Saturday, 4 October 2008

Retail and Distirbution Activist: Issue 11

Retail & Distribution Activist: Bulletin of Socialist Party members in USDAW

October 2008 Issue 11

Usdaw leaders shaken by election results

Socialist Party member Robbie Segal shook the entire shopworkers' union USDAW by gaining 40% of the vote for General Secretary in the ballot result announced today. Robbie is a Tesco worker who on shoe-string resources with a tiny band of activists in a David and Goliath battle faced the entire USDAW official machine. The whole right wing union full time bureaucracy was mobilised to crush her, but she still managed to gain over 18,000 votes winning the moral victory by far.
The incumbent, John Hannett, had the entire union behind him – except the members. He appears in the union journal and other union publications every month. Robbie was virtually unknown to most of the members other than those that have known her first-hand as a fighter over the years. As an example, three officials, one of whom a EC member, were flown into the Central London branch meeting to argue against one Socialist Party member to secure the nomination of all the London branches for Hannett. But Robbie’s programme clearly appealed to the members by calling for an £8 minimum wage for all, no to partnership between the union and the employers- as there is in Tesco, for democracy within the union, and for an alternative to New Labour for ordinary people to have a party that genuinely represents them. Robbie also pledged to reject the £100,000 Hannett took and to continue on her Tesco wage.
The result is in no way a ringing endorsement of the current leadership. The low turnout of 13.2% reflected the fact that Hannett did his very best to subdue the issue, by calling a summer election, calling no debates with Robbie and producing no other material other than the ballot paper and a letter to the branches demanding their support. So Hannett's 7.8% support in USDAW must be seen as a massive vote of no confidence in his performance in the job.
This result, for a clearly socialist candidate in the USDAW General Secretary election is testimony to the changing mood in the unions. USDAW has for many years been the bastion of the right wing with an avid New Labourite leadership. John Hannett pulled all the stops out to use the union bureaucratic machine in his favour for this election. Robbie proved his leadership severely lacking.

This article first appeared in The Socialist.

John Hannett – you are doing well

After a week of turmoil on the financial markets, it about time we looked again at our general secretary’s income. Inflation for the basic necessities is going through the roof, so John certainly needs a ‘substantial increase’. The recent copy of Arena publishes the details of the general secretary’s income.

Income National insurance Pension Car TOTAL
September 2008 £81,742 £9,801 £16,389 £6,532 £114,464
September 2007 £78,050 £10,053 £15,172 £5,494 £108,769

No mention of the GS election?
Why is the result of the General Secretary election not posted on the Usdaw website? Can you help us? Is the conspiracy to keep the 40% vote for Robbie a secret? In the EC minutes it mentions the election but again no figures. Why is there a campaign of silence?

Campaigning for a decent living wage
‘The £8 minimum wage is unrealistic.’ This was one the main arguments out of the mouths of my opponents during the general secretary election campaign. However, they never told us what would be a ‘realistic’ minimum wage.
Every wage claim submitted by Usdaw asks for a substantial pay rise. It is never explained what a substantial pay rise is nor an amount mention.
Is the Tesco pay rise for their retail workers of 3.8% a substantial rise? Of course not! The general secretary’s pay (not including the other benefits) increased by £3,692. Now that would be a substantial increase for our members in retail.

The secret election

Since the announcement of the result for Usdaw’s general secretary election, I have been asked numerous times why there was such a poor turnout. All the comments from friends and foes considered my vote good to excellent and John Hannett’s very poor.

Of course, Hannett’s one comfort was that he won. With the whole fulltime machine supporting him, he believed they would get out his vote which he did but it was only a fraction of the membership. Some of the officials commented to me privately that they believed the letter sent by him to Usdaw employees, which contained a near instruction to ring him and pledge their allegiance, was a form of bullying. His undemocratic and unfair methods at the start of the campaign repulsed many of the officials and members

There were a number of reasons for the low turnout. When John Hannett raised the election at the EC, I complained that if it was being held over the summer period and this would decrease the numbers voting. I was proved correct.

Another factor why so few of our members voted was because they had no idea that an election was taking place. It was truly a secret election – the Union’s members had no idea that there was an election until the ballot paper dropped through their letterbox.

There was a single letter to the branches, which is attended by a mere handful of members, informing the branch of the election. There was no mention of the election in the members’ magazine Arena which is delivered to every member’s home. There was not even a mention in the activists’ journal Network. Clearly Hannett expected the fewer members knew about his opponent’s programme and strategy all the better for him and would give him an advantage in the contest. The blame for the low turnout is the fault of Hannett’s unfair running of the election,

In fact Hannett’s whole strategy was flawed. However the real weakness of his campaign was that his promise for more of the same never found an echo with the bulk of our members. What has the Union really achieved over the five years of Hannett’s control? In the present economic crisis, many members fear the effect of the economic crisis on their living standards. They will be demanding wage increases to defend their living standards. In response to my demand for a £8 minimum wage, the officials called it ‘unrealistic’. What is realistic? The union normally submits a claim for a substantial increase. What is a substantial increase? The only thing unrealistic is members are expected to survive on or just above the minimum wage.

If Hannett had conducted a serious campaign to increase wages then the members would have voted in their droves for him. But constrained by the Union’s support for New Labour’s pro-employer policies meant that a real campaign against the big retail companies is a massive ‘no no’. With capitalism in crisis, what can Hannett and his New Labour supporters really offer the hard working and low paid members of our union.

At the start of the campaign, I suggested the Executive Council should write guidelines for the election that would take the power away from the incumbent to dictate the timing and conduct of the election. This the EC rejected. However my vote has frightened the bureaucracy. They could have lost the ballot so now they will panic and try to change the rules to ensure the bureaucracy can never be threatened again by a real challenger. We will have to be on our guard against attacks on the democracy in our Union.

After my 40% vote, the members should be aware that there is a strong possibility that right wing leaders of our Union will launch attacks against those officials who never gave their support to John Hannett. It is rumoured that a list was kept of the officials that rung pledging their support for him.

Finally after what has turned into a rather curious campaign, it appears that the union is trying to keep the result secret. The result has not been published on the Usdaw’s website and even in the EC minutes the result was not published. Curious, to say the least!

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