By Adam Barr
Supermarket work – shelf stacking, working the tills, troubleshooting the self-service checkouts, smiling glassily as a red-faced man screams that there isn’t the right type of parsley – is much maligned in the consciousness of the British public. Along with flipping burgers at McDonald’s and working in a call centre, shelf stacking in a Tesco’s ranks as one of the top boogeymen deployed by lazy teachers to scare kids into doing well in their GCSEs. In some ways, such a status is well deserved. Supermarket work is boring and difficult. Pay is below any semblance of a living wage and contracts are rarely full-time, leaving workers either looking for a second job or relying on overtime to be able to pay rent. On top of this, a sense of hopelessness pervades supermarket workplaces.
I came to supermarket work the way most people do: I needed the money. The cash I had received from student loans and bursaries had nearly run out and with the contract on my flat running till near the end of August I was in dire need of a way to live. Not having the time to apply for anything better, I ended up getting a position as a sales assistant in the fruit and veg department of a fairly large branch of Sainsbury’s in an affluent suburban area of North London. Whatever hopes I had for the new job were dashed pretty quickly. My manager put on a good show for my orientation but quickly revealed himself to be a garden-variety bully. On paper I always worked on the department with another person, but more often than not they were taken off to cover for another department. As a consequence I had to work flat out to keep up with replenishment during rush hour. Often some section or other was lacking and I constantly risked a bollocking from my manager. Eventually I took one of the more common forms of resistance to shitty working conditions. After a particularly difficult shift, I slipped a note under the door of the human resource office notifying them I was quitting and never went back.
My options to change anything while I was at work were pretty bleak. The officially recognised union was USDAW, a ‘partnership union’ so-called for making partnership agreements with the bosses and avoiding any kind of antagonistic or member led actions. I did make a half-hearted attempt to join, more out of a sense of duty than for any other reason, but as my and the union rep’s shift patterns rarely coincided this proved impossible. The Great Place to Work group in the store was even worse, filled with lackeys sucking up to the store manager and old hands wedded to the company and its success. Of course topics such as pay were off the table, already dealt with higher up the chain of command. Instead we had the opportunity to suggest ways to work more efficiently, or debate what charity customers should be directed to donate to in the next quarter. Ultimately I lacked the knowledge and confidence to go about the process of organising in the store, and without the backing of a worker led union I didn’t get anywhere in my time at Sainsbury’s beyond small scale latent resistances.
I’ve written previously about workers’ acts of resistance that occur all the time in the workplace: stretching a fifteen minute break to thirty minutes, expropriating stock, supplies and equipment for personal use or manipulating workplace technologies to make their jobs easier. I think these actions are important and are often overlooked in analyses of work. But individualised actions like these can only go so far in changing the balance of power in a workplace. For that, I’d argue, acts of expropriation, sabotage and shirking should be generalised and take place in coordination with more overt struggles over traditional issues of pay, contracts and conditions.
The challenge facing workers in the retail sector is to break the hold of the scab unions and management, create a mass of organised militants capable of fighting the bosses for which they work. This is a significant hurdle in a sector that has historically seen little militant action.
Just because struggle has been lacking in the retail sector doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the future. However monolithic the retail sector appears, there are some factors that swing in the favour of potential union activists. Managers of individual stores face pressure from higher up the corporate ladder, scrutinised for store profitability and growth. Framed right, a campaign directed at store management could pose a threat to their career and be a valuable point of leverage. Additionally, tight profit margins in the retail sector leave businesses exposed to social extensions of workplace struggle such as consumer boycotts or mass expropriation. These kinds of solidarity actions rely on some kind of popular support for workers in a local area, so wouldn’t be appropriate everywhere, but could be incredibly effective in the right circumstances. These are just two examples of potential pressure points. A proper assessment of how retail work is structured is certain to reveal more opportunities to be exploited, more tensions to push on.
Organising in retail feels like a hopeless task. It’s easy to forget that the retail sector is structured to create hopeless conditions amongst its workers. It’s also easy to forget that when workers organise collectively to enforce a set of demands they can win. We can look to recent examples in sectors with similarly terrible conditions, such as hospitality, for steps forward. October’s fast food shut down of Uber eats coincided with strikes in Mcdonald’s, Weatherspoon’s and TGI Fridays showed the power that even the most precarious workers can bring to bear. Organisers paid attention to specific features of their workplaces, whether that was an app or a pub or a franchise, to build pressure. More importantly, what the McStrike, #spoonsstrike and couriers unrest has proven is the possibility of victory in hopeless sectors. Spoon’s today, Tesco’s tomorrow.
IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS – four tips for organising in your supermarket:
- Join a union. Some are better than others and some should be avoided like the plague. Some good ones to have a look at are the IWW, IWGB and UVW. Give up on changing anything through corporate structures like Partnersvoice or Great Place to Work.
- Get trained! The IWW runs regular workplace organiser training in different parts of the country. Have a look at their website and see when the next one is happening. If you can’t make it to a training then you can still do a bit of research before you take action. There are people who have been organising in their workplaces for years and know what generally works. Remember, you can learn just as much from failure as you can from a victory.
- Talk to your workmates. Be careful about it, the last thing you want to do is say the wrong thing to a management wannabe and get grassed up. Try and meet up with your fellow workers outside of the workplace, as it’s often easier to get people to talk about their grievances when they know there’s not going to be the possibility of a manager listening in. Ask open questions and listen. Tailor your responses to what you hear.
- Show solidarity to other struggles. Building working class power doesn’t just involve showing solidarity within workplaces, but also between workplaces and industries. Keep an ear out for campaigns happening in other workplaces and show solidarity with them. This could be as simple as promoting pickets, actions and fundraising appeals. If actions are happening near you, go and support in person. Make connections and keep up communication after struggles end. You never know when a campaign might be needed, and all those connections will mean you’ll start ahead of where you were before.
Adam Barr is a militant worker. He currently shops in Tesco and hasn’t entered Sainsbury’s since 2016.
Artwork by Hogre