My life at work: Organising in retail

Submitted by Matthew on 25 May, 2011 - 11:46

Until recently I worked as a shop assistant at Superdrug in Egham, Surrey. I’m at university so can’t work as much as I need to to make ends meet.

Egham is a small town and the shop is even smaller. The pay, even in comparison to other high street shops, is dire; a few pence above the minimum wage. The conditions are not much better; a tiny, underequipped tea room with nowhere to store belongings.

This may sound inconsequential, but it’s an annoyance for everyone who works there. Superdrug workers, particularly the under-21s, recently faced an attack on pay and conditions. Based on the company’s recent poor results (although they refused to respond to anyone who contested these figures), it decided to impose a 25% wage cut, reduce holiday and sick pay and the amount of break-time.

Staff at Superdrug locally are mainly students and part-time workers (young mums) and both groups already held flexible, weak contracts — could be made unemployed relatively easily. Those that refused to sign new contracts were told they would be made immediately redundant. Unfortunately most didn’t know what a union’s function was and the benefits of involving themselves in “political” activity.

The company set up a “working group” system to “consult” with their staff about the changes. These working groups were usually badly advertised and attended only by floor managers who were disconnected from, and disliked by, ordinary staff. The serious attack on conditions affected others far more than me. Young mums, who already paid significant amounts to even get to work, had their pay cut. Most were already living in hostels and insecure accommodation.

I joined the GMB whilst these changes were taking place, but they didn’t help where help was desperately needed. The union could have done more.

Throughout my time at Superdrug staff were discontented, always discussing the (awful) behaviour of our management. There was a palpable anger at how staff were being treated, even before the restructuring; about shift patterns and break times.

I managed to get three other members of staff to join the GMB, and we began to hold informal meetings in the pub about how to best organise. This began to escalate somewhat when a strike was held by Superdrug staff in the Midlands but most staff, due to their job insecurity, were unwilling to take action. Continued activity became increasingly difficult as I had to attend university.

Retail has been historically viewed as difficult to unionise for a number of reasons. From my experience, I think there is the real potential for unions to recruit and, more importantly, organise and radicalise members in retail. But it will take a lot of hard work.

• More in this series: tinyurl.com/mylifeatwork

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