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Joe Waters, Usdaw member and Gloucestershire Socialist Party

Members and supporters of the Usdaw Broad Left came together for a Zoom rally on 2 February in support of the Broad Left’s candidates in the upcoming Usdaw shop and distribution workers’ union elections for the executive committee (EC) and president.

Socialist Party member Amy Murphy, current president of Usdaw and the first speaker, gave an overview of the situation. She criticised the lack of support from the government, retail companies and the Usdaw leadership for workers during the pandemic and placed the blame on them for allowing retail workers to act as vectors of Covid-19 transmission in their own communities.

Amy proceeded to lay out a programme of action, supported by the Usdaw Broad Left, to improve conditions for workers and save jobs.

The necessity to move away from Usdaw’s ‘tripartite’ approach of primarily seeking good relationships with companies, rather than fighting for the interests of workers, was raised by Amy and many others over the course of the meeting.

Martin Powell-Davis, a candidate for deputy general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) and Socialist Party member, spoke next on the experience of teachers, who recently used collective action to force the closure of schools during the current wave of Covid-19 cases.

The importance of a fighting union leadership to lead workers into struggle against their bosses was referred to repeatedly, and Martin identified this as a vital component in the NEU’s recent successes, leading NEU membership to grow as Usdaw’s membership numbers continue to drop.

Next to speak was Brian, a former worker at Debenhams in Ireland.Brian was made redundant by the company last year and is now involved in protests to win fair treatment for the discarded workers.

At 300 days, the protest of Debenhams workers in Ireland is the longest in the history of the state. However, Brian relayed frustrations among the protesters that the Irish government, and even Mandate, the union representing these workers, had offered little support.

Ryan Aldred, candidate for Usdaw EC in the South Wales and Western division, and Socialist Party member, spoke last. He decried the treatment of workers, many now classed as ‘essential’, at a time when many big employers are taking increased profits, and while those workers whose employers weren’t able to cash in on the pandemic are facing unemployment.

Ryan made it clear that, if elected, he would continue to stand alongside workers in their struggles against employers, and push for industrial action where companies continue to priorities the interests of their shareholders over the safety and living conditions of their staff.

The attempts of the Usdaw leadership to suppress the role of internal democracy in running the union were also condemned.

Following the main speakers, the rally moved on to contributions from other attendees, who largely expressed frustration with Usdaw for reasons ranging from lack of support over redundancies or mistreatment by companies, to repeated failures to advance rep training for certain members. Among those speaking was Lynn Goodwin, Usdaw EC candidate in the North-West.

All in all, the experiences shared by those at this rally pointed clearly to the need for a fighting leadership in Usdaw, willing to lead workers in collective action to secure decent pay and conditions, and to ensure that no company is able to sacrifice the health of their employees for profit during this pandemic or after.

In pursuit of this change of leadership, attendees were encouraged to vote for any Broad Left EC candidates in their region, and to vote for Andrea Watts, the Broad Left’s candidate for union president.