Home > Updates > Sherburn Sainsbury’s Drivers Ditch Usdaw

Sherburn Sainsbury’s Drivers Ditch Usdaw

Update: Since this article we have had correspondence with Unilever activists in Unite regarding that dispute where we criticised Unite for accepting what we think was a sub-par offer. Whilst the substantive points remain that inside any union it is only an active membership that can ensure struggles to defend jobs, pay and conditions can be won, we would like to retract our remarks in this article regarding Unite during the dispute at Unilever. We will be publishing an article shortly which will discuss in more detail the course of events during that dispute. Editors.

Over the last four weeks 150 Usdaw members in the transport department at the Sainsbury depot, operated by Wincanton, in Sherburn-in-Elmet, near Leeds, have joined Unite en masse. This was preceeded by 80 union members signing a petition of no-confidence in Usdaw as well as the removal of 2 reps, kicking another rep of Academy, allegations of ballot rigging and imposition of a rep without election. Two union reps also resigned as shop stewards in protest at this behaviour by Usdaw.

Usdaw has been the recognised union at the depot since it opened 5 years ago, signing away terms and conditions in the process as well as agreeing a no strike agreement. Anger over this was particularly visible at Usdaw’s ADM in April this year, where delegates from the depot branch were very critical of the union’s leadership. They moved motions criticising the collective agreement signed by Usdaw, opting drivers out of 10-hour night work limits as well as the union’s lack of media presence.  The result of this shows just what a sham recruitment gains from partnership approaches are likely to be, whilst the numbers may increase in some instances, the ability of the union to fight for their members is hampered dramatically causing those selfsame new members to leave.

As we commented in issue 38 of the Activist, “Usdaw members will have been watching this dispute closely, with similar crimes taking place within distribution for decades.” In her election material (reproduced in the recent Activist pamphlet) the late Robbie Segal detailed the erosion of terms and conditions, particularly in distribution, and predicted that at some point Usdaw membership would revolt against this, with massive discontent over this visible at this year’s ADM. It appears the drivers at the depot have been watching this dispute and have decided that Unite may be more proactive in fighting for their interests and supporting them in doing so.

Whilst the Activist sympathises with the drivers decision, we have to strike some notes of caution. Despite Unite playing a fighting role in a whole number of recent disputes including Doncaster Tesco, London bus workers and especially the sparks dispute which have seen victories, that does not mean it will always represent members in such fashion. Despite many positive signs since the election of Len McCluskey as General Secretary two years ago, the leadership still needs on occasions to be pushed into action, this was the case during the sparks dispute, but also in the Unilever dispute last year it was Unite’s acceptance of a sub-par improved offer which then led to Usdaw accepting the offer.

Now that the drivers have joined Unite, the Usdaw leadership is attempting to obfuscate the issue, alleging poaching by Unite and demanding the drivers are transferred back to them, referring the issue to the TUC disputes committee. Yet Usdaw has been hauled before the TUC disputes committee earlier this year by Unite for signing an agreement with DHL in Dartford where Usdaw had no members but Unite had been organising on the site.

It is a travesty that the action of Usdaw officials has forced reps out of the union. But despite some promises made at a union branch meeting for evidence relating to the alleged ballot rigging to be made available, Usdaw have addressed none of the concerns of the drivers. Indeed they have been punished for raising such concerns

Indeed in their letter to ex-Usdaw members at the workplace one of the few reasons they state for workers to remain in Usdaw is loss of membership benefits.  “By leaving Usdaw you have also broken your service with the union. You may be aware that after twelve months Usdaw membership you are eligble to claim sickness benefit, paternity grant, death grant and dispute benefit. Eligibility to stand for elected positions will also be lost.” But by signing no-strike agreements and removing reps Usdaw was already denying their members these very rights. This was followed up by a joint letter from the company and Usdaw to members encouraging them

Usdaw members should demand a full accounting of what has transpired and how Usdaw have officials have dealt with the complaints raised by the now ex-Usdaw members. Our union should be fully transparent with its members. Usdaw and other unions should not play into the hands of employers and help them divide workforces, either by signing agreements over the heads of workers or trying to force them to belong to a union that because of their experiences they no longer want to be a member of. In the interests of accountability, all the complaints against Usdaw should be included in the Annual report, thus allowing the members to discuss the tactics being adopted by our top officials. It is in the interests of trade unionists that these issues are resolved quickly, and instead of infighting we see joint union action on a fighting strategy to improve the working conditions of drivers and all retail and distribution workers.

The best way to make the issues clear is to make sure there is an urgent campaign over demands that the drivers have raised. If no action is taken to improve conditions at the depot then this will reinforce the position of the Usdaw leadership, as well as demoralising drivers at the depot further. It is to their huge credit that rather than giving up on the trade union movement they have decided to try and start afresh.

A campaign around clear demands for improved conditions at the depot should be mounted, particularly on the issue of the 10 hour night-work limit. Additionally a formal statement should be issued by the drivers to explain to other members in Usdaw why they took the action they did, including a call for a joint campaign of all unions in distribution to fight for decent terms and conditions for all drivers in the industry.

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