Sunday, 17 July 2011

The need to change workplace organisation in Sainsbury's

Unite the Union have just held a protest outside the Sainsbury's annual meeting in central London over wages. As a former Unite shop steward in Sainsbury's, I thought I'd use the occasion to reflect on worker organisation within the retailer and what can be done to improve it.

Firstly, a note on the wage dispute. It goes without saying that - despite being above the national minimum wage - £6.31 an hour isn't an amount you can live comfortably on. That's without the fact that, with inflation rates, having no pay rise for two years is a significant real terms pay cut. Something those at the lower end of the pay scale can ill afford. When it's compared to Chief Executive Justin King's £3.24m of salary and bonuses for 2010 alone and the company's £665m profit margin, it becomes an obscenity.

But pointing out injustice doesn't make it go away. Conditions within the workplace improve or decline on the basis of the balance of power between workers and bosses, and it is quite clear that within Sainsbury's the bosses hold the power. That is not about to change. But if workers within the company want improvements, then drastic action is needed.

This will not come from the trade unions. Broadly, the unions have little interest in extending themselves beyond their last stronghold in the public sector and engaging in a serious campaign to organise casual workers. Specifically within Sainsbury's, the situation as far as unions go is a mess.

Alongside Unite, USDAW also organise workers within the company. The two unions have parallel recognition agreements, and have effectively agreed to split the workforce between them. For example, when a new store opens if one union got to recruit in the last new store of the same size (small, medium or large based on the number of staff), the other union gets first dibs this time. When I was there, Unite had about 20% density and I imagine USDAW about the same. The agreements they have give them the right to be consulted - but not to negotiate - and all but tie the hands of shop stewards.

So, how to begin challenging that? The answer is for workers to go back to basics and begin building rank-and-file workplace committees. Such committees would initially consist of the most militant workers within any given workplace, but expand to include everybody - except of course management and those hostile to unionism.

This isn't a task to be taken lightly or to be boldly announced to everyone. We should be under no illusions that, whilst the balance of power is in their favour the bosses will do everything they can to prevent such things emerging. Existing unions are unlikely to be a barrier against this, and if they see their own role in the workplace threatened may even assist the bosses in rooting out such a union. This is why a fine balance has to be struck between using the union for what benefits it may provide (and shop stewards may be amongst those most militant workers who form the initial structure of the workplace committee) and not letting full time officials get wind of what you are doing.

With such committees established, what you essentially have is a power base - a group of workers willing to take action in order to defend existing conditions or press for improvements. This will initially be on a small scale, but as the numbers grow so too can the activity.

One example of direct action that actually occurred in Sainsbury's was when one store was fighting to get the management to put the heating on. In the name of cost-cutting, the store refused to accept that it was too cold. Temperature readings taken across the store and a petition signed by staff had little effect on this. However, one day it was agreed that all staff would wear woolly hats and scarves, as well as stickers asking for the heating to be turned on, to highlight the problem. This happened to be the day that Justin King visited the store for an inspection, and the store manager had to explain why his staff were all wrapped up. The heating was fixed almost immediately thereafter.

As well as allowing for such actions to become more frequent and widespread when issues crop up, workplace committees also involve the entire staff in the decision-making. This means that the demands, and the victories, are controlled at a rank-and-file level and the risk of being sold out is considerably reduced. It also forms the basis of a directly democratic and accountable union structure which - if it spreads across workplaces - can provide an effective alternative to the top-down servicing union model currently in operation at Unite and USDAW.

Such a thing obviously takes considerable time, effort, and risk. But it is not something you have to do alone. Libcom.org's Organise section covers the mechanics of setting up workplace committees and taking direct action in more depth, whilst the Solidarity Federation have developed a workplace organiser training scheme which a number of people have found useful in getting this kind of activity off the ground.

Not only that, but even though the official trade unions might move to hinder such things if they found out about them, there are many other groups which would provide practical solidarity. Solfed's recent victory against the employment agency Office Angels is part of a wider campaign against casualisation and to help precarious workers organise themselves. We are always more than willing to support workers in their struggles where we can, and that includes providing advice and support beyond the workplace organiser training as people get committees up-and-running.

But I have addressed this post specifically at Sainsbury's because I have experience of the organising situation there and of the drastic need for improvement. Make no mistake: without building up workplace militancy from the ground, there is no way to stop Justin King growing richer from your labour whilst leaving you to struggle with rising costs and stagnant wages.