On the frontline

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) organises mostly within the retail sector although we also have a reasonable presence in distribution, food manufacturing and the chemical industry. Over the last decade, we have seen our membership grow by 28% making Usdaw the fifth largest union within Britain, with over 433,000 members.

Organising and recruiting workers in the retail sector is a particularly demanding challenge due to the structure of the sector with factors such as short-hours contracts, high staff turnover and the culture of 7 day a week/24 hour a day trading in major food retailers taking its toll. Now we have the added challenge of large swathes of job losses too.

Usdaw’s approach to organise in the retail sector is one of sustainable organising. To respond to the issue of staff turnover, it is vital that our relationships with employers have a system to notify Usdaw when companies are taking on new staff and that Usdaw has a presence at workplace inductions.

Throughout Britain, we have over 10,000 workplace reps. To make our organising model succeed, it is vital that these reps are trained and supported. Since 2012, the union has run a ‘Supporting and Developing Reps’ programme to deliver comprehensive training for all new reps. New reps now receive contact within the first few weeks of taking on the role which is followed a one-to-one induction with a full-time official of the union.

To help ensure that both members and reps can engage with the union on a regular basis, Usdaw runs high profile campaigns throughout the year. The main ones being ‘Freedom from Fear’ and ‘Supporting Parents and Carers’.

By running high profile campaigns, this keeps our members informed of their rights and, with our ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, our members see that we are highlighting to the public that our members working in retail should not be physically or verbally abused when they are only carrying out their duties.

All the major retailers that Usdaw organises in are going through, or have been through major changes to how they operate owing to the companies’ drive to increase profits for shareholders. Having recognition agreements with these companies makes sure that Usdaw is consulted on such changes and, on many occasions, we have been able to work with the employers to avoid job losses and softened the blow for our members.

I take the view that if these agreements to consult were not in place, our members would see changes forced upon them at them at the whim of management. This is also another reason that we have trained reps in all our recognised workplaces; to challenge employers if changes are being implemented without consultation.

Whilst our density within retail where we have agreements is reasonably good, our challenge, as the retail union, is to organise in the companies where they do not recognise a union, for example the newer players like Lidl and Aldi as well as the more traditional longstanding ones like Marks and Spencer. We have extensive recruitment campaigns trying to organise these newer companies and now have a significant number of members across both Aldi and Lidl. Unfortunately, they will not enter into discussion with Usdaw and we have to revert to the old way of leafleting outside their depots and stores. I am sure one day we will have an agreement with these companies.

Retail will always be a difficult sector to organise. I am sure with working to our organising strategy, and our great team of reps, Usdaw will continue to buck the trend within the union movement and maintain our current growth.

Stewart Forrest is the Divisional Officer for USDAW in Scotland.

• As of 1 July 2018, Usdaw has a new leadership with Paddy Lillis becoming General Secretary and Dave McCrossen becoming Deputy General Secretary.