Tesco Dagenham distribution centre; One-day Usdaw strike over pay, credit: Richard Groves (uploaded 21/05/2018)
Tesco Dagenham distribution centre; One-day Usdaw strike over pay, credit: Richard Groves (uploaded 21/05/2018)

Socialist Party members in Usdaw

After being run ragged during the last two years of the Covid pandemic, it’s pretty clear the vital role that workers in retail, and throughout the production and distribution sector, play in keeping society functioning. But has our ‘key worker’ status actually led to any substantial improvement in the pay and conditions of Usdaw members?

Several companies have now gone through the £10 an hour pay barrier – but that’s only 50p above the adult rate of the minimum wage (the so-called ‘living wage’). And it’s not much better than the situation facing retail workers a few years ago, when many of us still received premium payments for unsocial hours and paid breaks. Even the concessions that were made at the beginning of the pandemic around sickness absence policies are being snatched back.

Meanwhile, our employers are laughing all the way to the bank. The pandemic has helped them shore up what had been declining market shares, more widely implementing online retail orders and deliveries, and, most importantly for them, seeing bulging profits.

Tesco posted a pre-tax profit of over £2 billion last year. Even when warning of a £250 million hit to profits as a result of inflation and supply chain crises, it still expects to make an operating profit of between £2.4 billion and £2.6 billion!

No wonder private equity companies are angling to take over supermarket companies, with Asda and then Morrisons bought out by such firms seeking a quick buck. Asda’s owners report a 20-fold return on their debt leveraged acquisition, while Morrisons’ new owners have been quick to sell off production and distribution sites. Members will be wondering where the comment on this sell-off is on the Usdaw website, let alone a campaign of opposition to this!

Too often the priorities of Usdaw’s leadership seem to be mitigating the worst aspects of the attacks of employers rather than making a clear case to oppose cuts to our members, jobs, and testing the mood of our membership for the necessary action to challenge the employers. But even this partnership, or tripartite approach hasn’t avoided battle. Usdaw members in the last year have had to fight ‘fire and rehire’, have gone on strike on that issue and over employers trying to make jobs redundant on the cheap.

Members in Tesco distribution had to threaten the largest strike the company has seen in order to get a pay offer that will now sadly be subsumed by rising inflation levels.

The document produced by the union’s executive council for the conference on automation and new technology shows once again this approach.

Rather than make the bold case necessary for using new technology to reduce the working week with no loss of pay, much of the document focuses on simply getting employers to listen to concerns of their workers. But new technology, as with many other issues facing Usdaw members, poses a sharp question: in whose interests are any changes being made?

Fundamentally, the only way to shape our workplaces to meet the needs of our members and the customers we serve, rather than the bulging bank balances of the bosses, is for those workplaces to be run under the democratic control and management of elected representatives of workers, both within the workplace and from the wider trade union movement, to represent the interests of customers.

In itself that would mean the big retailers and supermarkets, instead of being private concerns, being brought into public ownership.

Usdaw’s rulebook includes as part of the union’s, aims “to work consistently towards securing the control of the industries in which its members are employed.” This increasingly must not be left as words, but should be the cornerstone of the union’s campaigning.