Friday, 5 December 2008

Retail and Distribution Activist no 12

Bulletin of Socialist Party members working in retail and distribution
November 2008 Issue 12

Robbie to stand for President

After the excellent vote for her as a candidate in Usdaw’s general secretary election, Robbie Segal has been lobbied to stand for the position of Usdaw’s President. Robbie told the Activist, ‘I feel honoured to accept the nomination to stand for President on behalf of those in the union who want to change Usdaw into a union that’s fights for it members. I will be a campaigning President. I will fight to protect members’ jobs, and terms and conditions. I will argue for a national campaign to mobilise our membership to win a decent wage. I will see it as my role to defend the democratic traditions of the union and put the members’ first.’

Crisis in the retail sector

Woolworths and MFI have called in the receivers and Dairy Farmers have declared mass redundancies. 100,000 retail jobs have vanished in the last year and at least another ten companies with 60,000 jobs are likely to go down the same road. A managing director of one company said, ‘the worse time for job losses will be the first six months of next year, which will be a bloodbath for many retailers.’
The question is posed does the leadership of the largest retail union, Usdaw, have a strategy that can defend members’ jobs. So what has been Usdaw’s approach to the pending crisis faced in the retail sector?
Usdaw’s Woolworth’s press release states, ‘seeking urgent talks with the administrators’ and ‘we will do everything we can to help communicate the situation to the staff’ and ‘we will be doing everything we can to help them through this difficult time.’ As far as the Dairy Farmers press release it demanded, ‘an urgent meeting with the company in order that we can understand the business case behind this decision and to receive guarantees on jobs in the remaining localities.’ These are mere platitudes rather than a strategy. Usdaw members are demanding that our union must start fighting back now.
Woolworth had sales of over £1.7 billion and has a major share in many products sold in the high street. Who decided the fate of Woolworths and the other hundreds of thousands jobs likely to be axed. The various companies that own Woolworth’s debt decided it was in their interest to pull the plug. It is their interests rather than those of the workforce – profits before jobs – that determines the outcome of thousands of jobs.
From press reports it seems that the government intervened but failed to get a deal to save Woolworth. It is strange when bankers jobs are on the line there are millions to save jobs but when low-paid retail workers are about to lose their jobs New Labour don’t have a penny to spare. They can nationalise struggling banks but there is no mention of public ownership to save retail jobs.
This approach by the government, Usdaw slavishly supports all things New Labour, is the real weakness of our union’s strategy. For so long they have follow a partnership with the bosses and the government, Usdaw is tied to the strategy of the government. – which is pro-business. The Activist argues that the only real way to solve the problems faced by retail workers is to take into public ownership the major retail companies.

Defend our jobs and terms and conditions

Everyone is talking about economic crisis now. The Socialist Party has been explaining for years that there was going to be a massive economic downturn. Now it has happened the bosses will attempt to make saving my cutting our wages and conditions.
One of the problems is that Usdaw’s leadership have rolled over and accepted changes to contracts rather than fight to preserve existing terms and conditions. Jon Hannett even commented in the latest issue of Arena that ‘the distribution network of many big players is being overhauled.’ What does this mean? What have the leaders done? When members have been willing to fight, there has been no real struggle and the officials arguing for acceptance of the changes. In the new distribution sites new starters are employed on worse conditions when compared to the older sites.
The situation is no better in the establish distribution sites. Again there has been an acceptance of worse contracts for new starters. Having members on different contracts will mean that the management will divide and split the workforce when joint action is needed.
The situation is as bad in Tesco’s stores, where workers are on different terms. Using the excuse of the economic crisis, it will make it easier to attack the conditions of those on the better contacts. These show a major weakness in Usdaw’s strategy.
Another problem we are facing is that companies have stopped replacing leavers and as the economic crunch continues the bosses will implement permanent freezes on new recruits. This will force members to work harder. It will create a stressful working environment which in turn will lead to more absence disciplinary hearings.

Nationalisation and the trade unions

The Activist and the Socialist Party has always argued for nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy and this includes the banks. When we have raised this issue, we were attacked by the establishment especially New Labour supporters. We were utopians and recently this idea was rejected as being outdated. We were told that the problems of economic growth were solved and never again would we return to the days of boom and bust. Most shop workers never experience any real boom. It was a boom where the rich became even richer while the gap between the wealthy and the poor increased.
Now the rich are the enthusiastic advocates of nationalisation. Their institutions faced bankruptcy and they demanded that Gordon Brown bails them out and he readily agreed. But when workers demanded their companies needed saving, Brown’s answers in the negative. We need a socialist government and a new workers’ party.

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