Lockdown 2 looms: Usdaw needs a fighting leadership
Ryan Aldred, Usdaw Executive Council Candidate (personal capacity)
It is vital now more than ever that a fighting programme be put forward in Usdaw, the shopworkers' union, with the announcement of a second lockdown. The upcoming union elections are going to be an important battleground which can shape the union and retail sector in this volatile period.
At a time when workers have been in most need of the union, thousands of reps, totalling a third of all elected Usdaw reps, stepped down, feeling that the union was failing to provide the support that supermarket staff needed to address the many issues that have arisen in quickly changing workplaces.
With a second lockdown coming into effect, supermarket staff need a union which will back its members rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. But the initial statement by general secretary Paddy Lillis is totally inadequate.
National officers should be negotiating hazard pay for all workers forced to work through dangerous conditions, while also demanding wages more befitting of their status as key workers.
Back in 2016, the union adopted the call for a £10 an hour minimum wage, but with the cost of living rising that demand needs to be revisited. Considering year-on-year inflation measured by the RPI index, £12 an hour would be a comparable position today, a position that Broad Left candidates will be arguing for.
As key workers, supermarket staff are well placed to demand at least £12 an hour, particularly when considering the bumper profits that many of the supermarket chains reported in recent months, exploiting the panic buying initiated by the call for lockdown in March. Why should bosses be the ones to benefit when it's us workers risking our lives?
While supermarket bosses have reaped the profits, on the other side of the coin many non-essential retail bosses have used Covid to cull thousands of jobs, hundreds of stores have been forced to close permanently, and dozens of high street names have vanished forever. With this lockdown taking place during what is usually one of the busiest times of the year in terms of sales for most retailers, a strategy to safeguard jobs and provide a lasting solution to the crisis looming in non-essential retail is needed.
The books of 'struggling' companies should be opened to trade union scrutiny to ensure that workers aren't being needlessly sacrificed for the sake of the shareholders. A determined campaign needs to be developed to protect all retail jobs, with calls and campaigning for nationalisation under workers' control and management of companies such as Debenhams that have failed to maintain workers' livelihoods.
We need an end to zero and low-hour contracts, which is only going to come about through determined union action and a leadership willing to put forward such a strategy. We need to attract the hundreds of thousands of retail, distribution and allied workers who are not yet organised at work, while winning back those who have been let down by Paddy Lillis's failed partnership approach.
In contrast, Amy Murphy, Usdaw's president for the last three years has been a breath of fresh air; regularly visiting picket lines and showing support to all workers who take to dispute and fight to better their conditions. Amy has steadfastly supported the membership and this will need to continue if Andrea Watts, the Broad Left's presidential candidate, is elected to continue Amy's fantastic work.
With an election campaign taking place at a time when supermarket staff are once again risking their lives, we can win over determined union activists who are tired of business as usual.
While non-essential workers worry about making ends meet on 80% of our already low wages, a bold campaign to fight for full pay can attract those who are in most desperate need of a union. With a strategy of public ownership to escape the ongoing retail crisis while defending every last job, we can take this fight to the government which has failed just as utterly to retain jobs as it has in containing this virus.
In The Socialist 4 November 2020:
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