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From The Socialist newspaper, 28 April 2021

Usdaw's virtual annual conference - a mockery of union democracy

Usdaw conference 2019, photo David Owens

Usdaw conference 2019, photo David Owens   (Click to enlarge)

Socialist Party members in Usdaw

The last year has been a challenging one for retail workers - some sectors have faced furlough and shop closures in the non-essential sector.

On the other hand, the bulk of the union's membership has been on the frontline - while like-for-like sales are up in many supermarkets from 5% to 8% (excluding fuel, sales of which are expected to bounce back), and shareholders dividends have been protected. Despite being recognised as key workers, supermarket workers are still in some of the lowest paid jobs, with poor terms and conditions.

Usdaw's online Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) could have been a vital opportunity to discuss and debate the way forward on many of these pressing issues.

However, the chaotic way that cut-down two-day conference proceeded meant lay members' voices were squeezed out. This reflects how Usdaw, like many other unions, has become increasingly top-down over the last year.

This was warned about in advance by the left minority on the outgoing executive council, who opposed cutting down conference from the usual four days, and argued for exploring a delayed conference later in the year.

Both days finished early, with much of that time taken up with waiting for votes rather than debate. Because of the 'lack of time' we were told motions couldn't be moved or seconded and, as it transpired, even debated.

Delegates had to apply to speak over two weeks ahead of the conference, with delays in the postal system meaning many couldn't send slips in advance to speak. In one of the few conference sessions that took place, five out of six speakers had prepared to speak on a proposition grouped as part of a timetabled debate. Two of those weren't allowed to speak and two were stopped part-way through.

Delegates who attempted to reference back standing orders reports to challenge this were blocked off by the staff running the online systems, meaning the president, who should have decided whether to put these to conference, was unaware of them.

In reality, the only real debate that took place was on the leadership's proposals to close the part-time rate of membership subs to new entrants. Worryingly, this was justified by some on the basis that part-time people won't join.

Undoubtedly, this was supported due to the union's declining membership, down around 50,000 from a peak of 430,000 a few years ago. This is partially due to the effect of repeated lockdowns on union organisation, but also to the ongoing crisis in the sector.

Outrageously, at the same time as this measure, and a 6p increase in subs were voted on, five executive council members not involved in the running of the conference took an expenses-paid visit to Manchester. A new logo was also used at the conference without any discussion with the outgoing executive council. As one person succinctly put it on the Usdaw Forum group on Facebook: "This ADM has only been done for the subs vote."

Despite this, motions opposed by the leadership - where delegates only saw the text of the motion and had no opportunity to hear it moved, combined with often spurious reasoning for opposition by the leadership - received very substantial minority votes.

These included affiliating to the Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance (COPS), supporting councils passing legal no-cuts budgets and in favour of Usdaw moving a new version of Clause 4 containing nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers' control and management. These received 33%, 36% and 38% support respectively. The latter we think almost doubled in support since the same issue was discussed back at the 2018 ADM.

Seven Socialist Party members attended the conference as delegates, with two speaking, including Leeds Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) candidate Iain Dalton who explained what measures Labour councils could be taking now to help assist the struggles of retail workers.

Iain also called for the objective in the union's rulebook "to work consistently towards securing the control of the industries in which its members are employed" to be actively fought for, by campaigning for the big retail companies to be nationalised under democratic workers' control.

The right-wing leadership of the union may have won the votes on the day, but the substantial minority votes in the face of the anti-democratic way the online ADM was handled, show that the mood in the union for a more decisive lead is growing. We urge Usdaw members looking for such a lead, to join the Socialist Party and the union's Broad Left.

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