny them their profits by demanding decent wages. For young people on poverty wages in particular, and for low paid workers in general, waiting for a better time is not an option because the rent and bills won’t wait. Now is the time to boldly demand a new deal for workers. Now is the time to demand an immediate £12 an hour minimum wage for all, and even higher wages for the key workers which through this pandemic have shown that they keep society running.