Portsmouth Socialist Network member, Gareth Edwards, reflects on his attempts to unionise in the retail sector, and the lessons for those attempting to do the same today. Originally posted on Inside Left.
The news that some 90% of the Sports Direct workforce is employed on zero-hour contracts has sparked a wave of interest, culminating in protests last weekend and the occupation of one of the sportswear chain’s stores in London. It is certainly a welcome development that the left – prompted by an article in the Guardian, followed by the obligatory 38 Degrees online petition – should highlight the “precarious” nature of employment experienced by many workers in the retail sector. I put precarious in scare quotes because this piece is not intended as a contribution to the on-going arguments around the concept of the precariat; I have neither read the key texts nor followed the debate closely enough to make informed comment. I have however spent some time working on the shop floor as a sales assistant, and have some limited experience of trying to organise in this type of workplace. Maybe my recollections can be of some use to those in a similar position today.
I left college in 1997 and like many other working class people heading for higher education took a gap year in an attempt to save some money. Between ’97 and when I eventually completed my degree in 2003, I worked in a succession of high street stores (Debenhams, Game, Virgin Megastore) to fund my way through university, clocking up more hours behind the counter than I ever managed in lecture halls or seminar rooms. Without exception the jobs were poorly paid, incessantly dull and repetitive, and, more often than not, staff could expect to be treated with contempt by management and public alike. On a week day, when footfall was low, hours might pass without any human contact. I would wish for a customer to come and break the monotony, only to sigh with huffy resignation when one finally appeared, resenting every second they were there. I would unfold – and then re-fold – piles of designer jeans just to look busy, fearful of the floor-manager’s wrath. Despite being in my teens my lower back would ache from standing still in the same spot, the pain only slightly alleviated by occasionally shifting my weight from one foot to another.
I went to my first political meeting at the end of 1999, the day before the Battle of Seattle and the birth of the anti-capitalist movement. Until then my politics had been a weak, unfocussed class rage which manifested itself at work in tiny acts of magnificently satisfying rebellion. I would arrive late, stretch out my lunch hour by an extra three or four minutes, phone in sick and then spend the day at the cricket. Later, when I worked in a music store, any customer who I recognised from an anti-war demonstration would be given my 25% staff discount. The class struggle, Marx and Engels noted, was an “uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”. During those first few years it was certainly more hidden than open, but it was there.
This changed when I started working at Virgin Megastore, initially taken on as a Christmas temp on a contract that guaranteed no more than four hours work a week. The terms of the contract came as no surprise. In previous retail jobs I had signed a zero-hour contract and another for a 16 hour week, although I was expected to work more hours than were specified. In the new year, having dropped out of university (I was always an ill-disciplined student), I was offered a full time position at Virgin, although the terms of my contract were never changed. The boredom of the job was partially off-set by the eclectic range of music we could listen to, and (as is always the case) the good humour and camaraderie of my colleagues.
The first real challenge came when our supervisor tore a strip off one of the young women who worked part time with us. He was an imposing figure, physically huge and in his late 40s who had previously worked security in the store. All of us without exception were intimidated, if not outright scared by him. I naively and rather self-righteously thought it my responsibility to challenge him. Somehow my intervention worked. He apologised and softened his stance, especially with the youngest members of staff. (Somewhat oddly I later found out that he had been a member of IS in the early 1970s, and I would then regularly sell him a copy of Socialist Review.) Suddenly I had a reputation as someone who would stand up to management, even if that left some staff slightly baffled.
Over time the working conditions deteriorated. The sleek black tops we wore as “uniforms” were replaced by bright yellow and red t-shirts that made us look like walking rhubarb and custard sweets. It was the kind of change that angered staff, who quite rightly felt just a bit silly, but which was so relatively small that management were able to deride any opposition as “petty”. When a water main burst and the shop was flooded staff were expected to work overnight to help re-fit and re-stock the shop, rather than lose profits by having it close for a day or two (we all took turns etching the letters “HMV” into the wet cement before the flooring was put down again). When there was a power cut we were made to work with just the emergency lighting on, despite the obvious concerns over health and safety. Then they started to really take the piss. In lieu of a Christmas bonus, we were all given a copy of the newly published Richard Branson autobiography. They even made sure they gave us copies without a barcode on the back cover, just in case we tried to return them or use them as part exchange for something useful and/or interesting.
The management ‘team’ became more obnoxious, more overbearing. Groups of us would go straight from work to the pub where we’d sit for hours drinking and thinking up imaginative swearwords to describe the boss and his jumped up underlings. Eventually I floated the idea of a union, something I should have done much earlier but didn’t, partly because of a lack of confidence, mostly because I didn’t have the faintest idea of what I was doing. Three people immediately agreed, although, I thought, with varying degrees of conviction. We decided to call a pub meeting for the following Monday, giving us the chance to talk to the weekend staff.
Around ten people turned up to that meeting, all bar one of us was under 30; not a bad start in a workplace of around 25 people (in addition to the five members of management). Plenty of anger and frustration was vented in language that can only be described as less than politically correct. Although there was a broad consensus that something needed to be done, not everyone could see the virtue of being in a union. No one there had previously been in a union, and while I thought I thought I knew it all in theory, putting the arguments into practice is another thing entirely. Saying that “our fingers by themselves are not that strong, but when together in a clenched fist they pack a real punch” might play well at a branch meeting or Special Conference, but in front of a group of people who were being treated like children by management it just elicited the sort of eyebrow raising that positively screamed, “What the fuck are you on about?”
It was obvious we would need another meeting, and that getting an experienced trade unionist along to speak to us would be invaluable. In the meantime I needed some advice myself. I phoned the SWP centre and explained the situation, and they said that no one had ever managed to unionise a Virgin Megastore before and that I should let them know if I succeeded. I paraphrase of course, but I may have inadvertently made them sound more useful than they really were. Local comrades were far more helpful, spending many hours going over arguments and legal problems, providing the benefit of their experience and helping me sound a little more like I knew what I was on about. I also organised a meeting with the local GMB full-timer. For all of ten minutes he listened impatiently before ushering me out of his office with a stack of recruitment leaflets.
My colleague Chris had far more luck. His aunt, it turned out, was an USDAW rep at the local Tesco, and agreed to come to our next meeting. She spoke brilliantly to a grand total of eight people, and five of us joined on the spot, the others taking the forms away to mull it over some more. The few of us who were really set on the idea of unionising continued to argue, but management now knew about out nefarious activity. A member of staff who had been at the first meeting was now sleeping with a supervisor, and information had been sexually transmitted to the office on the top floor. Since everything was out in the open we started leaving recruitment forms all over the staff kitchen and locker room, but interest never really turned into membership. We called another meeting. Three people turned up – all of us already in the union.
It wasn’t long before I was hauled into the office. “This is not a democracy,” explained my boss. They knew that I was planning on going back to finish my degree and found it relatively easy to force me out. My hours went down, the lousy jobs started to come my way, and they started offering me days they knew I couldn’t work. One of the great fears when you are on a zero-hours contract is that when hours do become available declining them because of prior engagements will lead to being passed over the next time round. This inevitably impacts on your personal commitments, and, as a student, your studies. The wearisome victimisation continued: they questioned me about my relationship with a co-worker; they accused me of breaching health and safety. Accidentally I discovered that they had been using the security cameras to film me over a period of several weeks, desperately hunting for minor indiscretions.
All told, I think seven or maybe eight people had been recruited to the union over a three month period of activity. It forced management to make some concessions, if only smiling more sweetly as they screwed us over some more. In a surprisingly savvy move they constituted a “Store Council”, with elected shop-floor representatives able to speak to management and raise concerns once a month. It was enough to placate some of the waverers who might otherwise have joined the union, and patiently explaining now felt like pissing in the wind. A couple of union bods found other jobs and moved on to pastures new. Feeling isolated and victimised I told management that they could stick their fucking job and walked out in the middle of my shift.
Looking back it wasn’t a bad attempt to unionise our workplace. Certainly, as readers will have spotted, there were problems and mistakes. Personally I think I could have argued more effectively, been better prepared, more persuasive etc. etc. But the major problem was that we were all starting from scratch. None of us had experience of being union members, indeed nobody I spoke to had a close relative who was a union member (with the exception of Chris and his USDAW auntie). Some staff we approached would ask what the point was of being in a union, others would say that they didn’t see themselves being at the store for too long so didn’t want to join, others worked only a few hours a week and were prepared put up with the crap. It needs to be said that not a single person declined to join the union on the grounds that the union bureaucracy was holding back the struggle.
One cannot generalise too much from this, although I would hope that my own experiences might help us, if only in a small way, to see a larger picture emerging – the arguments and conditions are certainly familiar if not identical to today. The need for organisation amongst retail workers is as great now as it was ten years ago, and the current militancy of fast-food workers in the United States is extremely positive. But the struggle we faced at Virgin was not only to build a union branch but to convince people of its very necessity. To create this kind of trade union tradition is a hard ask, but, despite my own failures, it is as possible as it is essential.