The problem with the Pay Up campaign

The problem with the Pay Up campaign

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.

Posted By

Jun 19 2012 20:45


Attached files


Jun 19 2012 21:15

Good blog!

Chilli Sauce
Jun 19 2012 21:15

Thanks for this Phil. I'm still unsure about this whole Pay Up thing, but I plan on posting more thoughts if I get a free moment in the next day or two.

Jun 20 2012 02:30

planning on keeping discussion of this internal to SF for a while, but its too late now so i might as well post something...

Phil wrote:
There has been some suggestion that it is in fact the brainchild of the Unite bureaucracy

Its fair enough criticising the strategy, in fact i agree with the criticism that its paternalistic (even though its basically the same as the current methods being used in the campaign against workfare), but i'm not aware of any evidence of Unite bureaucracy involvement.

In fact, I've seen an email from a Unite bureaucrat that suggests the opposite - someone in London enquiring to Unite about doing a solidarity action received a pretty scathing reply email from Unite stating that they have nothing to do with Pay Up and do not want to be involved.

steve y
Jun 20 2012 11:34

A Sainsbury's unionisation attempt

That union money and staff resources is going into Pay Up is obvious - just look at the professionalism of the banner in the pic above. Well argued - and well spotted Phil.

I used to be a TGWU shop-steward at Sainsbury's at Nine Elms in 1987-8. It was at the time the largest supermarket in the country, the first of the big ones with 500+ workers. I joined as a young experienced activist as part of the 'proletarianisation' drive of Workers Power, the Trot group I was in.

On starting, I went to the local TGWU office at Stockwell, joined-up and asked how many members we had there and who was the shop-steward. I was told I was the only member and that from now on I was the shop-steward. I agreed, and within one-year I unionised the biggest in the country from scratch.

I first I targetted young angry workers and socialised with them, pool in the pub on pay night, etc. Then suddenly one lunch-time we all distributed a new bright yellow bulletin 'Union Fightback' that I drew up and we paid for the printing amongst us dozen rebels. It was all over the store. Workers reading it were being told to get back to work. The large canteen with a low white ceiling glowed yellow with the reflection as workers opened the bulletin. Management could do nothing. A couple of checkout supervisors started going round checkout workers collecting them up, but we organised rebels moved in and it stopped.

One small article was about the prominence of apartheid South African goods on shelves - they all immediately miraculously disappeared overnight - it being Lambeth, of course.

The TGWU were obviously delighted at all the subs coming in. I was presented by the TGWU at London wide and National meetings with Sainsbury's management, and now realise I was their Rottweiler on the TGWU chain - and I did growl and argue with top management about a lot, often embarrassing the TGWU - not fully grasping how I was used by TGWU officials.

One day I will write up the story, now I have somewhere to tell it on libcom. Suffice it to say that when a large union workplace meeting amended then agreed the text of a new 4-page branch bulletin, 'Union Fightback', the headline celebrating a successful unionisation, was 'Sainsbury's Slaves are Organising'. We argued in the bulletin to spread unionisation all over London. The TGWU officials refused to fund it until 'Slaves' was turned to 'Workers', and other similar watering down re-wording throughout.

With Workers Power I argued to continue with the militant wording truly reflecting workers' anger/hopes, and raise the printing money within the union branch. Workers Power Industrial Committee ordered me, unanimously, to fully agree with the TGWU demands. I went back to the union branch and told the members 'my own' new preference was to agree with the TGWU and get their backing. That was the last big workplace meeting we had. It was one reason I left the Trots.

a sad, and even today, angry stevey

Jun 20 2012 10:52

I for one would be really interested in reading a write-up of your organising experience Stevey. I reckon it'd be really helpful to share that knowledge and experience around. smile

Rob Ray
Jun 20 2012 11:55
That union money and staff resources is going into Pay Up is obvious - just look at the professionalism of the banner in the pic above.

No it isn't, the presence of a bit of money could mean anything - wealthy supporter, NGO backing (it's not like War on Want would be incapable), cash in a hat, particularly creative banner makers... I could argue it looks like students, from the clothes. Best to actually find out rather than assume.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 20 2012 17:18

Yeah, I think there's been a lot of assumptions made about the Pay Up campaign. My gut tells me that there is some outside group involved, but I'm not really sure who that'd be. I mean, this campaign has sort of come out of nowhere and most us have the contacts in the trade unions, radical groups, anti-cuts groups, UK UnCut/Occupy, and the Trot groups to have caught wind of something like this. So, I maybe NGO, I'm not sure.

In any case, not sure about it having union backing. UNITE has disowned the campaign and instructed their stewards not to participate (I've seen the email personally) and since UNITE and USDAW are the only recognised union at Sainsbury's, that leaves USDAW. I really, really, really doubt we'd ever see an initiative like this from USDAW, so unless someone can provide evidence to the the contrary, I'm questioning trade union involvement.

So, as much as I appreciate Phil's blog post, I'd still like to see a lot more concrete evidence before making any judgements on Pay Up.

One other quick point is that, again, I'm sympathetic to Phil's argument that the campaign seems like it's driven from the outside. However, using that same logic, one could argue the same for the Boycott Workfare or even SF's anti-workfare campaign. Also, it might be tactically advantageous for the campaign to claim that it's only ex-employees. I mean, if SF has members inside a chain we were targeting against workfare, I doubt we'd go shouting about it.

Jun 20 2012 17:26

On your last point, I disagree. There would be no danger in saying that your group included Sainsbury's workers - as they have thousands of workers and so it wouldn't be possible to find one or two people.

Boycott Workfare is different, in that people on workfare placements are not fixed employees who can organise in a workplace in the same way that supermarket workers can.

Fall Back
Jun 20 2012 17:45

The involvement of (parts of) the union bureaucracy isn't "assumption", it's factual.

Rob Ray
Jun 20 2012 17:49

Okay, so where's the evidence? Don't just keep saying "it's fact" that's no kind of answer to a question.

Chilli Sauce
Jun 20 2012 17:59

Well in that case, there seems to be disconnect within UNITE (of course, always a very real possibility) in which some of their full-timers explicitly disavow the campaign.

Is the full-timer you know doing participating in UNITE capacity, or as an activist who's also a UNITE full-timer (keeping in mind this may not change how they act while at actions)?

I guess I'm saying just because trade unionists (full-time or rank-and-file are involved) are involved, it doesn't mean trade unions are involved.

Also, Steven, fair point. But it's also very possible that they're being overly cautious.

Fall Back
Jun 20 2012 17:57

That key organisers are union bureaucrats? What do you want, me to name names?

Jun 20 2012 17:58

The Unite bureaucracy are, from my experience, a lot better than most others at using radical-sounding language to co-opt militants or militant ideas into their own more middle-of-the-road campaigns. Although all I said in the blog was that this had been suggested and some things pointed to that. If it wasn't the case, the rest of what I said would still stand.

I understand the comparison with the workfare campaign, but that's more because Pay Up are taking that and UK Uncut's model to promote themselves than anything else. Workfare is a broad issue which affects claimants and workers alike, and certainly in Liverpool we have plenty in our actions who fit into those groups. We've also been making a habit of talking to workers and pushing the idea of them organising themselves.

But the living wage in Sainsbury's is an industrial dispute, plain and simple. The main drive has to come from workers themselves, overcoming the dual union problem described above. But Pay Up aren't a militant organising drive and don't address any of the issues of workers taking action for themselves. They're an activist group looking to win for the workers.

It's the equivalent of a public sector pension campaign emerging entirely independent of public sector workers, protesting at government and council buildings on our behalf, their only engagement with us being "join your union."

Chilli Sauce
Jun 20 2012 18:02
But Pay Up aren't a militant organising drive and don't address any of the issues of workers taking action for themselves. They're an activist group looking to win for the workers.

It's the equivalent of a public sector pension campaign emerging entirely independent of public sector workers, protesting at government and council buildings on our behalf, their only engagement with us being "join your union."

I'm sympathetic to this and like I said, my gut tells me there's some outside institutional force running this.

I mean, it's worth a critique on the grounds that it's "an activist group looking to win for the workers", but I still don't have enough information to make any further judgements, given that the only official UNITE email I've seen explicitly condemns the campaign.

Jun 20 2012 18:15

Phil, rather than the hypothetical pensions thing it seems more akin to the real London Citizens style living wage campaigns (although they seem to more openly involved the unions)

Chilli Sauce
Jun 20 2012 18:36

I don't know, I guess to me, this comes down to how we critique activists and how we critique trade unions and to what extent (and how) we critically support activist campaigns as well trade union campaigns. (Keeping in mind that part of the critique of activists is that they can be used by trade unions and even errant trade union bureaucrats).

Depending on who is behind this, I think we (as anarchists/SF) should approach the situation in very different ways. Without having a firm knowledge of who's organising/funding Pay Up, I don't think we should rush to any snap judgements.

Anyway, Jim, what they say is that Pay Up has "activists...from trade unions". That's not the same thing as saying they have "trade unions involved".

Keeping open the possibility this is well-intentioned though critique-worthy activist campaign, this may be a group of people that have a faith in the ideals of trade unionism that we've (rightfully) rejected as anarchists. So it wouldn't be surprising if they flaunt any degree of trade union involvement, even if that's just a few shop-floor activists or an branch level full-timer or two.

steve y
Jul 17 2012 22:43

Is there a website for the Pay Up campaign. I am a former shop-steward at Sainsbury's - and would like to attend their next meeting.


Chilli Sauce
Jul 18 2012 20:51