Monday 29 August 2022

Usdaw and Right Wing Trade Unionism

"I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome", so said Clement Attlee to Harold Laski. Choosing a different form of words, Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said the same to Unite general secretary Sharon Graham Monday morning on Radio 4. Having raised Sharon's ire by equivocating on matters industrial, she has criticised Keir Starmer for failing to stick up for workers. "This isn't fair" cried Paddy into the BBC microphone because he's "demonstrated time and time again that he’s on the side of workers." He goes on, "We need to be, as a trade union and Labour movement, putting the blame squarely where it belongs, and that’s with this Tory government, who have been missing in action."

"Missing in action", another variance of the "asleep at the wheel" trope. Has Paddy forgot what a trade union is for? Labour was founded by the organised labour movement, and it's a dereliction of a general secretary's duty, especially when the union is an affiliate, to simply give the party leader a free pass when they do nothing to challenge Tory narratives about strikes and collective action. Paddy would do well to reflect that Sharon was elected on an organising agenda - which is more than can be said for his inheriting the general secretaryship in 2017 after raising the nomination threshold to prevent an election from happening.

When it comes to the trade union movement, Usdaw is one of two unions who can relied on by the Labour right to always vote their way. The other is Community. Formed from a merger of two much-reduced unions, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades, Community's supine loyalty to the Parliamentary Labour Party was enshrined on day one when it made then chancellor Gordon Brown its first official member. Embarrassing. It's small as unions go, and has been rightly characterised as a property portfolio with a side hustle in service trade unionism. Therefore, its rightism isn't too difficult to explain - a point underlined by its recent swallowing of Voice, the Derby-based education "union" that refused to take strike action as a point of principle. No wonder Margaret Thatcher was a fan and variously promoted it.

Usdaw, however, is a proper union and one that represents some of the most exploited and underpaid workers in the country, primarily in retail and warehousing. Coupled with this are some very impressive density rates, usually of 90%+ in some supermarkets where they have a recognition agreement. How can a workforce who aren't just at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis, but one dangerously exposed during the initial phases of the pandemic and have lost out thanks to Tory cuts to social security before that give rise to a right wing union? One element is how the bureaucracy reproduces itself from the shop floor rep upwards. Facilities time here is particularly corrosive, allowing reps to be separated from the workforce and variously flattered by management and the away days put on by the union itself. Furthermore, unlike the RMT, for example, which provides political education to its members, the stress here is on partnership working. Usdaw identifies job security and maintaining its mass membership with the interests of the employer, and therefore the stress is on not rocking the boat, defusing tensions, and more often than not acting as unpaid health and safety at work consultants. The results are no-strike sweetheart deals, little to no industrial action, and duff pay agreements. Like the two per cent rise it agreed with Morrison's in June.

Historically, the right have thrived in recent decades because of the character of retail work. The old pottery union, the Ceramic and Allied Trade Union, was similarly comatose because pot banks, despite concentrating thousands of employees in huge workplaces, were deliberately sub-divided by a division of labour that came with their own petty status hierarchies and different wage rates. Supermarkets are very similar, with rungs of supervisors and managers spread across different departments, the separation of shopfloor, office, and behind-the-scenes functions, and a further cadre of management overseeing the lot. Workers often have to compete among themselves for "overtime" as many are taken on on part-time contracts with few set guaranteed hours. Traditionally, supermarkets recruited heavily from women and students who were looking for supplementary income, and this remains a key component of the workforce - but it also means they don't have much of a stake and can turnover very quickly. Lastly, despite the carefully stratified workplace the social proximity of manager and worker is very close. They eat and socialise in the same canteen, they often work cheek by jowl when staff are short and managers have to get stuck in on the shop floor. And, crucially, most managers have spent time on the tills, the shelves, or the trolleys as ordinary workers themselves. In other words, something of a (face-fitting) meritocracy is in place where it is possible for a Saturday shelf stacker to ascend to store boss. These problems present difficulties for the development of an oppositional trade union consciousness, and so Usdaw sidesteps them by offering a mix of service unionism, perks for activists and lay reps, and an ethos entirely compatible with management aims. And so in normal times a relatively inchoate work force that is not counteracted by the union allows for a bureaucracy happy with its place as a privileged mediator between employer and employee, and one it would jealously defend against those who might upset it.

These, however, are not normal times. As Polly Smythe reports, there is discontent among the Usdaw rank-and-file. With strike action looking to spread across different industries as we enter the Autumn, and a campaign making the case for more action, Usdaw members might start asking why its leaders are content for them to get by with a two per cent "pay rise" when inflation is in double figures. Or, when they see other workers striking to protect workplace conditions that Usdaw has long conceded, why they were merrily frittered away for an industrial peace that has just meant a one-sided class war? For retail is labour intensive and can easily be brought to a screeching halt by determined strike action.

Usdaw is a right wing union now, but the pressures of the cost of living crisis and the changing mood among the labour movement writ large means this could change quickly. When the frustrations of the 400k plus membership boil over, no amount of partnership pleas and right wing shenanigans will keep a lid on it.

Image Credit


Old Trot said...

A really excellent , concise, analysis. Phil. I particularly valued your insights about the complacent trade unionism and deliberate employer worker divisive stratification in job roles in the old potteries industry . The recent collaboration of the always right wing GMB with Deliveroo to marginalise a more radical union with n actual a history of effective organising in the ghastly exploitative 'gig economy' (unlike the GMB) is another example of the dire role of too much of the , highly paid, gold pensioned, cronyist, trades union bureaucracy in obstructing workers from effectively defending their living standards. It was ever thus, but as you say, the now looming mega crisis of inflation and falling real incomes may well cause major membership ructions in these trades unions and their complacent leaderships and full timers.

Anonymous said...

For all full timers be elected with right of recall,&all receive avarage,skilled wage only

Zoltan Jorovic said...

I heard the interview that the USDAW general secretary gave and was shocked by his complacency. As a former shop steward I would have been at the very least embarrassed admitting to having accepted a 2% deal when inflation is running at 5x that. He seemed oblivious. That he then had the gall to criticise a Union leader who actively represents her members and who entirely legitimately questions whether the Labour Party are adequately supporting workers (they are not), struck me as almost beyond belief. I really, really hope that there is a backlash amongst the people he is supposed to represent and that he gets turfed out of his obviously far too comfortable position. His smugness and utterly misplaced self-righteousness was nauseous.

Karl Greenall said...

You should have seen him chair the Labour conference when Jeremy Corbyn was leader.

Anonymous said...

I was there. He was anti-democratic to say the least.

Old Trot said...

since Phil wrote this excellent article the news is out that the, very strange, agreed merger between the TSSA with the US Boilermakers union is OFF, after years of planning and securing member agreement ! Now the , very small membership, TSSA is generally known as a Left-led union, but its leadership's motives, and shenanigans in seeking this ludicrous merger are essentially identical to those detailed by Phil here re Community and USDAW (and the likes of the GMB and Unison too). And that core motivation is the desire of the jobs for life union bureaucrats to simply continue their gravy train lifestyles, regardless of their member's interests.

Undoubtedly , as a tiny membership union, with a falling membership, the TSSA should simply have merged with the RMT, or even UNITE. They negotiated with the RMT to this end - but talks failed. I strongly suspect that the TSSA bureaucrats didn't want to merge with the RMT simply because THEY wouldn't have retained their own perks and salaries, and probably most of their jobs for life in such a deal - even though , for their members, it makes perfect sense .

I think we mustn't be too starry eyed about supposed 'Left-led' unions and their leaders . At the end of the day, like the majority of PLP 'Left' MPs , they value their pensions and privileges far more than serious confrontations with the capitalist state. In that regard nothing has changed since the sell out by the TUC of the 1926 General Strike. This is not to decry the usefulness, at least initially, of Left led trades unions in supporting worker militancy in a social crisis such as we have today. But undoubtedly the entire trades union bureaucracy will act as a deliberate brake on that militancy if the stability of the UK state seems imperilled. Well heeled , gold pensioned, union bureaucrats of both Left and Right hues are too personally invested in the status quo to assist in its overthrow or even a serious challenge to the status quo. Which in normal times isn't a serious issue. But in the current rising tide of inflation caused deprivation, falling wages, a huge strike wave, and probably coming mass social unrest, both the Labour Party and the Trade union bureaucracy, particularly the lifetime bureaucrats of the TUC, will always side with the capitalist state, not the rest of us when it comes to the crunch.

Blissex said...

As to right-wing topics, probably because many "trots" have left New Labour, the NEC vote has collapsed, and now the NEC has a rightist majority where previously it has a left majority (it mattered even if a large majority of New Labour MPs are on the right thanks to years of parachuting right wingers into safe seats):