I work for one of the big four supermarkets as a shopfloor assistant and I am a workplace trade union representative. The job entails a high degree of customer service and certainly is not just ‘filling shelves’. As a union Rep, I am kept busy helping my members as well as my regular duties as a colleague.

My union is USDAW, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, representing people working in shops, factories, warehouses, and call centres, as well as drivers, meat packers and pharmaceutical employees, with about 360,000 members nationwide. The bulk of our membership is in Tesco, Co-op and Morrisons, union recognition is split with Unite in Sainsbury’s stores/depots. Asda supermarket has union recognition with the GMB. Aldi and Lidl do not recognise any trade union.

The job

The journey your food makes at this final stage is a short one. We take in fresh deliveries every single day at all times, usually on pallet boards straight from the depot. It is immediately broken down from the pallet board onto roll cages, which are six-foot wheeled metal cages, and is sorted by the back door staff into which aisles the food belongs. Then the Nightshift colleagues come and do a backbreaking 10-hour shift (9 pm-7 am) putting the vast bulk of the delivery out on the shopfloor in its correct location. Our warehouse is surprisingly small for a large supermarket and it is only really used to capacity at Christmas and Easter. I guarantee you on nearly every occasion that you ask someone to “check in the back” for an out-of-stock item, it is not there. To quote American comedian Scott Seiss who has made some hilarious videos about retail work “The back ain’t some magical place! What do you think is back there? Santa’s workshop?” This is partially why it took us a long time to recover after the panic buying during Covid. Although we tried to reassure everyone that deliveries were coming in every day and there was not any major disruption to our supply, we could not keep pace with the extra amounts people were buying every visit. I think we all look back at the toilet paper crisis and wonder why we lost our heads.

Any surplus stock is kept in large chillers and freezers or on the high shelving on the shopfloor and it is kept in date rotation as chilled/frozen food has strict time limits to how long it can be kept outside the chiller/freezer. There are also staff whose job it is to constantly check sell-buy dates. The food you buy is as fresh as it can be. The only point when this system goes wrong is when management does not replace staff when someone leaves. A common mistake made by staff is stretching themselves to appear to cope with this shortfall. Then the missing colleague will not be replaced and you will end up doing two jobs, your own and someone else’s. This leads to corners being cut and the correct processes fall apart. If Nightshift colleagues are not given the time they need, they will save time by not rotating the stock. Putting the freshest at the front and leaving the older stock at the back. You can get away with this a few times but eventually, the old stock at the back will go out of date and have to be thrown away. Then the blame game starts although the fault lies squarely with management.

Scourge of flexibility

Nearly all the non-management staff you encounter at the supermarket are on part-time hours, this suits some of those who are students or have caring duties. However, there is a fair proportion who would like permanent full-time hours and these are rarely offered because it keeps the workforce flexible. Many staff rely on overtime to keep their heads above water and it is usually available for hours that suit the company, but during very quiet periods it disappears completely causing a lot of distress for these colleagues. Many people have other part-time jobs to survive. This always causes upset when the store decides to do ‘labour matching’ which is bullying people to change their contract hours to suit the business. Sometimes people don’t mind but some particularly insensitive, nasty managers have caused lots of tears. A lot of staff are on ‘in-work benefits’ which allows the government to supplement shareholder dividends by keeping the wages artificially low. These colleagues are unable to deviate from their set hours and on the rare occasions there is a staff bonus they cannot take the money as it will affect all their benefits.

The purpose of the new technology is to cut the need for labour. Staff are expected to be multi-skilled in all departments using new technologies and they are also expected to be increasingly flexible with their time. Most new roles have ghastly unsocial hours, for example, some of those doing home deliveries for online shopping start work at 3 am. The online department has a very high turnover of staff, not only because of the unsocial hours but the constant monitoring and performance targets. Online shoppers have a picking rate, of roughly 185 items per hour and are live-tracked by management, who will try to proceed with disciplinary action if someone falls below the target, while they are working.

These changes are not unique to my workplace, all the supermarkets are engaged in a race to the bottom. You notice, as a shopper, that when one supermarket tries something new, they all follow suit immediately. It’s exactly the same with how they treat their staff.

The workplace is changing

Supermarkets are susceptible to changing technologies. In my workplace, at the end of last year the role of ‘cashier’ ceased to exist. It is now called ‘customer experience colleague’ covering a variety of non-sitting duties. The rise in self-service till points and SmartShop requires a lot less staff. Disabled and elderly workers who were unable to meet the new demands of the role were pushed out of the business through capability meetings because they were unable to stand up and move around for the majority of their shifts and were forced to sign new contracts recognising that it was required for their new role, just in time for Christmas. There was very little formal resistance to this contract change because it came in so abruptly and managers were getting staff to sign the contracts by not explaining to them what was involved and telling them it was just a formality. I supported those individuals who resisted and we went through the company grievance processes, but this was a company-wide issue. It was completely heartbreaking fighting for a member who was dismissed on capabilities, someone with over twenty years of service. We fought against discrimination and the company not following its own policies, but the company insisted on dismissing them. The union officials take over our cases when it gets to this point. I hoped that the union would take it further. Unfortunately, they didn’t as they insisted that this was perfectly legal and there was nothing that could be done, which is probably true. I offered to help the colleague take this to an Employment Tribunal outside of the union, but they were so disheartened with how they were treated by the company, they unfortunately declined.

Violence and shoplifting

Shopfloor violence from customers is an increasing problem. It has always been bad but since covid and the cost of living crisis, it has got a lot worse. USDAW has been campaigning hard to highlight this problem. The results of our survey are distressing: 90% of those surveyed had experienced verbal abuse within the last year and 12% experienced physical assault1. A big flash point was mask-wearing, both from those who refused to wear a mask AND from those who were triggered by others not wearing a mask. Last year a Tesco worker was murdered whilst working in Andover by an angry customer. This is why one of USDAW’s most important campaigns is ‘Freedom From Fear’ which aims to raise awareness among retailers and customers and protect shopworkers from violence, threats, and abuse.

“Shrink” (the difference between physical stock and what the inventory says) has increased dramatically. Everyone is very aware that the cost of our food shopping has soared at a much higher rate than general inflation and it’s the basic essentials that are rising the highest, everyone needs to eat so no one gets to ignore this. The saddest time of day is the evenings when we do reductions and there is a scramble to get the bargains.

The truth is it’s a lot easier to shoplift now with self-service tills and even more so with the SmartShop. The SmartShop is when you use your smartphone or a handset from the front of the shop and scan your own shopping, packing it away as you go around. At the end, a QR code is used for payment and the usual checks have to be made for age-restricted items. Occasionally there will be a spot check to make sure the shopping in your bag matches what is on the handset. Any items not matching are treated as an oversight as this can generally happen and we don’t want to be accusing anyone of theft. A fair proportion of customers understand this and will help themselves to unofficial ‘buy one get one free’ on many items. The most shoplifted items are alcohol. The company’s solution is to put security tags on high-risk items. It is not uncommon to find little nests of discarded tags where someone has come in and used an implement like a screwdriver to remove them in a quiet corner. However, security now focuses more on customer outbursts than thefts. If they spot a customer putting items into their bags before paying for them, which before SmartShop would have been a sign of shoplifting, they ignore it as it could be innocent.

Contract changes

The most tumultuous recent change in my workplace was the contract change of 2018. Called “winning teams” they were effectively a precursor to ‘fire and rehire’ and one side certainly were the winners. Many legacy T&Cs were removed, such as paid breaks and premium rates for unsocial hours, in exchange for a pay rise that was expected with the increase in the minimum wage anyway. Refusal to sign the contract meant losing your job and the USDAW response was “We welcome these changes.” The only opposition came through a colleague who started a petition by herself and made a few headlines at the time, drawing attention to what was happening2. Similar contract changes followed in all supermarkets and ‘fire and rehire’ has become a common blight for all employees in every line of work. USDAW is now taking legal action against Tesco distribution for ‘fire and rehire’ contracts being forced onto employees. They won the initial High Court case in February 2022, then in July, Tesco went to the Court of Appeal which found in their favour, saying ‘fire and rehire’ was lawful. Finally, in January 2023, USDAW was given permission to take the case to the Supreme Court which supersedes the Court of Appeal. Hopefully, it will be a win as it will help so many other workers.

Under a notorious CEO, the company lost the majority of their best managers who had to reapply for their own jobs or take redundancy. More than expected took the redundancy and all the common sense in management went with them. With the new management, I have had to represent people who have been called to a disciplinary meeting for being eight minutes late clocking in, five minutes late back from their break and once for forgetting to clock in. All these meetings take four individuals off the shopfloor (the manager chairing the meeting, notetaker, individual in trouble, and union representative) and are guaranteed to take a few hours as management does not like their authority being challenged. I do not care for the hours of time and money wasted on management ego trips, that’s for them to address, but I do care about the impact on fellow workers. The sheer amount of disciplinary action against very minor infractions demotivates and causes unnecessary stress for workers I have definitely seen an increase in colleagues suffering from mental health issues in the last few years. I frequently witness tears and breakdowns from people who are desperately trying to hold themselves together, not only with the increased pressure from work but outside pressures that show how difficult life has become for ordinary people. The number of meetings that myself and my fellow Reps are doing is causing us concern. A few years ago it was roughly one meeting a month, now on average I am doing two a week. This is not unique as fellow Reps are complaining of feeling burnt out.

The very worst thing about working in a supermarket is the Attendance Policy. Everyone will be sent for a disciplinary meeting if they are off 3 times or over 3% in a rolling year. Those who are not in the union, who think they can appeal to a manager’s ‘common sense’, have horror stories of getting written warnings for daring to get tested for cancer. After a written warning comes a final written warning, then dismissal. So people are terrified of getting ill. Colleagues with health issues will often return to work before they are ready, or work through an illness, making themselves even more sick. Those with infectious diseases come to work spreading it to colleagues and customers alike.

Struggles and disputes around the union

USDAW is the main union of shop workers. It differs from Unite and GMB, which both have a presence in retail, as they are general unions. Their presence has not changed anything, as the GMB in Asda has not prevented the London-based staff from being forced to accept a pay cut. Unite’s presence in Sainsbury’s has not resulted in any better treatment in the stores they represent.

USDAW introduced a single contribution rate in 2020 during the covid crisis. Removing the part-time rate for new members. Since then our membership has plummeted whilst others increased during covid. As far as I know, we are the only large trade union to do this. This has had a negative effect on membership numbers, especially in the retail side where the majority of staff are part-time women workers. The distribution side of membership is unaffected as depots tend to employ full-time staff, have higher wages and have a strong union culture.

To do this to part-time workers during the worst cost of living crisis in generations is unforgivable in my opinion. Since its introduction, the union argues that our finances have never been healthier, but what are our priorities, is it to protect people in precarious employment or protect the assets of the union? We had 432,000+ members in April 2018, so in five years we have lost 120,000 members. I wouldn’t call this a success.

Although this model of trade unionism has a lot of drawbacks, it has resulted in an above-average member density for the private sector. I think this is because USDAW will choose arbitration over industrial action whenever possible which allows them to be well tolerated in the workplace. The downside of this is that we get accused of siding with the company when very unpopular changes are implemented with little resistance. The union’s primary focus is recruitment as the precarious nature of shop work has a high staff turnover. There’s not enough emphasis on member retention, which unions with highly skilled members do better than us.

USDAW use partnership agreements with bigger employers. There are advantages to this, but a recent example shows the limitations. Morrisons staff overwhelmingly rejected a very low pay increase this year compared to the other supermarkets. Due to the agreement USDAW has with Morrisons to solve this issue, they agreed to binding arbitration with ACAS. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in ACAS siding with Morrisons, and the pitiful below-inflation pay rise had to be accepted. The Morrisons Reps I know wanted more and were confident their members were angry enough to take this issue further.

I would like to see an understanding that the members ought to be steering the union and not be passive recipients of orders from above. This managerial approach has deterred activism within the union. At any major trade union protest or rally, USDAW struggles to get Reps involved, let alone members. A lot of our political education is straight out of HR, rarely challenging or class-based.

Indifferent Reps find it difficult to recruit. We are advised to sell the benefits like we are selling a shopping app and refer to the union as ‘insurance for your job’, both of which I do not like. Members should not be treated like customers buying a product. They ARE the union and in my opinion the most important part.

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An anonymous Supermarket Worker

works in a large supermarket chain