Supermarket Workers Have Power – It’s Time They Got Organised

by Jessica Thorne and Seth Wheeler

21 September 2020

A supermarket worker wearing a face mask.
Photo: Isabel Infantes/Reuters Design: Bronte Dow

As the UK enters the sixth month of the pandemic, the much-lauded category of the ‘essential worker’ has slowly disappeared from national media discourse.

At the beginning of the crisis, the government invoked praise upon these workers as part of a nationalist siren call. Weekly ‘claps for carers’, which quickly extended to include all essential workers, were joined by offers of retail discounts and jump-the-queue services, offered as a reward for the sacrifices being made. In reality, the true utility of such a system was to invoke a narrative that we were somehow ‘all in this together’, in order to head off any growing class antagonism the crisis threatened to reveal.

For many in these sectors, whose work had long been seen as less skilled and therefore less deserving of decent pay, their re-categorisation as ‘essential’ was grating to say the least. After all, they were the ones who were risking their health; the ones whose effort was maintaining the needs of society and capital, while little in their material conditions improved.

Claps don’t pay the bills.

The class dimension of the pandemic has persisted, even though the category of the essential worker has, for the moment at least, faded from view. The dogged and uneven return to so-called normality has brought all of this into sharper focus. Images of key workers toiling frantically as the virus ripped through communities remain fresh – a jarring contrast with London’s deserted financial districts. As calls grow for the economy to reopen, an increasing number of essential workers are now beginning to organise so that they are no longer at the back of the queue when it comes to wages and safety. After all is said and done, claps don’t pay the bills – nor do they keep the bailiff from the door.  

In the initial stages of the outbreak, the left was in no position to change the government’s Covid-19 management strategy (or lack thereof). Traditional modes of protest – for example, the withdrawal of labour through strike action – appeared nigh impossible. While these workers appeared to hold all the leverage necessary to force the government’s hand, paradoxically they were also the least able to do so, given that their jobs were responsible for keeping everyone in the country safe, fed and supplied. 

With the relative loosening of lockdown and the fragile return to some semblance of normality, it’s now essential that essential workers get organised. While the NHS contains 13 unions, many of which are now scrambling to catch up with a recent wave of worker-led fightbacks, supermarket and supply workers remain woefully under-organised. 

The unions are weak.

Our own experience of working in the sector reveals the difficulty that workplace organisers face. This vast workforce contains a discombobulating mix of anger and evasive apathy. Our experience on the shopfloor revealed almost universal dissatisfaction with levels of pay, a general distrust of incompetent or ruthless management and frustration with near-criminal working conditions, all of which was compounded by a lack of any meaningful, combative organisation for grievances to be channelled through. In our experience, Usdaw, the retail workers’ union, while containing many committed shopfloor organisers, was unable or unwilling to take a combative position during localised disputes. 

While employment in this hyper-exploited sector has boomed during the pandemic, the prognosis for strike action still remains bleak. In the era of just-in-time production, Covid-19 has disrupted the supply chain more effectively than previous attempts by organised labour. So-called bottleneck blockages were forced not by workers’ refusal, but by unforeseen and aggressive patterns of consumer demand. 

For logistics management firms and global buyers, Covid-19 was described as a ‘Black Swan event’ – an economic term coined to categorise unpredictable, high-impact events – and there is no doubt that the overseers of supply chains will be shaken by the vulnerability of the system. Various firms have promised their clients that they will now be gearing up for further ‘rationalisation’, with an accelerated transition towards digital supply networks (DSNs) and automated technologies. By historical standards, we know that workers’ associational power is weak. But it could get weaker still. 

All routes lead to the supermarket.

Over the last few years, there has been a concerted effort by both the official union movement and others to organise within logistics centres. While supply chains are vulnerable to localised worker action, they can, of course, be bypassed and worked around. Many companies run multiple supply routes, ensuring goods can arrive in stores or factories if one link becomes blocked. The challenges of organising inside these centres have recently been catalogued and documented by the Angry Workers and while not insurmountable, would take a movement-wide response to overcome.

Most logistics centres are based outside of town in large self-contained and gated industrial estates, close to motorways, railways, sea or airport infrastructure. Their physical distance from living communities, their reliance on workers brought in from outside the area, the irregular 24-hour shift patterns, combined with the mediation of work arranged through employment agencies, renders the sector invisible, casting logistics centres as hidden abodes of exploitation.

Compare these conditions to those experienced by the majority of supermarket staff on the shopfloor, many of whom live close to their point of work. Many keep regular shift patterns, can leave the store for breaks and as yet, do not suffer the same conditions as their counterparts in the logistics sector. Living and working in a community setting provides fresh avenues to build a workers’ solidarity movement that can draw its strength from its roots within the social composition of the local area. 

Shop work relies on social interaction and many of us will chat with staff as we navigate the supermarket aisles. This capacity for unmediated face-to-face contact grants outside organisers a direct access that is currently denied to those attempting to organise in the logistics sector.  

It is our contention, then, that organising supermarket workers presents the greatest opportunity to organise further along the logistics supply chain; supermarket workers are, after all, situated at the point where goods will finally arrive, before being purchased and taken home by the consumer. While attempts to block other retail supply chains can be bypassed by secondary supply routes, in the grocery retail sector, all routes point in one direction: toward the supermarket.

A combative tapestry of solidarity.

The collective power that supermarket workers hold over the economy is significant. The food and grocery industry makes up the largest private employment sector in the UK. Taking this into account, it’s high-time workplace militants focused on this sector as a matter of strategic necessity. Not only to secure better pay and conditions for workers but to strengthen our class capacity to intervene in the political realm.

However, winning on the supermarket floor will necessitate strategic and joined-up thinking that must redress the concerns of these workers, which currently act as a blockage on strike action. Most supermarket workers are on low pay, with many on precarious flexi-time contracts. This, coupled with the extortionate costs of the private rental market, leaves many workers one paycheque away from destitution. 

It is therefore crucial we ensure that workplace struggles can be linked to the growing power of the new renters’ unions and anti-eviction networks, such as the campaigns being led by Acorn and London Renters’ Union. Knowing those in your local community would support you if you slipped into rent arrears due to strike action would greatly bolster the confidence of those who can least afford to act to take action.

The organised left needs to create the space for this sort of strategic thinking as a priority – a space to bring together different workplace struggles and community campaigns into a combative tapestry of social solidarity, rebuilding the confidence of a fractured working class to act in and for its own interest.

Jessica Thorne is a doctoral researcher and historian. Seth Wheeler is an activist and doctoral researcher. He is the contributing editor for In and Against the State, forthcoming on Pluto Press. Both were formerly supermarket workers.

  • The Future of Work focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

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