Organising in Supermarkets Means Overcoming Barriers in the Sector – and in the Trade Unions

by Max O'Donnell Savage

26 September 2020

A shopper carrying a supermarket basket.
Neil Hall/Reuters.

The pandemic has thrust supermarkets to the front and centre of public consciousness. For months they were the only place many of us went, and for those still shielding they remain a lifeline for basic necessities.

Almost overnight, supermarket workers became essential workers. Indeed, supermarkets have been one of the few lines of business to recruit new staff during the pandemic, and it is likely that many of these staff will be retained, not least as the UK braces itself for a second wave of Covid-19. The future of supermarkets, therefore, is not only a matter of the future of a socially necessary service, but the future of a sizable and increasing number of workers in the UK – currently estimated to be around 1m.

Every little helps.

Despite seeming like classic ‘mass’ workplaces, supermarkets are composed of different types of workers each with different roles, pay and conditions. The workers who may come to mind most immediately are those we see on a day to day basis – shopfloor workers whose role, broadly speaking, is to replenish stock throughout the day and carry out customer service roles such as operating tills. In addition to these immediate ‘frontline’ roles, there are more obscured workers, including those who work overnight replenishing stock or picking and preparing groceries for delivery. The third main group, delivery drivers, deliver pre-ordered shopping at a specified time slot and have been fundamental to helping clinically vulnerable people access the goods they need.

Each of these groups of workers is essentially treated as a separate class of employees, and it’s common for workers’ conditions and pay to be inconsistent even if they share a single employer. Meanwhile, supermarkets maximise profits by deploying a range of tactics to manage the productivity of workers. For pickers and stockers, this takes the form of real-time tracking of the progress and completion of individual orders and stocks with the aim of maintaining high work rates. The ability of any single worker to slack off is undermined as a slower work rate will be recorded, plotted and used as the pretext for a “quiet word” from your manager that can very quickly turn into you getting the sack.

Despite their importance throughout the pandemic, supermarket delivery drivers are particularly likely to face increasing precarity. They currently operate in the most structured work schedule, having specific deliveries to make at specific times. But it is possible that supermarkets may soon seek to outsource their delivery services either to dedicated companies – as is already happening with security staff in most supermarkets, who are outsourced and on low pay – or by aiming to emulate the gig economy by having drivers enter a form of “bogus self-employment”, thus avoiding the legal responsibilities that are due to employees. Even prior to the pandemic, there is an emerging impulse to make deliveries ever more convenient and flexible to suit customer demand, with the Co-operative already running a two-hour delivery service in some areas. Yet it’s well-observed that flexibility of the company almost always translates to precarity for the workers.

Automation is fundamental to how supermarkets function. Aside from the obvious proliferation of self-service checkouts and scan-as-you-shop systems, supermarkets use algorithms to manage routine stock delivery and even the delivery of workers through the automation of rotas. In home delivery, automation is anticipated – the development of autonomous cars and delivery drones being two examples – though the mass application of these technologies is still some way off. So barring major technological breakthroughs in automated delivery or fully automated stores, the direction of travel remains one of competition between a small number of huge companies in the industry.

One area we can see the different approaches supermarket chains have to gaining a competitive advantage is wages. Many supermarkets opt for minimum wage, or near enough, accepting a higher staff turnover in return for lower direct labour costs. Alternatively, companies like Aldi aim to offer market-leading pay with the expectation of lower staff turnover, but institute very high personal efficiency targets for workers and a more selective recruitment process. It’s important to note that using wages to elicit a competitive advantage is only workable when the likelihood of any upward pressure on wages, either through an increase in the minimum wage or successful trade union organising, is low.

Despite a boom year for sales at supermarkets, the supermarket workers are still in a tight position. In addition to the stress and health risks of working during the pandemic, supermarkets are complaining of increased associated costs, and the prospect of a chaotic Brexit at the end of this year could mean food prices will go up. When prices go up, supermarket bosses will have three choices: cut their own pay and lower profit targets, pass the price increase on to the consumer, or spend less on frontline workers. History shows the latter two options are the natural choices of private enterprise.

More of what matters.

Supermarket workers, contra bosses, are well-placed to create a future that is better not only for themselves but society as a whole. But to do this though they need power and vision: two things that will require them to their colleagues and organise collectively through a trade union. However, while both these things are made difficult across many workplaces as it is, it’s particularly difficult within the supermarket sector.

An immediate problem is presented by the three distinct categories of worker. Different types of supermarket worker have different pay, different terms and conditions, and limited crossover – meaning the opportunity and motivation to interact is limited. Related is the matter of what can be called the proletarianisation of management. Traditionally we tend to imagine workplaces where there is a mass of workers who are all in a similar employment position, a very clear boss and maybe a supervisor in between. When workers are unhappy in this type of workplace, the target of antagonism is clear: it’s the boss at the top, along with the supervisor(s) who are on markedly better conditions than the mass of workers.

This is not how modern supermarkets operate. It is not uncommon to have five or six layers of supervision before you reach anyone with actual power to change the conditions of workers and their workplaces. It is typically the case that your immediate supervisor is only on marginally better pay than you – often about £1 difference per hour – and so on, up the chain. What this means is that antagonism and an awareness of who is or isn’t on your side becomes blurred and unclear.

An even more difficult problem is presented by the need to organise through the unions in the supermarket sector. Across all the TV footage of supermarkets and queues outside of them early on during the pandemic, what was strikingly absent was the presence of one single union stall outside of a supermarket. Right there, you had low-waged employees, often working in (at least initially) unsafe conditions, suddenly deemed essential during a global pandemic. Usdaw, the union most prevalent in the supermarket sector, could and should have been outside every supermarket every day (with masks and necessary precautions), ready, willing and able to talk to workers on breaks, get contract details, sign up members and provide legal advice on employment law, particularly around health and safety.

Usdaw failed to do this, as was perhaps likely, since no discernable improvements have been made across the supermarket sector in the last decade, indicating they are not a particularly effective trade union for improving working conditions collectively. But at this point, any of the unions who operate a general membership should have been doing this work, with a consistent presence showing workers that unions will have your back and that you and your colleagues have more power than the bosses would like.

This didn’t happen either. Undoubtedly, supermarkets are difficult places to organise due to the fragmentation of workers and the diffusion of responsibility and blame enabled by having many layers of supervisors. However, workers and organisers do confront similar issues in outsourced services, such as in universities where cleaners may have little chance to interact with one another and face many layers of supervisors they can reach anyone who has a say on the conditions of the work. Nonetheless, there have been incredibly successful campaigns to reach and engage these difficult-to-organise, low-paid and often unseen workers, for instance by the IWGB at the University of London.

So why the difference? First, the IWGB operated at the University of London with the constant engagement of members, involving them in every part of the campaign, which helped the union grow as workers began to feel agency and the desire to change things. By contrast, with Usdaw and many of the major unions I’ve encountered, if they are interested in growing the union it is purely a desire to increase numbers, with little concern for growing members’ actual involvement or building the union’s power to win better pay and conditions on the shopfloor.

Second, in most unions, a role as a full time organiser entails a £40k-plus salary and very good benefits. This attractive package means many organisers are in the job for a long period of time, often becoming entangled in internal union politics. Quite understandably, internal union politics often amount to not wanting to rock the boat, the reason being that if you’re a senior figure in a trade union and paid very well for it, changing things or encouraging an uptick in worker self organisation could lead to you not being in a senior position much longer.

Third, in my experience, long-term union organisers often have close and longstanding relationships with managers at workplaces. If you already have a negotiating model in which you don’t want to encourage workers to become too involved in decisions, then as an organiser meeting with managers without workers present, coming to an agreement between yourselves may seem the reasonable thing to do. When this happens, the managers get out of dealing with lots of their own pissed off staff, and only have to deal with one union bureaucrat whose £40k salary insulates them from the concerns of minimum wage precarious workers. I have seen this on numerous occasions, in numerous industries and across numerous unions.

If there was proactivity from unions across the supermarket sector, we would be seeing a growing union membership with workplace reps being given the confidence and training to talk to their colleagues, stand up to their bosses, and think about what an essential service – which  distributes the most essential of goods – could and should actually look like for consumers and workers if shareholders profits weren’t the key consideration.

It is easy to write and hard to achieve. In the UK, we have developed a tendency to understand trade unions either as an individual insurance policy, or, at best, lobbying organisations. But instead we all need to join a union and do the unglamorous and lengthy work of organising on the shopfloor, building power bit by bit, giving confidence to people who have always been sidelined, giving hope to those who see no alternative, and the spreading knowledge that workers organised together will determine the future.

Max O’Donnell Savage is a Unite rep currently working in higher education and a member of Acorn. He was formerly a supermarket worker for two years.

  • 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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