UnionDues: When the shop floor becomes the front line

Aggression and intimidation towards supermarket workers, the vital role of supermarket reps and the Kenmure Street Blockade - all covered in this week's Union Dues Podcast.

A photo of a trade union protest with the words "The UnionDues Column" overlaid

Simon Sapper is a trade unionist and host of the UnionDues podcast.

The latest episode of UnionDues catches up with retail sector union USDAW.  Pre-pandemic, few would have thought of supermarket staff as key workers, but now nobody would doubt the important contribution they made to keeping us going during the depths of the Covid crisis.

But this has not been an easy transformation – a survey of union members found nearly 90% had suffered abuse of one form or another, and 10% were actually assaulted. “Swearing, intimidation, threatening behaviour and having things thrown at you” were all too common during this period according to USDAW President Jane Jones – “only being sworn at twice” constituted a good day, she explains.

This no doubt goes a long way to explaining why the union’s campaign for legislation outlawing intimidation of shopworkers has attracted over 100,000 signatures.

But the union is also eye-catching for recruitment and organising.  Retail is a high churn sector, and the high street is changing almost beyond recognition.  The union regularly takes in 50, 60, 70,000 members a year, usually more than leave.  And the demographics are striking – more young members and more young reps than just about any other union.

So what’s the secret?  You’ll need to listen to the podcast to get the full story:  We talk to Alex Wilson, new to the workplace and to unions on her ‘baptism of fire’.

“when the lockdown happened all the other reps in my store went off to shield.  I was left on my own. It was pretty intense,”  is how she describes being for a time the only rep in a 300 member workplace with Covid raging.

Both Jane and Alex describe their union journeys – “I felt as though there weren’t any young reps, so I decided to stand” was Alex’s experience.  And “I felt like I had found something I had a passion for” says Jane.  As we all know, this passion and energy is the lifeblood of the movement.

Top billing is shared this week with Prof Mel Simms’s thought4theweek concentrating on the links between community activism and trade union organising in the context of the Kenmure Street blockade to foil an attempt to deport two local residents.  Mel was there and her piece has the special intensity of a lived experience that embodies the idea that “we are all from somewhere”.  You can find out more on those links by scrolling back a to an episode in our first series featuring Becky Winson.

Left Foot Forward’s own Josiah Mortimer delivers an excellent RadicalRoundUp, including the welcome news of Unite’s win in persuading Go NorthWest to abandon fire-and-rehire plans – a decision that will have ramifications well beyond Greater Manchester.

You can access all episodes here.

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