Opposing partnership – Building a fighting alternative

July 5th, 2008

In the Usdaw General Secretary election in 2003, John Hannett only received 19,063 votes while the National Officer, Val Pugh, obtained 13,729- votes and the Broad Left’s candidate Maureen Madden, standing on an anti-partnership programme, received 12,313 votes. Therefore, only 45,206 out of a possible 318,246 ballot papers were returned - a turnout of just over 14%. Hannett obtained less than 6% of the possible electorate. Clearly, John Hannett’s mandate is tenuous.

John Hannett, in his four years as general secretary, has been the most loyal of the very loyal supporters of New Labour. This acceptance of all aspects of New Labour pro business agenda meant that Usdaw had to passionately endorse the concept of their ‘social partnership’ strategy. In the EC statement to the 1998 ADM, it states, ‘Social partnership … will mean both unions and companies learning to do things differently. Some of the traditional ways we have of doing things may need to change.’ But have these changes brought any real benefits for Usdaw members?

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the Usdaw’s statement made 10 years ago. The EC document states, ‘It means the union is consulted on a wider range of issues’ and ‘Partnership means proper dialogue with the Union before decisions are taken, not giving us a “like it or lump it” choice.’ Is this consultation why we have had SYA forced on us? Is why so many of our members feel the forum process is little more than a joke? It appears the consultation part of the partnership is not working.

The statements claims, ‘The Union will be talking to employers about their political and ethical responsibilities. This might cover issues such as:

  • where they source their overseas goods from;
  • whether their suppliers overseas use child labour;
  • packaging and recycling practices and the company’s role in the local community.

With the above issues making negative headlines for retail companies in the media, it would be interesting to see the responses to our protests on any of these issues because they don’t seem to have appeared in the press.

The truth is that Tesco now tell us what is about to happen and our influence is negligible. A good example of this is that Tesco now has reduced the premium rates for Sunday working and the result is we have members working on numerous Sunday contracts. This could be used to undermine unity in any future struggles. And surely no trade union negotiator would ever accept such a situation. When the members justly complain to the shop stewards, we are advised to say its Tesco’s policy and we have no influence on corporate policy. Partnership is a farce.

Usdaw’s basic definition of ‘Social partnership’ states it: “means employers and unions co-operating to improve working conditions and to give employees a greater say in how their company is run.” The statement continues:

  • It recognises that the union has a shared interest in the success of a company, because this is how secure jobs are delivered.
  • It recognises that co-operation, not confrontation, is the way forward.
  • And it recognises that employees can only develop their own agenda through an independent trade union.

Usdaw’s acceptance of partnership means that struggle must be avoided under all circumstances. Partnership has had a devastating effect for Usdaw retail members. Retail stores are the new sweat shops with workers earning a few pence above the minimum wage. Tesco pays its new starters £5.94 per hour. The minimum wage is £5.52 per hour. A Tesco workers’ wage will increase to £6.34 but to win this meagre sum, Usdaw has conceded terms and conditions.

Although Usdaw boasts that the ‘partnership’ has benefitted its members, the real beneficiary is Tesco and the other large retail company. Tesco now controls 31% of the grocery trade (Sainsbury’s 16%, Asda 16% and Morrison 11%) and one in every eight pounds spent in the UK is spent in Tesco stores. Tesco’s profits last year totalled a staggering £2.85 billion. Even with massive profits, Tesco looks towards schemes to maximise profits. It was reported that Tesco over the last few years have been establishing off shore companies in the Cayman Islands. It has been reported, this will mean they will save millions in taxes.

In the USA, Tesco has rejected the concept of partnership by refusing to even talk to the trade unions. The USA Tesco worker can expect £5 an hour but Tesco (USA) generously will consider thinking about yearly pay rises. In Poland Tesco’s employees have not had a pay rise for 8 years. Profit and anti trade unionism is Tesco real attitude towards partnership.

Tesco is the largest private sector employer in the country with over 275,000 employees. Usdaw has 135,000 members working in Tesco; representing over a third of Usdaw’s total membership. However, trade union density in Tesco stores remains less than fifty percent. A large portion of Usdaw’s resources is directed towards increasing its membership in Tesco. But is partnership winning for the members in Tesco.

Partnership is not a new concept for the unions. It has long been a dream of a section of the labour movement to do away with the idea of the class struggle. After the 1926 General Strike, the Mond/Turner talks attempted to create a better working environment for employer/worker relations. However, under the impact of the 1929 economic slump the talks collapsed. Unfortunately for the trade union liberal their desire for social justice has been spoiled by employer’s greed for higher and higher profits.

These ideas of social peace have been a long time dream of liberal sections of the labour bureaucracy. Unable to compete with the Thatcher’s onslaught against the trade unions, these so-called leaders desperately grasped at any alternative that meant they never had to lead any form of industrial battle. With Blair’s New Labour government in control the trade union leaders accepted this class collaborationist agenda. Usdaw leaders jumped happily onto the bandwagon. First Bill Connor and now John Hannett have pushed Usdaw along the Blairite road further than any other union within the TUC. The proof of the bankruptcy of this strategy is the low wages paid in the retail sector.

Usdaw’s partnership strategy will lull our membership into a false sense of security. Taking the fight out of the membership armoury will mean when Tesco is forced to change tact because a change in government or under the impact of an economic crisis then the membership will fail to fight which will in turn lead to a plummeting of the membership.

However the strength of Usdaw in retail is backed by the well organised distribution centres. Some of these depots have near 100% membership. Therefore, these well organised distribution centres underpin the Union’s strength in the stores. The acceptance of partnership has a knock-on effect because the Union cannot defend any of its members because to do so would expose the partnership strategy for what it is. Recently many of the depots with the best agreements have been closed and rather than nationwide resistance the Usdaw leaders have allowed them to be picked off one-by-one.

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