The Socialist 13 July 2006 |
Join the Socialist
Organising a fightback at Somerfield
"Join the union to change the union"
A YOUNG shopworker, a member of USDAW and a shop steward, recently
spoke to the socialist about organising in his workplace. Supermarket
chain Somerfield was taken over by a consortium involving Barclay's Bank
last year. They've been making big changes, including trying to
introduce new contracts.
APPROXIMATELY SIX weeks ago, management informed staff that that the
company was planning a "management restructure". In our store about
fifteen jobs would be condensed into eight. All affected would face
redundancy but be allowed to reapply for the new positions.
The workers affected are disinclined to reapply, as in most cases it
looks like the same job for less money.
When this news came through, we were told by management that: "USDAW
has been informed of the changes". After chasing USDAW we found out that
they had indeed completely capitulated to what the company wanted to do.
The response from the area organiser was: "The union can't interfere
if a company wants to change its business practices"!
This left myself and the other rep at work in a difficult position.
People were looking to us but we knew the union had already given up on
At first, we kept saying we'd try and find out what redundancy
packages the union was going to negotiate and whether people getting the
new jobs would have their terms and conditions protected.
But it started to become clear that the union wasn't even doing
anything on this. In fact, the area organiser started going on about
having agreed to confidentiality with the company. In other words, they
weren't going to tell us anything else, even though they clearly had
Letter of complaint
Obviously the mood was turning against the union by now. Only one
worker had joined as a result of the restructure and a number were
starting to talk about quitting because it was a waste of money.
To try and cement things together a bit I drafted a letter of
complaint to the union which also outlined a four-point plan of what
could have been attempted in these circumstances. All union members (who
weren't on holiday or off sick) signed the letter and seemed quite
enthusiastic about it.
We sent it to the regional organiser and national Somerfield officer.
I also took copies of the letter into the other store in the town and
the rep there took it and said she'd get people to sign it.
But even before we'd put the letters in the post, the company hit us
with another series of changes - the "New Model Project". No doubt this
was one of the things the union was treating as "confidential" seeing as
yet again they didn't bother to contact us about it!
Due to all the mergers and take-overs, there are 16 different
contracts across the company. Some workers are on relatively good
contracts. Some people in our store get six weeks holiday per year and
£6+ per hour for stacking the shelves.
Obviously the company doesn't like that, so it wants to get rid of
those benefits and wheel out a brand new contract for everyone.
The basic idea, at first anyway, seemed as though they would take
from some workers in order to give a tiny bit to the rest. The way
they've posed the briefings is very much: "Are you going to stand for
someone getting two weeks more holiday per year than you, for doing the
Again, USDAW has "been informed" but this time they've already agreed
to the changes and will be recommending acceptance to the membership,
who will be balloted. The union never once consulted the rank and file
before, during or after negotiations. No attempt was made to speak to
any reps. No organisers visited any stores to see what the mood was
We were only told about the "New Model Project" on 13 June. On 17
June (Sunday) I popped into work to get some bread and came across a
member of staff walking around with membership slips for the union -
she'd already signed up three new members. They were very keen to be
able to vote in the ballot. Everyone was talking about it.
I rushed home and wrote a leaflet outlining a: "Join the union to
change the union - vote against their recommendation" strategy. I phoned
the other rep and got him to make suggestions and discussed what we
We printed off a batch of the leaflets to test them out. We gave them
out and ten people in our store signed up to the union. The following
day another 13 signed up.
That meant 26 staff in a store of about 70 joined in order to vote
against any bad deal the union had negotiated.
The other 21 union members were already aware of the approach we were
trying to take via the letter and all spoke glowingly about the leaflet.
People started coming to me with different ideas of how to get the
leaflet out to other stores (some crazier than others!).
The next day, myself and the other rep decided to visit the other
stores in the area to see what the mood was like there. What we found
was very encouraging.
When we said we were visiting to talk about the contract changes,
workers at first assumed we were from the union and started having a go
at us. When we explained we were there unofficially and showed them the
leaflet and made our argument, people warmed to us massively. Even the
managers - as they're just as affected. One manager even signed up to
We were given free rein in all stores. Staff took bundles of leaflets
for their colleagues and to put up on noticeboards. We gave out 350 in
all across nine stores.
We managed to sign up eight people into the union. The distance we
had to cover in the space of a day meant we could only spend half hour
in each store, so this was very good. We even met a young worker
interested in the Socialist Party.
The company was not too happy with our "initiative" - especially as
we'd gone round the other stores in our uniforms to make it easier to
talk to the workers. Our being quick off the mark was fully vindicated
when the final details of the new contracts emerged the following week.
Sundays and bank holidays will now be "normal working days", all
premium payments for Sundays and bank holidays will end, we will only be
entitled to take off four bank holidays per year and this will come out
of our holiday entitlement, there will be no sick pay for the first six
months of employment and the maximum entitlement is being halved.
Needless to say there was a further explosion of anger from all workers!
The following week the union finally organised a briefing session for
reps. When the reps asked why, considering the mood, a recruitment drive
had not been launched the second the union found out about the changes
the union officials tried to blame the reps for the weak membership
rather than looking at their own failures to give people any reason to
When the example of us visiting stores and building the membership
was used to highlight what the union could have done with their
resources as compared to our one day and 350 leaflets they didn't seem
too pleased again! Apparently the leaflet has got them in trouble with
the company. Good! I've never been too happy about my union and the
company that's savaging my job being best mates!
The silver lining in all this is that there will be a ballot of all
union members. Considering the mood a "no" vote is quite likely despite
the fact that the union is recommending acceptance of the new contracts.
Then it will be up to the workers to get organised and campaign for a
fighting, accountable and democratic union to defend their jobs and
force back the company's attacks.