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View: Shop workers need a fighting, radical union

By Jake Welsh. Originally published on Bright Green.

Anyone who has known me over the past 11 years knows my undying commitment to the Green Party of England and Wales as an electoral path to help move society in an eco-socialist direction. But electoral politics alone cannot bring about an eco-socialist society. We need grassroots movements in all communities. Importantly we also need a strong and successful trade union movement on our side. I have been a shop steward for USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) since 2019 and a member since 2014. This month (January 2021) members are balloted for elections to the unions Divisional Councils, Executive Council and for President of the union.

USDAW is the main union representing retail workers. Retail workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country and often come bottom in surveys on job satisfaction of all workers in the UK. As key workers, they have worked extremely hard over the entire pandemic under exceptionally difficult working conditions, often managing customers who do not understand or adhere to guidance such as mask-wearing and social distancing, leading to an increase in abuse of retail workers. Many retail workers do not have company sick pay at their workplace, including a huge amount of underemployed part time workers who do not even qualify for statutory sick pay. This has led to dangerous situations that increase the chances of Covid-19 spreading at work and gives many workers the choice of either isolating at home and losing money, or lying about the need to isolate in order to earn enough money to live on. Just this month an outbreak of Covid-19 in a Tesco Extra superstore in Stretford Manchester led to a staff member sadly passing away as 50 staff members have had to isolate.

At the same time retailers, especially food retailers, have been making record breaking profits. March 2020 was the all-time record breaking month for supermarket sales, and retailers have been making full use of the money the government has been making available to businesses. As we enter one of the worst recessions in history fighting a pandemic and the challenges of tackling climate change in a post-Brexit Britain, there has never been a more important time to organise retail workers and to fight for decent pay and working conditions.

Unions are large and broad organisations and the arguments for eco-socialism and green politics need to be won within each and every union. Within USDAW there is a group of activists fighting hard for socialism known as USDAW Broad Left. Members of USDAW Broad Left are made up of members from Labour, the Greens, the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party and the Scottish Socialist Party to name but a few, but they are all united around USDAW Broad Left’s 7 key campaigning points which are:

  1. No retreat on health and safety – full sick pay from day one and safety measures under the control of health and safety reps and committees
  2. Defend terms and conditions as well as fighting for at least a £12 an hour minimum wage, end lower youth rates of pay
  3. Fight store closures and job losses, up to and including campaigning for nationalisation to save jobs
  4. Organise the unorganised, build vibrant campaigns on pay and working conditions to organise workers in the discounters and gig economy.
  5. No to ‘partnership approaches’ which only benefit the bosses – restore the pay vote in Tesco retail
  6. For a democratic and accountable union – publish regular comprehensive EC reports accessible to all members
  7. For an anti-austerity political voice for workers. Fight for an anti-austerity strategy against the retreats of Starmer and the Blairites.

USDAW Broad Left are putting forward 3 candidates for the up coming elections.

Current Executive Council member Andrea Watts is standing for President of USDAW (hoping to replace Amy Murphy who is standing down and is also active in USDAW Broad Left). Lynn Goodwin is standing for the Executive Council for the North West Division and Ryan Aldred is standing for the Executive Council for the South Wales and Western Division. Although not officially an USDAW Broad Left campaign I am also supporting current Executive Council member Chris Winwood for President.

It is important the people elected to run unions are ambitious and fight for drastic improvements to workers pay and conditions. Not only would this put pressure on employers to improve pay and conditions, but this would encourage people to join the union. If workers see their union fighting to bring them improvements, or fighting to protect jobs under threat, then they will join. If workers do not see their union achieving things or even trying to achieve things, then they are far less likely to join. USDAW Broad Left candidates have been out, not just doing usual rep work, but supporting workplaces in their struggles such as Debenhams workers fighting to save jobs or victimised reps in IKEA. USDAW Broad Left has pushed the union to be bolder on low pay and insecurity through the Time For Better Pay campaign and the Save Our Shops campaign. With more Broad Left candidates on the Executive Council and as President, etc the more that can be achieved.

So whatever political campaigning you may be involved in, it has never been more important to join a union. The more active a union is, the more members join and the more successful the union is.

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