by Richie Venton, SSP national workplace organiser · Tesco workers have reacted with shock, anxiety and fury at the announcement of 9,000 job losses, and the manner this jobs slaughter was declared.
In undoubtedly a cynically calculated leak from the higher echelons of Tesco’s bosses, the press was full of speculation about 15,000 job losses.
If they thought this would lead to a collective sigh of relief from thousands of distressed workers at the subsequent, official announcement of ‘only’ 9,000 job losses, they were badly mistaken.
Workers are rightly furious at Tesco bosses treating them, and their unions, with such utter, high-handed contempt.
An unprecedented number of retail workers are talking about the case for industrial action to save jobs.
Unless talks with Tesco produce a total retreat—protecting all jobs, wages and conditions—union activists and members are going to have to seize the bull by the horns and make it plain they are indeed prepared for collective action.
Tesco bosses arrogantly ripped to shreds the oft-trumpeted partnership agreement with Usdaw, not even consulting the union, let alone negotiating their plans.
They unilaterally declared their savagery via the media, proving in action they believe in the dictatorship of big business over workers and their elected representatives.
Even the pathetically weak employment laws in this business-dominated state prescribe consultation—meaningful consultation, at that—at the formative stage of any planned changes to a business.
This flagrantly contradicts that procedure, let alone the partnership agreement Tesco signed with Usdaw.
Social partnership is the partnership of the rider and the horse, with big business in the saddle! Tesco bosses plan to close fresh food counters in 90 of 790 larger stores.
They also want meat, fish and deli counters open only part-time in the other 700 stores, plus staff cuts in stock control, and staff canteens replaced by glorified vending machines, shedding canteen staff.
What does this do for the growing demand for fresh, locally-sourced food? In truth, it’s just the latest link in the chain used to strangle small businesses, small farmers and food producers every time big supermarkets move into an area.
They wipe out local butchers and fishmongers, and now plan to abolish fresh fish and meat counters in their own super-stores.
The immediate task of the union is to challenge Tesco’s bogus claims, and demand that there is not a single job loss, nor a penny off any worker’s pay, in any changes to roles that might be (belatedly!) negotiated with the union.
And every store should have a proper staff canteen—plus protection and expansion of fresh food counters, sourced locally.
What possible justification can there be for this vandalism? This is no struggling corner shop. Workers’ efforts have achieved 12 consecutive quarters of growth for the business, plus a successful Christmas trading period.
Tesco’s profits have skyrocketed in recent years. Profits rose from £145million the previous year to £1.3billion in 2017, a gargantuan 800 per cent increase. And this bounty rocketed a further 28 per cent last year, to £1.64billion.
In the UK and Ireland alone, Tesco workers’ efforts produced over £1.1billion in profits last year—another 31 per cent rise on the year before.
Where have profits gone?
Where have all the profits gone? That’s one of the central questions workers and the union need to pursue and expose, to rip apart Tesco’s so-called business case for this butchery.
They should be forced to open company plans and balance sheets to public inspection by unions and financial experts. We already have a partial answer to where the profits sweated from workers have gone: the bank accounts of top Tesco bosses.
For a maximum income
Chief Executive, ‘Drastic’ Dave Lewis, enjoyed an increase of 17.5 per cent last year, to a staggering £4.9million. Leaving aside the combined incomes of the other directors, Lewis’s obscene greed alone justifies the policy which I successfully proposed at the 2018 Usdaw national conference (ADM)—for a Legal Maximum Income initially set at ten times the legal minimum wage.
Applied to the Tesco CEO, imagine the impact of ploughing over £4.7million back into workers’ wages and job security, instead of it going into the wallet of one fat-cat. Retail is in crisis, with multiple causes. Last year, 70,000 jobs were shed, and the British Retail Consortium forecasts a further 90,000 job losses this year.
One root cause of the terrible insecurity and loss of conditions facing 3 million workers in retail is the chronic low pay and insecure contracts imposed by the profiteers on this vital sector of the economy—which contributes at least 11 per cent of GDP—and throughout society.
Low pay threatens jobs
Low wages and low hours—zero-hours and, more commonly, short-hours contracts—strangle workers’ spending power, and thereby threaten jobs.
That’s why Usdaw’s centre-piece Time For Better Pay campaign is so critically important. The demands for an immediate £10-an-hour minimum wage for all workers, and a guaranteed minimum 16-hour contract for every worker who wants it, would help fuel the economy, boost workers’ spending power and their sense of security. And it would help redistribute wealth from profits to pay.
Likewise, Usdaw’s campaign for a Retail Industrial Strategy is critical. This calls for changes to taxation to end unfair advantages enjoyed by online traders over ‘bricks and mortar’ stores; reform of local commercial rents, business rates, public transport and car-parking, to help save our High Streets; investment in upskilling retail workers to meet the challenges of new technology; improved productivity through decent pay and contracts.
But, in my personal opinion, the outrageous butchery declared by the unelected, totally unaccountable profiteers also highlights the need for a radical overhaul of who owns and controls retail.
Why should multi-millionaire owners and Chief Executives have the power to destroy the livelihoods of thousands of workers, and create havoc for entire families and communities?
Why should they be entitled to cream off £billions in profit and then ‘reward’ those workers who created this mountain of wealth for with a P45?
The 2017 Usdaw national conference agreed to call for public ownership in such situations.
Democratic plan of action
That would lay the foundations for a democratic plan of action—embracing retail workers’ union representatives, local authorities and governments—to invest in town centres and other retail outlets in a fashion that maximises jobs, retail services to communities, and indeed the interests of family farmers and small businesses.
A retail sector based on public needs and democratically agreed priorities, rather than dictatorship by the retail giants; an end to the rule of private profit for the few over the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.