This contribution to our series on the Labour Party has been written by London Plan C Member Nik Matheou....
The retail sector employs 2.8 million people, over 10% of the total UK workforce. If we want to understand how those workers can develop their power and leverage we need to understand the specifics of their work. Two weeks ago we published an anonymous first hand report from the Sainsbury’s shop floor, explaining the labour process as it is and how it’s being changed by the introduction of new technology and modes of exploitation. Now we’re following this up with another report from another worker on their experience of fighting back amid the disorganisation and alienation.
If you’re interested in understanding the massive process of change currently ongoing in the retail sector, you might want to also check out these reports from the Angry Workers of the World.
Supermarket work is fucking disempowering and alienating. You’re under constant surveillance (security let you know that they’re there just as much for you as they are for shoppers), your wages are shit and the work is dull and monotonous. You bitch with your colleagues about how rubbish the job is, about how that old bag was rude to you on the tills, how you’ll go postal if another kid destroys your clothing display. But it always remains at the level of bitching. You never organise together. Your collective dissatisfaction never seems to manifest into collective resistance.
You try to join the union (USDAW) but that doesn’t work. The union is boring. The rep sells membership to you bundled up with 10% off at Frankie and Benny’s. This is Blair’s favourite union, and backed first Liz Kendall and then Owen Smith against Corbyn. It smashes all of your misconceptions about ‘fighting unions’ and makes you realise that, in large part, since the 80’s unions have become shells, actively suppressing any possibility of worker-led action in the workplace. USDAW doesn’t care if you’re bored and alienated, that’s what work is all about.
And if you thought the union was bad, then nothing could prepare you for the sycophantic scabs involved in the Great Place to Work scheme. They’re all aspiring managers or people so old they’d forgotten what it was like to resist. The store manager was treated as some sort of minor deity as we waited for him to come into the meeting: ‘he’s so clever, so good to us, always asks me how my day is.’ You quickly discover that this is not the place to bring grievances. This is the place to discuss the easter ball (£40 a head, obviously), not poor wages or freezing working conditions out back. Go and get another job, go and work at Aldi if you want the living wage. You look around the room for allies but all you’re met with is disapproving looks.
But you have to find some sort of way to resist, to flex your disobedience muscles. So you try and cost the fucking company as much as you can, and get away with as little work as possible. You see a big shop come through, a mother with three screaming children and she looks exhausted. Or a pensioner buying only dried goods because he tells you his ovens broken. Or a veiled woman who knows she’s being side eyed by everyone else in the shop. You meet all of these people a thousand times a day. And you think to yourself, ‘what can I do to help them’? So you accidently don’t scan as much of their shop as possible. You’ve gotta be careful. I don’t know what leeway there is on the tills but I reckon you can get away with about £50 on each shift. Quickly you can start costing the company fucking thousands, and they’ll just put it down to shrinkage. If they catch you just plead idiocy, ‘sorry, I’m just really crap at scanning’. You write little notes on the receipts: ‘Everything for Everyone’, little anarchist A’s and hammer and sickles, hoping that someone notices. You spot a shopper’s Labour Party card. ‘I voted for Corbyn’, he says, when you ask.
The first few weeks you assume everyone’s a jobsworth. You feel watched all the time. But after three months you stop giving a shit and start to slack off. Then you notice other people slacking off in the same way as you. You bump into someone by the bailing machine and give them a knowing smile as you get your phone out. It’s never explicit, but after six months you give each other the look; ‘I know you’ve just been doing fuck all for the last half hour, good on you.’ Then you get close to people, and try and one up them on how much shit you have or haven’t done. ‘We once took 40 minutes for a 15 minute break but got fucking dobbed in by Mary’.
When you see someone go into the changing rooms and come out wearing a brand new pair of jeans, just give them a smile and a wink; they’ve earned it. Make sure you take later shifts when managers are less likely to be in so you can doss off in the stockroom. Extend your breaks by an extra half hour. Take your time when you’re doing a shit. You’ve earned it.
One of the best things to happen was when this normal girl on the checkouts (only 16) decided she wasn’t having it any more. For about 6 weeks, more or less every Sunday, the tills would start to go down. Bearing in mind Sunday is the busiest trading day, this was a big problem. The first time the managers didn’t have a clue what was going on. But as it happened more often, they knew what was coming as soon as one till would go down. One till, then another, then after about half an hour all of them.
Shoppers had to bring their shopping to the clothing tills, where we had to painstakingly type in the barcode of every single item because the scanners didn’t work. Imagine doing that for a £100 shop! Six weeks of losses on Sunday trading. Six weeks of having the engineers in wondering what the fuck was going on with the tills. The store kept on having to close early. One Sunday we got to buy a load of food at massively reduced rate. We only had about ten minutes so it was like supermarket sweep.
Eventually, the brightest and best at the supermarket thought it prudent to check the CCTV. Upon closer inspection they realised that she had been fucking up the tills. I never got the specifics on this but I remember the day after. Some people thought it was jokes, some were pissed off that it made their Sundays harder, some were appalled at her lack of loyalty to the supermarket.
It also made me feel a bit shit. I’d spent years being a more or less organised leftist, and I’d been outdone by a 16 year old who didn’t know what a union was. Since then she’s become one of my political heroes. Six weeks of losses in Sunday sales, that’s probably millions of pounds, and all it took was the sabotage of one 16 year old, whose only reason was that she was ‘bored of being on the tills’.