USDAW: A Union for the Bosses

Most of the larger trade unions in Britain – if not all – do not serve the interests of their members. On the contrary, when you examine their track records it is clear that these unions are vehicles for keeping their members from making any serious challenges to their employers on wages, working conditions, etc.. The fact of the matter is that the main unions in Britain today are businesses run by their full-time officials for their own benefit at the expense of the ordinary members.


An important issue of growing concern for many employees is that of gender equality, i.e. the same pay and conditions for both women and men doing the same or equivalent work. We see a lot in the media about gender inequalities at the higher levels in business organisations, e.g. not enough women on company boards of directors, but far less about differences between male and female employees at the lower levels of employment.

But times are changing. Law firm Leigh Day are bringing cases against the main supermarkets – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury – to try to gain equal pay and conditions for women and men employed in comparable roles within these firms. In particular there is a large disparity between employees in the retail stores, mainly women, and those in the warehouse distribution centres, mainly men. In Tesco the predominantly female employees in the stores receive around £8 per hour while the predominantly male employees in the warehouses are paid considerably more, as much as £11 per hour. Many thousands of supermarket employees have registered with Leigh Day to be part of the class actions being brought forward in the courts.

Where does USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) stand on this important issue? It has nothing to do with it. In fact, on its website it explicitly disclaims any involvement in the matter. USDAW has a ‘partnership agreement’ with Tesco which sets out relations with the union and terms and conditions of the employees. This has been periodically revised in favour of the employers. In particular, in recent years the terms of the pension scheme have been considerably downgraded. As far as Tesco goes, USDAW is a company union keeping the workers in line with company interests.


The truth is that most, if not all, of the large trade unions in Britain today do not serve the interests of their members. Most of them are in decline, losing members when there are more employees in Britain than ever before. There are dedicated rank-and-file activists trying in the union movement to reform it so that it really fights to improve the wages and conditions of its members. In the case of USDAW Socialist Party member Amy Murphy has recently been elected President on a platform of trying to bring about radical change. But she is up against the dead weight of the full-time officials such as recently appointed General Secretary Paddy Lillis who are happy with their inflated salaries and benefits and don’t want anyone rocking the boat.

Given the uselessness of the main unions, some of the lowest paid workers in occupations such as fast food and cleaning are getting together and forming new grassroots unions. These include United Voices of the World, Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union and Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. And they have been winning pay rises and better contracts. Many of these militants are migrant workers. They are taking the lead! Unless the main unions, such as USDAW, get their act together new, more militant and effective unions will emerge. In with the new, out with the old!