2017 saw 40% of the population vote for a ‘socialist’ Labour party. But it also saw the lowest number of workers’ going on strike in a year since 1892. There is a gulf between the state of politics in parliament and the state of politics in the workplace.

The supermarket sector is a perfect place to begin an inquiry into that gulf, because it is a perfect place to study the decline of organised and collective worker resistance. Supermarket workers are badly paid, precarious and intensively exploited. Their jobs mainly revolve around logistics and customer service. There is lots of worker resistance, but it remains individual. The most common strategies are slacking off, sabotage, nicking stuff and leaving the job entirely. To use the distinction Marx makes at the end of The German Ideology, supermarket workers are against capital, but they aren’t for themselves. The ‘leap’ into political organisation remains, most of the time, a remote possibility.

But it could all be very different. Supermarket workers have a lot of potential leverage, and it comes from a few sources. First, within the social division of labour, they’re essential to make sure people get fed. If every supermarket in a city closed for two days, there would be food riots. Second, they occupy vital positions in a ‘lean’ supply chain. The big chains have their logistics so well organized that they barely ever leave much stock in local storage. But that means short delays can have big effects. Third, lots of the commodities they sell have time-limits on how long they’re valuable. You can’t sell an out of date sandwich. So, a well-timed strike could force lots of commodities to be written off.

These threefold sources of workplace leverage have yet to be used in mass collective action. The examples of supermarket strikes are unfortunately rare. A recent strike at a distribution centre in Dagenham is an isolated example. A sector that could be a point of development for the working class movement has instead become a case study of apathy and individualised strategies.

There are many reasons - social, technical and political - for this lack of self-organisation. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) have a lot of questions to answer, for one. This article, however, will focus on two technical reasons: the creation of complex supervision structures, and management tactics that capitalise on what Mark Fisher called ‘responsibilisation’.

The following arguments are based on my experience of working in a small ‘express’/’local’ style supermarket as both a worker and supervisor over the course of two years. I worked for a year as a standard worker while also a full time student, and then for my second year I was a supervisor which then changed to Duty manager with no increase in compensation but with an increase in role, such as being responsible for a specific team of workers being responsible for one on one meetings with each of my staff members every three months.

Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated

When I started my job, there were about 10 people that could tell me off. These semi-supervisors were all recruited from the pool of part-time precarious staff. Because they were all recruited from the part-time staff they had a lot of knowledge about the job and usually pretty friendly relationships with other part-time staff. They knew us, they knew the job, and we got on. That meant they were very effective supervisors.

When you get ‘promoted’ you get 20p more an hour and a load more stress. You’re basically still as skint as you were beforehand, but now you have to make two or three other workers work harder, you have to discipline them, and you have to make them work Sundays.

I’ve seen both sides of the complicated line. As a worker it was disempowering. I didn’t have a clear enemy, because the lowest layer of supervisors were all really still workers. As a duty manager, everything that pissed me off as a worker still pissed me off, but with the added bonus of having to build ‘morale’ in the workplace. This meant being alienated from my own friends and never being able to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of other staff who I was responsible for supervising.

Something you commonly hear in work up and down your country is the question, “Who is your line manager?” You’ve got a whole heap of positions that are in someway managerial, or at least supervisory - and the weird thing is that they’re basically all as skint as you are. This is the proletarization of management. The person who shouts at you, starts a disciplinary procedure, or makes you work on Sunday is probably only slightly better paid and slightly more secure. And, for their trouble, they act as a lightning rod for all the pressure coming from other layers of management above them.

Supervised workers quickly realise that any anger directed at their supervisor is misdirected. If you have a massive go at a supervisor it’s probably justified - but in the back of your mind you feel guilt and pity, not satisfaction. Having a pop at low level supervisors just causes additional stress for other workers, rather than actually getting at the managers who make the decisions and reap the benefits. There is no direct power relationship with management, instead, the low-level proletarianised supervisor operates as a human shield. The internal labour market is designed to maximise worker compliance by creating intenal divisions amongst an otherwise homogenous semi-skilled workforce.

The rationale used to justify this diffusion of responsibility to the workforce is ‘efficiency’. By which the managers mean, you’ll get more 1-on-1 ‘attention’ to help you be the best that you can be. They promise that the whole workplace structure will be more responsive to opinions coming up from the shop floor. Instead what you get is a lack of clarity of where decisions and power are coming from. If you have one boss, you have one clear source of miserable conditions. When you have five bosses, an innovation group, and whole heap of other acronyms and departments you have no one source of miserable conditions. While there might always be a manager who’s around for a cup of tea and chat, there’s no one to tell you why your wages haven’t risen in five years. The result is ‘responsive’ management structures that avoid all responsibility.

In Kelly’s 1990 study of trade union mobilisation, Rethinking Industrial Relations, he made a crucial point. It’s not enough for workers to have a grievance in order for them to mobilise - they also need to have a clear sense of what actor is to blame for that grievance, and what they can do to force that actor to change what they’re doing. The muddying of managerial waters is one key way to prevent this transition from passivity to organisation. The human shields play a very effective role.

For instance, if you’re a worker and you get a last minute text asking you to cover a shift on a day off, your instinct is sod it, it’s my day off and I’m gonna play Fifa. In some situations you might be pressured by management bullying, the threat of reduced hours or how broke you are - but at my workplace that wasn’t how it worked. Instead, the thing that drove you to go into work was the sense of guilt that if you don’t do it your duty manager is gonna be working a staff shift, after having already done 40 hours this week. So you turn off Fifa and put on your trousers.

There is no solution to problems like these, until shop floor workers and low level supervisors overcome the false distinction between one another and begin recognising that one can turn into the other literally overnight. So if something is in the interests of shop floor workers it is more than likely in the interest of low-level supervisors and vice versa. The proletarianisation of management creates false divisions within the working class that need to be overcome through organisation.

Responsibilisation of mental health

In my job we had an annual staff survey. In 16/17, the biggest concern raised by workers was stress and mental health issues relating to work. This didn’t come as a surprise - most of the staff at my workplace were full-time students perpetually in their overdraft. They were pulling all nighters to stay on top of their degrees, then coming to work the next day and doing a full shift.

In response to this finding new support was introduced, in the form of access to Validium. The echo of ‘valium’ is presumably not an accident. Validium is a service that explicitly aims to rehabilitate workers through limited psychological services and signposting. The message taken by workers was that an antagonism based on working conditions (the cause of mental health problems) was transformed, for all practical purposes, into an individual problem to overcome by the individual. Our employer was acting as a benevolent force by helping to mediate these crises, while taking no responsibility for them. They acted like they were helping because they really cared about us, not because their workplace was making everyone ill. We were ill because we had to work so hard for such little money. The employer was the cause of our health problems, but they claimed to be providing a solution.

In the past, you can imagine managers just brushing off mental health problems as not real issues. Now, however, the ‘destigmatisation’ of mental health means they have to employ new technology to mediate them. This mediation tries to round the edges of the problem for the good of the business and their reputation as responsive employers. Rather than risking a backlash by denying any help, cheap and limited services can be provided to prevent workers getting too pissed off wilst potentially improving the productivity of the workplace. But crucially, this offer of help always individualises the problems faced by workers. You need to work out your individual, medical, mental health problem by yourself - here’s a service to help you. When the truth is, as we all instinctively know, that mental health is collective, political, and social.

The responsive employer

The early 20th century workers’ movement often dreamt of workers’ control. As always, capital has found a way to sell this demand back to us. The actual reality of workers’ control is clearly contradictory with capitalist production: managers like to have total control of a workplace in order to change the labour process, increase exploitation and crack down on time-wasting. If workers’ had a dominant stake we’d start to improve our conditions and wages. Maybe we’d even junk the idea of management altogether.

But this doesn’t mean that capitalist managers are just open about how dictatorial they need to be in order to ensure surplus value production and extraction. No - instead, managers play make believe. In my workplace, the claim wasn’t that workers have control but that we don’t need control because we have managers who respond.

Above all, this response was a symbolic function that roots workers in their workplace. The responses to our grievances often wasn’t good, but it kept things individualised and it ameliorated our alienation (a bit). The responses management offered us weren’t about anything important like pay or conditions, instead it was about the culture of a place. Having a manager who does nothing but always has his door open is better than nothing, I guess, but having no manager would be better.

As more and more workplaces adopt a veneer of responsiveness at the level of management, communication between workers becomes even more vital. If you can meet up with your coworkers regularly, you will recognise common problems. This perception of common problems can lead to a realisation that these are not issues that can be fixed by a creepy/friendly chat from your boss and a pat on the back. Sometimes we have to hold grievances back, to not immediately voice them, in order to have a chance to make them collective. Responsive management needs to be met with a non-responsive workforce.

Ultimately, the only answer is working class self-organisation. The gap between parliamentary politics and workplace politics has to be resolved at the level of the rank-and-file. Only when that gap is bridged, only when workers feel entitled to the fruits of their labour, and only when bosses seem like a useless nuisance can the working class strike, fully and wholeheartedly, at the capitalist system that oppresses us all.


Max O’Donnell Savage

Max O’Donnell Savage is a part time MA student with a history of working retail, currently employed by an academic library and a student support service department. He is active within ACORN Tenants Union and a member of the Labour Party.