Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1105/31471
Usdaw elections: the battle for a fighting union
Socialist Party members in Usdaw
At the behest of General Secretary Paddy Lillis, the national executive committee of Usdaw, the retail and distribution union, has overturned its previous decision to delay the elections (see 'Usdaw elections: Defend members' right to participate') despite most union branches not meeting due to Covid. This means the elections will now form a key contest in the battle over the direction of the union.
Under Lillis, the union's full-time leadership has been missing in action, while the bulk of the membership - key workers in retail, distribution and manufacturing - have been working on the front line throughout the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, Lillis steered the union into support for the new pro-big business leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. Like 'Sir Keir', Lillis has been likewise pursuing a policy of 'national unity'. Lillis has called for a new version of the failed 'partnership' approach - 'tripartite' working with the Tory government and big business.
And the results of this approach?
- Agreed procedures with the bosses' organisation CBI for how to try to protect retail workers, which in many cases aren't fully implemented, with no strategy by the union to enforce these, leaving individual reps to fight battles on their own.
- A failure to take seriously the attempts of some supermarkets, the capitalist press, and Tory and Labour MPs to overturn current Sunday trading legislation, which meant the union was inactive until the Tory government started seriously considering the proposal.
- A failure to support members who have tried to challenge the bosses - such as Usdaw executive committee member and Ikea Glasgow convenor Richie Venton, victimised for challenging attempts to attack sick pay, without a word of support from Lillis. And the Manchester Debenhams' workers, holding protests over their unjust sackings in the same city the union's headquarters are based in, without any official support.
The failure of this approach has led to a disastrous fall in membership dropping below the 400,000 mark for the first time in years, alongside a decline in workplace reps, many of whom have felt unsupported by full-time officials refusing to come in-store, while reps have had to deal with all the problems thrown up by the pandemic.
For Lillis, this election offers an opportunity to fill the executive committee with candidates likely to be uncritical of these failures, and move onto his next goal - abolishing the lower subs rate for part-time workers.
Already, one of the contenders seeking nomination for the president, current executive committee member Jane Jones, says in her nomination statement: "I have a good working relationship with Paddy." At a time when the retail sector is being battered with redundancies and increasing casualisation, Lillis pushing members to cough up more in subs will be galling for those who are having their hours stripped back, particularly as there is no push by Lillis for concerted union action to save jobs.
There is an alternative: that being put forward by the Broad Left in the union, whose members have been to the fore in campaigns against extending Sunday Trading, and in Debenhams and Ikea, as well as defending workers safety in their own workplaces. Unlike Lillis' failure to support Usdaw members in struggle, Usdaw President and Broad Left and Socialist Party member Amy Murphy has given her full support, travelling across the country to back the Debenhams and Ikea workers.
In The Socialist 14 October 2020:
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