On the back of a demonstration at Sainsbury's headquarters, Pay Up has recently emerged as the latest UK Uncut-style activist campaign. Its aim is to highlight the problem of "in work poverty" and push for a living wage - starting with Sainsbury's. As someone whose first experience of workplace struggle was in Sainsbury's, this immediately caught my attention. So I decided to have a closer look at the campaign, and its pitfalls.
According to its website, Pay Up is "a national network built on the model of UK Uncut." In essence, this means using protests and street theatre directed against high street chains in order to get its message across. It also appears to mean that it is a structureless entity, with no clue given to exactly who is behind it or how decisions are made.
There is little contentious about the core message. Pay Up are calling for a living wage, and challenging the stagnation and decline of wages over the last thirty years. This is something that virtually everyone in retail, indeed everyone who has ever worked a thankless, low-paid, shitty job, can relate to.
The problem arises when you look at who is pushing this message. Pay Up is composed of "ex supermarket staff, including Sainsbury’s employees and activists from UK Uncut, Occupy, trade unions, community, and environmental organisations." But no current supermarket or Sainsbury's staff - indeed it addresses staff as an outside entity in a letter(PDF) that underlines the paternalistic approach being taken. [Emphasis mine]
"Pay Up is an independent pressure group that seeks to win the Living Wage for workers in major high street chains. ... Some of us are ex-Sainsbury’s workers. We’ve been in your shoes and we know that working terms and conditions have been steadily eroded away over the past 15 years."
At best, then, those behind the campaign are essentially concerned citizens seeking to act on behalf of others. Workers are advised to "join the union in your store" and "talk to your fellow colleagues and your union representative and start organising," but there is little to no detail offered behind this. Moreover, their line that "if hundreds of us stand behind [the workers] – Sainsbury's CEO, Justin King will be forced to take notice," suggests that these activists still see themselves as the key to winning for Sainsbury's staff.
The reality remains that only the workers themselves can improve their conditions. Solidarity is an important thing, and actions such as Pay Up propose would be a perfect complement to a campaign of militancy led directly by the staff. But that isn't what we're seeing here.
In fact, whilst the Unite union is prepared to hold protests, there is little suggestion that it will do much else. Indeed, the unions representing staff in Sainsbury's have manoeuvred themselves so that they literally can't do much else.
Staff in Sainsbury's are represented by two trade unions. Unite, who held the protest at the Sainsbury's AGM last year, and USDAW, who appear to have done nothing of note at all. The two unions have parallel recognition agreements with the company, literally splitting the staff between them. I say literally because they take it in turns as to who gets to recruit members when a new store opens. Unite get this one, USDAW get the next, Sainsbury's rub their hands with glee at such an expertly divided workforce.
Even if this wasn't the case, there is little reason to hope that a Unite campaign would win through. Adam Ford's comparison of the Sparks' and tanker drivers' disputes is instructive in that it shows exactly what a militant rank-and-file can win and what the union will do left to its own devices.
For any real victory, Sainsbury's workers need to start organising themselves and taking effective direct action. Neither Unite or USDAW are likely to even contemplate the strike as a weapon in the shop workers' arsenal here, yet a militant workforce could deploy that at will alongside other tactics such as sit-ins, go-slows, sabotage, etc. It would not be hard, once momentum on such a thing got going, to inflict serious damage on the employer and add real weight to demands for a living wage.
This is also where a revolutionary union could come in. An activist campaign to fight on behalf of workers might not get us anywhere, but a national organising drive would. And not an organising drive by bodies that simply want to expand their subs base and get a seat at the negotiating table with the bosses, but by militants who can offer practical solidarity outside the bounds of trade union officialdom.
This is not what the Pay Up campaign represents. There has been some suggestion that it is in fact the brainchild of the Unite bureaucracy. The plea for workers to "join the union in your store" effectively underlines the recruitment aspect of this campaign, whilst the flash mob-style actions and talk of "civil disobedience" and "direct action" are clearly intended to draw radical and militant activists in. Hence, one core aim of Pay Up being "to foster joint campaigning and organisation between union and civil disobedience activists," so that the latter can effectively run a campaign on the union's behalf for free.
Even if this is not the case, there are still significant problems with how the campaign is driven. I've blogged before how the workfare campaign is pretty much stuck in that mould but can still be effective - here we are talking about outsourcing an industrial dispute.
Either way, the Pay Up campaign is not an effective vehicle for class struggle. Militant workers need to organise struggles on their own terms and any outside action should only supplement that. It is the workers' industrial strength which will force Justin King to take notice. No matter how many conscientious activists stand behind them.