March 28, 2022
From Red Pepper
Social distancing at Tesco supermarket in Haslemere at the start of the pandemic (Credit: Simon Burchell)

At the beginning of the pandemic, I think we all felt the same sense of fear and panic about Covid as anyone else. We expected the next person we interacted with would pass the virus on to us. Senior management was slow to get PPE to us. We cleaned the store as if our lives depended on it, sanitising our hands at every opportunity. Screens were put up way too late at interaction points.

We did our very best to reassure customers we wouldn’t close. I remember one lady, whom I still see today, overwhelmed that she couldn’t get what she needed, just grateful that we found tomatoes for her – and her favourite biscuits. Me giving her a side hug, consoling and calming her.

One of the hardest aspects for me was having a minute’s silence in-store for retail workers who had already lost their lives simply going to work as we had. The tears flowed and after 60 seconds you just had to go back and get on with the next customer in front of you.

Another hard aspect was people panic buying – the abuse when you tried to explain that just for the moment they had to limit their consumption. Couples would shop, then split up at the till so they could get more. The store was stripped. I often wonder how much of it ended up being thrown away.

Easier times were when customers started thanking us and appreciating the sacrifices we were making just to keep the doors open, not seeing family or friends for months to avoid contracting Covid or passing it on to them.

Nothing short of all out action will wake up the general public and make management realise that without people on shop floors and behind checkouts, they won’t make money

People’s attitudes towards retail workers are now sadly the same as before the pandemic. The rudeness, intolerance and treating us like dirt has returned. I had high hopes that the experience we’ve all been through would change this, but it hasn’t.

Just like the NHS workers, we got the sympathy and the promise of change in the beginning – I’m assuming just so we didn’t down tools and find other jobs. All that seems to have been forgotten. Redundancies of middle management and others happened because companies realised they weren’t going to make such big profits.

How can we organise to resist these conditions? To be honest, we need a better trade union. USDAW [the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers] seems far too cosy with retail companies and the British Retail Consortium [trade association for UK retail businesses].

The long-awaited Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill has died a death. Our pay probably won’t meet the living wage threshold for another couple of years for the lowest grades.

Unfortunately, the only way we will get change for retail workers is if we stop doing what we do day in and day out. Nothing short of all out action will wake up the general public and make management realise that without people on shop floors and behind checkouts, they won’t make money. I can’t see USDAW or any other trade union sanctioning that, though, or even talking about it.

Unless workers stop the money flowing nothing will ever change.

The author is a member of USDAW. Tillie is a pseudonym

This article first appeared in issue #235, ‘Educate, agitate, organise’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media