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Retail sector crunch: nationalise to save jobs

December 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Toys R Us plans to close a third of its stores. Asda wants to downgrade hundreds of shopfloor supervisors. Britain’s largest tobacco distributor Palmer & Harvey has gone into administration.

These recent announcements will ring alarm bells for retail workers worried for their futures amid signs that consumer spending in general is slowing down.

The closure of at least 26 Toys R Us outlets threatens 800 jobs. Asda’s pay cut would affect 842 ‘section leaders’. And the administrators have already made 2,500 Palmer & Harvey staff redundant, with a further 900 threatened.

The Toys R Us closures are partly due to large store sizes becoming less competitive after the rise of online shopping. But both Toys R Us and Palmer & Harvey have had problems with suppliers.

The tobacco distributor struggled to receive payments in time to pay down debt obligations. And some of the toy shop’s suppliers were unable to get ‘credit insurance’ for providing goods on account.

Consumer spending fell 2% this October compared to last, according to Visa. That’s the fifth monthly drop in the last six months, and included a 5% drop in high street spending. This reduced income will affect most those companies which are heavily indebted.

Like the run-up to last year’s collapse of department store BHS, a management buyout of Palmer & Harvey left a wake of suspicious dealings. The 2008 takeover was leveraged with debt which reached a net amount of £48.6 million in April 2016.

Yet since the buyout, the Guardian estimates there has been around £70 million in shareholder payouts. Former chairman Christoper Etherington and his wife will have received about £2.5 million in dividends since 2009 alone.

Usdaw

The BHS collapse meant the loss of a high street icon, and the jobs of many members of retail and distribution union Usdaw. So the 2017 Usdaw conference passed a resolution to call on the government to bring companies in a similar situation into public ownership.

The union has made two statements on Palmer & Harvey on its website so far. But nowhere in either does it call for nationalisation. Instead the administrator, financial services giant PwC, has been allowed to sack 2,500 workers unanswered.

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Paddy Lillis Becomes General Secretary Unopposed – Lack of Election Highlights Democratic Deficit in Usdaw

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Most active members of Usdaw will be unsurprised to see the announcement that Paddy Lillis will be Usdaw’s next General Secretary. With the high nominations threshold of 25, raised after a grassroots challenger, the late Socialist Party member Robbie Segal, won 40% of the vote in the last election in 2008, it was unlikely anyone would be able to challenge Lillis who is the current Deputy General Secretary of the union.

This election also highlights a democratic deficit in the union – as ordinary members have been denied a debate around the policies put forward by the person in the most powerful position in Usdaw since 2008. Not only that, but as Lillis was elected by a branch vote for his current position of Deputy General Secretary this means he has never faced a national vote by the full membership.

High nomination thresholds are a tool of the right wing to subvert members democratic rights – the right in Usdaw opposed the recent rule changed moved by an Activist supporter at this year’s ADM, which attracted the support of around 20% of delegates, because it would have opened up the possibility of a contested election instead of a coronation, just like the Blairite MPs tried to keep Jeremy Corbyn off the ballot paper via such a threshold in the 2016 Labour leadership election and John McDonnell had been kept off in 2008.

The Activist believes that future ADM should reduce the nominations threshold for General Secretary down to five which would allow Usdaw members to debate the direction they want the leading figures of the union to take us in.

Many members will be glad to see the impending retirement of John Hannett, whose leadership was closely linked with support for the Blairite wing of the Labour Party against those around Jeremy Corbyn including speaking on the platforms of right-wing Labour organisations such as Progress and Labour Friends of Israel. Industrially, members have seen pay decline in real terms, increasingly insecure hours of work and terms and conditions surrendered without a real fight.

It is welcome that at speeches at Usdaw divisional conferences and other meetings Paddy Lillis has been much more positive towards Jeremy Corbyn and the radical policies that were in the most recent Labour election manifesto – many of which have been passed as policy at Usdaw ADMs in the recent period. However, Lillis was also chair of the Labour NEC during the 2016 leadership election that went to court to deny many Labour Party members a vote in that election. Therefore many Usdaw members will be waiting to see how much he distances himself from Hannett’s legacy once this election period is over.

The best way to advance the union in a new direction is to elect a fighting EC in the coming elections to work alongside Paddy Lillis. There are a number of Broad Left candidates standing in the election for EC seats around the country, as well as Broad Left supporter Amy Murphy standing for President. In 2015 with 10 nominations, Amy won 45% of the vote, but with several times that many nominations for the forthcoming elections, many Usdaw members will be working for a victory for Amy and the defeat of the right-wing candidate Barbara Wilson.

Ahead of even an announcement of the election of a new Deputy General Secretary a number of candidates have put their name forward – the Activist will comment further as the various candidates and their policies emerge.

Tesco’s 10% pay increase accompanied by cuts and job losses

July 14, 2017 1 comment

The headline figure in the result of the latest Tesco pay negotiations is a pay rise of 10.57% to £8.42, in Tesco’s own words its “biggest ever pay award”. And it is far higher than the pay rises of 2% or less that I received when I used to work for Tesco.

Scott Jones, Usdaw East London C026 branch chair (personal capacity)

But in the detail below the headlines it’s revealed that this rise will take place over the course of the next two years, straight away meaning that the increase is actually just over 5% a year. And this increase comes after small or no increases in the last couple of years.

Another blow will be the decrease in Sunday and bank holiday pay from time and a half to time and a quarter, which in Usdaw’s Network magazine for August is flippantly brushed aside with the justification that most companies already pay a flat rate for bank holiday working. And inflation is currently running at around 3%.

So while a pay increase of 5% is welcome, against a backdrop of cuts in terms and conditions, now and previously, this is merely playing catch-up. And while Usdaw members will have different opinions over the pay deal, the fact that yet again Tesco workers don’t get a vote on it means there is no accountability.

And as one Tesco worker commented to me, with the estimated 1,100 potential job losses at its call centre in Cardiff and possibly more at head office, Tesco is moving money around the company as opposed to making a large investment in this offer. An investment it could afford to do, with a rise in operating profit and a £3.7 billion takeover of cash-and-carry group Booker on the cards.

There is no excuse to close the call centre in Cardiff which will be devastating for those 1,100 workers and the local area. Usdaw and the Welsh government should put as much pressure on Tesco as possible. The union in particular should ballot for strike action over this and future attacks on terms and conditions.

The Mandate trade union in Ireland brought Tesco workers out on strike earlier this year after Tesco tried to change contracts and force workers to take redundancy.

Their strike, which was extended and spread with brilliant picket lines throughout the dispute, was an inspiration to workers here and shows what’s possible. Usdaw should look to this as an example in the fight to save jobs, terms and conditions and to secure a £10 an hour real living wage for all.

Solidarity with Tesco Ireland Valentine’s Day strike

February 8, 2017 Leave a comment
Poster produced by the Activist for use in solidarity selfies with the Tesco workers strike in Ireland

Poster produced by the Activist for use in solidarity selfies with the Tesco workers strike in Ireland

Up to 15 Tesco stores in Ireland will face strike action on Valentine’s Day 14 February after members of the trade union Mandate, which represents more than 10,000 workers at the company, voted 78% in favour of a walkout over contract changes.

Scott Jones, Usdaw East London Retail branch chair (personal capacity)

The changes Tesco Ireland are attempting to force through without agreement affect approximately 250 workers employed before 1996. The new contracts would result in some workers experiencing reduced incomes of up to 15% along with increased ‘flexibility’.

Tesco began their attack on pre-1996 staff more than one year ago when they intimidated and bullied more than 900 workers out of their jobs through a redundancy programme and strike action was narrowly avoided then.

The remaining 250 workers want to stay in the company on the contracts they have but the company is insisting they accept reduced terms and conditions.

This followed moves at Tesco in the UK to drive down terms and conditions last year when hundreds of staff lost out as a result of the pay deal which caused pay cuts in overtime, weekend and night premiums. Meanwhile Tesco CEO Dave Lewis received £4.1 million in his first six months as boss in 2015 and Tesco reported that it had its best sales growth at the end of last year’s quarter for over five years. This profit was further boosted by the Christmas sales meaning that Tesco is on course to deliver a profit of “at least” £1.2 billion for 2016-17.

As one Tesco worker said then: “I’d rather have a living wage than support the lifestyles of shareholders.”

We support Tesco workers in Ireland and their trade union Mandate for taking this action against Tesco’s attempt to implement increasingly low-paid, part-time precarious work in its stores. And we call on Usdaw, the shop workers’ union in Britain, to raise solidarity and discuss industrial action so that the strength of the 160,000 Usdaw members in Tesco is used to fight against low pay and attacks on conditions.

We would encourage all Usdaw reps and other labour movement activists who wish to support the strike to send solidarity messages to the workers via their website (https://tescoworkers.com/contact-us/) and also send copies to usdawactivist@gmail.com. We have produced a poster (see image above) that can be printed out to take ‘solidarity selfies’ and photos with to be shared on social media, tag @MandateTU on Twitter

Usdaw and the EU referendum

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

This is an expanded version of the article in the 2016 ADM special of the Activist (no 61)

Delegates to ADM will be debating a statement from the Executive Council setting out the leaderships’ case for remaining part of the EU.

This contrasts sharply with the position of Usdaw in the 1975 referendum, where Usdaw, along with a majority of the Labour Party (including Jeremy Corbyn), campaigned to leave the then EEC.

Today, because of the vacation of opposition to the EU by the workers movement, then the most prominent opponents of the EU (aided by exaggerated publicity in the mainstream media) are Ukip and the Tories, who have put forward a series of false arguments, often on a xenophobic basis, around migration.

Whilst the document explains the false basis of these myths, this is not sufficient. Such arguments play upon real fears of lack of jobs, housing and public services experienced by working class people as a result of policies of austerity and privatisation carried out by successive Labour and Tory governments. Alternative policies such as a mass council house building programme, scrapping the rip-off PFI contracts in the NHS and other public services, renationalisation of the privatised utilities to name but a few, are needed to counter such arguments fully. Yet these won’t be expressed by big business on either side of the referendum, and points to the need for our movement to mount its own campaign independent of the right and starting from a principled basis based on our members interests.

Document suggests that Usdaw changed its mind as a result of the ‘Social Chapter’ ushered in by then EU president Jaques Delors. Yet the Social Chapter is in reality fairly weak – Tory governments for years opted out of implementing it altogether, and even when Blair implemented it key parts such as the Working Time Directive were not fully implemented, and that are other aspects such as TUPE are disregarded by employers, as Tesco drivers in Doncaster found out to their cost a few years ago.

There has been much confusion about the two EU courts, one part of the EU and the other separate to it. The European Court of Human Rights was created by the European Convention on Human Rights, the statutes of which are incorporated into the Human Rights Act. Many trade unionists will undoubtedly want to defend the provisions of this legislation which has become a bête-noir of the right-wing press and which the Tory right wish to replace with a ‘British Bill of Rights’. But whilst the EC statement tries to conflate this with the EU, it is a separate institution which leaving the EU would not affect membership of.

The EU’s court, on the other hand, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has passed down many vicious anti-worker judgements including the Viking and Laval cases which undermine trade union rights among ferry workers. In this case the issue was compounded by the European Commission, giving the decision the status of statutory regulation rather than case law, which directs national courts to enforce ‘business freedom’ where it conflicts with collective agreements and union rights.

Closer to home for Usdaw members, as reported in the 2015 Annual Report, it was the ECJ who decided that to support the UK government in restricting the need for redundancy consultation for Ethel Austin and Woolworths workers in stores under 20 staff. This was after Usdaw had won a victory in an Employment Appeal Tribunal here in the UK.

The reality is such concessions as the Social Chapter have been wrested out of the governments in Europe by workers struggles. It was the weakness and inability to lead such struggles of many trade union ‘leaders’, compounded by the defeat of the miners in 1984-85, which saw British union ’leaders’ turn to the EU as their salvation.

This is reflected in the question of the government’s new anti-union laws. Instead of leading a serious struggle against the TU bill, the EC statement on that subject makes no mention of following the call supported at the TUC to support any union finding itself outside the law in resisting it.

In reality the EU is a series of treaties to allow European capitalists to create the biggest market possible to maximise their profits. The establishment of the Euro, as a common currency for many EU countries is a natural extension of this, and has in fact allowed the wealthier capitalists in countries such as Germany to take advantage of lower-wage economies in the euro-zone depressing the euro’s value to boost its exports.

This is reflected in the structures of the EU, which are split up into 3 main bodies – the European Council, European Commission and European Parliament. The latter is the one that we elect every five years, which the statement euphemistically says ‘plays a key part in agreeing European Union laws and Directives’. The reality is that is merely a rubber-stamping body with incredibly limited power. The real decision making is made by the other two bodies – with the appointed, not elected European Commission as the statement says ‘[carrying] out much of the European Union’s day-to-day work.’

The European Council (and subordinate Councils of Ministers) ultimately makes the major decisions of the EU. This body is made up of the heads of governments of each EU states, and any fundamental pro-worker reform of the EU – as advocated by most left and trade union, would need to be passed through this body.

Any left-led government coming to power in Britain would be impeded by the EU from carrying out popular policies like renationalising the railways, as the Tsipras government was ’waterboarded’ at the European Council to drop its fight against austerity in Greece. If multiple left governments were to come to power, enacting anti-austerity and socialist policies then why be restrained by the neo-liberal EU when they could instead take practical steps towards establishing the beginning of a real Socialist Federation of Europe.

The EU bosses’ club should be rejected, a Europe in workers interests will not come through it.

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Sunday Trading Extension Defeated

March 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Retail workers up and down the country will be celebrating the government’s defeat of its plans to devolve Sunday Trading to local authorities. A majority of 31 voted down the government’s plans including 27 Tory MPs.

Cameron’s reaction to the vote has been to declare that the plans are “dead in the water”, but a number of Tory MP’s have argued that the votes of the SNP, who opposed the changes, should not count given the new English votes for English laws provisions. Scotland already has longer Sunday Trading.

This factor, means that despite the Tories saying they will not reintroduce these proposals, if the government brings in limitations on Scottish MPs to vote on ‘English’ matters and with pressure from big business, may yet appear again. The vote on 9 March was, after all, the third attempt by the Tories to introduce such measures in the last five years.

Clearly the vote is a great result for Usdaw members’ hard work in campaigning and lobbying in opposition to this vote. But given the vast majority of the big, urban local authorities are controlled by Labour, then serious opposition at that level, a refusal to use powers if granted to extend Sunday trading, could have made this ‘dead in the water’ before now.

The task now is to use this victory to give confidence to organise retail workers to halt the attacks on terms and conditions, particularly premium payments that were stepped up in advance of this legislation possibly coming in. Mobilising an active campaign for the TUC demand of a £10 an hour minimum wage, while defending hard won premium payments and campaigning for a minimum of time-and-half for all working on Sundays, must be the goal of Usdaw and other retail unions.

Usdaw Leadership Over-rides Young Workers Committee in Labour Youth Elections

December 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Elections to the committee of the Young Labour are perhaps not something at the top of the mind of most Usdaw members. However, members will undoubtedly be suprised that Usdaw’s leadership has ignored views of it’s own Young Workers Committee and nominated two Progress supporting candidates for the chair & NEC of Labour Youth.

At a recent Usdaw Young Workers Committee meeting, those attending were told that ‘it would be inappropriate’ for them to discuss the issue. But this isn’t the only time their views on specific youth events have been bypassed. Motions to the TUC Young Workers conference which Usdaw delegates are expected to move are not written by them with consultation only on the broad subject topic. It begs the question, what is the point of having such a body if you almost totally ignore that body’s wishes?

Of course, it could be argued that the young workers committees aren’t elected. Divisional young workers committees are appointed by divisional councillors from those who put their names forward, with a national young workers committee elected from those bodies having one representative each.

But the leadership aren’t proposing any sort of change to those structures – it’s as if they want the kudos for involving young workers, but without allowing those young workers any responsibility at all.

The Activist would like to see the enhancement of democracy in the union’s youth structures. We would like to see elected young workers committees, a young workers rep on the EC (where despite the huge number of young workers in retail there isn’t a single EC member under 27) and the creation of a youth conference where policies can be discussed, including what motions are put by the union to external youth bodies (with the proviso that is doesn;t contravene ADM policy).

But the selection of two Progress supporting candidates by Usdaw’s leadership, as opposed to the left candidates favoured by the Young Workers Committee, also shows that they are part of the campaign to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party by placing those hostile to him in positions of power.

The best way that Usdaw members can fight to stop this, is by campaigning for the passage of policy backing the platform that Corbyn was elected on at Labour Party conference and advancing the case for the democratic control and accountability we need to see to ensure Usdaw has a union leadership that fully represents its members.