Fighting for fairness in retail when ‘every little helps’ is just not enough

Tracy Gilbert recounts how Usdaw has risen to the challenges workers face in the retail sector.

After almost two years since the first lockdown, and as we are ushered into the ‘living with Covid’ era, it’s perhaps a good time to reflect on one of the most tumultuous periods in Usdaw’s history. Like every other organisation, Usdaw was thrown into a crisis situation not seen for generations. Overnight, we had to figure out how to best communicate remotely, prevent mass redundancies, keep our members safe and provide an uninterrupted service to Usdaw reps and members who would be working on the frontline.

Usdaw worked closely with its sister unions and the TUC to lobby the Westminster Government to ensure that the concerns of workers were taken into account when policy decisions were made. Our lobbying resulted in key worker status for the majority of our members and the furlough scheme which prevented millions of redundancies.

We also worked closely with employers to ensure improved safety measures were implemented in workplaces with enhanced social distancing, plastic screens and limiting the number of customers in stores. In addition, we also won 10% pay bonuses, sick pay from day one, shielding for vulnerable colleagues and enhanced colleague discounts.

However, the last two years have taken a toll. We are a member-facing union so not being able to see our reps and members was a huge challenge. Recruitment took a hit because Covid restrictions made it more difficult to access inductions, and our academy and standdown programmes were cancelled which are vital to our recruitment success.

As things return to some kind of normality, our union will once again be prioritising recruitment through our academies and standdown. A large part of our work will include supporting and developing our reps and making sure every rep knows how to recruit and has the confidence to do it.

Usdaw’ campaigns have been a great way of engaging with members. Reps who tend to run the campaigns use them as a way of raising awareness, getting a temperature check on issues, collecting signatures for petitions and recruiting non-members. Our campaigns are rooted in our members’ experiences which ensure they resonate with workers. This also means that thousands of members participate which has been instrumental in helping us achieve some long-standing goals.

Our recent survey results showed that over 90% of retail workers have been abused in the last year and 1 in 7 have been physically assaulted. Thanks to Usdaw’s campaigning and the work reps and members did in highlighting this problem through the media last year, Scottish MSPs voted through a new ground-breaking law to give shopworkers the protection they deserve. This came into force in August 2021. In addition, the UK Government has finally agreed to stronger legislation that could lead to stiffer sentences for those who assault shopworkers. We are currently waiting to see what this will look like.

Our recent cost-of-living survey found spiralling inflation and rising fuel, energy and food prices were pushing many household budgets to breaking point. Usdaw members were skipping meals to make ends meet or they were struggling to heat their homes. Usdaw will continue calling for the National Minimum Wage to be immediately increased to at least £10 per hour for all workers, for workers to be given a right to a normal hours contract, job security, an end to zero-hour contracts and better sick pay. Usdaw negotiators have had some fantastic wins in recent months which include Morrison’s, IKEA, Sainsbury’s and Argos all agreeing to pay at least £10 per hour.

Usdaw’s ‘Christmas is Not Working’ campaign calls on retailers to give their staff a proper Christmas break and allow them some much-needed family time. An Usdaw survey of over 12,000 retail workers found that 97% think shops should be closed on Boxing Day. In 2021, Usdaw ramped up its campaign and more retailers than ever agreed to close on Boxing Day including Sainsbury’s, Argos, Habitat, Morrisons, Poundland and Central England Co-operative, giving hundreds and thousands of Usdaw members a decent break. Other companies reinforced the voluntary status of working boxing Day and New Year’s Day.

Usdaw has been campaigning for 14 years for large retail stores in Scotland to close on New Year’s Day. Our survey results could not be clearer with 99% of members agreeing that large stores in Scotland should close on New Year’s Day and three-quarters saying they spend too little time with friends and family. Scottish Ministers have the power to prohibit large retail stores from opening on New Year’s Day but have chosen not to do this. With the help of Usdaw members signing our petition in droves, we managed to persuade the Scottish Government to launch a consultation on closing large stores on New Year’s Day. We are now waiting for the Scottish Government to respond.

The pandemic brought into sharp focus the inequalities in our society. Workers around the world are sick and tired of companies making millions in profit yet paying staff wages they can barely live on. They’ve had enough of stagnant pay, long hours, deteriorating terms and conditions and little flexibility. Globally, we have seen a resurgence of the union movement with millions demanding better pay and conditions. This has been mirrored south of the border, with increased industrial action involving rail workers, civils servants, bin workers, lectures and Usdaw members in Weetabix, BCM and Tesco distribution. Labour shortages caused by resignations and supply chain issues have, for the first time in decades, given workers the upper hand so now is the time to demand change and a fairer more equal society.

Tracy Gilbert is the Sottish Regional Secretary of Usdaw