The high number of part-time workers in retail makes organising a huge challenge. But hundreds of workers at Shoprite stores in Swaziland beat the odds and unionised. They're members of Swaziland Commercial and Allied Workers Union (SCAWU).
It's a bittersweet victory for SCAWU. For a decade, the South African multinational retailer rebuffed the union's efforts to organise workers.
SCAWU's win relied on international solidarity, in the form of an agreement between Shoprite Checkers and a global union.
But equally crucial was the relentless effort of the union led by Industrial Field Officer and Organiser, Philasande Mthethwa (35).
The issues are ripe for organising at Shoprite Checkers stores across Africa. In Swaziland, the retailer had taken advantage of union politics to de-recognise SCAWU. That move dented the union's efforts of making any serious inroads at Shoprite. In one year the union lost over 150 members to reach an all-time low of 192.
SCAWU clearly needed to rethink its organising strategy. So Philasande dug in the union's archive for the Global Framework Agreement (GFA). It turned out the way into Shoprite was right under their noses.
SCAWU now has about 510 members, from a paltry 192. Due to the GFA, membership increased by over 70% in only three months!
Philasande reported the win during a Shoprite Shop Stewards Alliance meeting in Cape Town in May. Below is his story:
In 2015 when I joined SCAWU, the lack of recognition dominated every agenda. In 2016, UNI Global Union provided resources to help us recruit and gain recognition. We didn't resonate with the workers, and that strategy fell apart. We then took the company to court to annul the Permanent Part-Timers Agreement. We'd hoped a win there would force the company to engage with us, but that wasn't the case.
UNI Global Union and FES Trade Union Competence Centre Sub Sahara Africa (FESS TUCC) host the Shoprite Shop Stewards Alliance meeting every year. During the 2017 meeting held in South Africa, Swaziland was once again under the spotlight. Members wondered why we hadn't made any gains penetrating Shoprite.
Desperate, I asked a UNI Global representative to compel Shoprite to recognise SCAWU. UNI Global had intervened in Lesotho, and besides, SCAWU was the only active union in Shoprite in the kingdom. But, UNI told us to return home and think of effective strategies and tactics. I vowed we'd have excellent news at the next network meeting.
For Shoprite to recognise and bargain with us, we’d need to achieve the 50% threshold. We needed a new recruiting plan and fast.
The GFA magic
I got hold of the Global Framework Agreement and delved into it. What a reckoning! The tool for success with Shoprite had been languishing in our filing cabinets.
I wrote to Shoprite management and asked to visit every store to popularize the GFA. In my mind, this was a good entry point. To our amazement the company agreed, but with a few conditions. First, we'd have to meet workers between 7.00 and 7.40AM. Secondly, branch managers would attend our meetings. And we couldn't take about anything else except the Global Framework Agreement. We accepted the conditions. All that mattered was our unfettered access to the premises and workers. So, with a shoestring budget, we began our recruitment campaign.
Renewed strategy and tactics
The first meeting took place on the 10 October 2017. We spoke about the GFA and explained the de-recognition of SCAWU. We told workers that the GFA, which Shoprite Checkers signed in February 2010, ensures core labour standards, including the right to organise and bargain collectively, and is respected everywhere the company does business. We promised to improve the benefits in the Part-Timers Agreement and to restore collective bargaining.
The GFA, which Shoprite Checkers signed in February 2010, ensures core labour standards, including the right to organise and bargain collectively, and is respected everywhere the company does business
In some stores, we'd sneak in advice on some pressing issues from the floor. Workers lacked basic information. For instance, the stipulations for sick leave. Only a registered medical practitioner could book you off for days, and not a nurse. Such advice impressed the managers and they warmed to the idea of a union.
In every store we visited a union member or a shop steward assisted us. Where we didn't have people, we'd made sure to establish a contact before the visit.
We'd stay up late reviewing the progress of our new strategy, and by 3 AM I'd be on the road to another meeting. Our campaign slogan was ‘Everyone Join. Every One Form Counts’. When workers heard that the GFA is widely recognised, they started signing up. Often, I’d leave meetings with signed forms. And my president led by example - she clinched 100% membership at her branch. We encouraged new members to recruit in their stores. Soon, everyone had caught the ‘bug’.
As the new and young person in the union, I was the official face of the recruitment campaign. I resonated with part-timers who are mostly young. They felt they were represented in the union. My general secretary accompanied me to validate our campaign message. Everyone at SCAWU pulled their weight. The workers needed to see solidarity and commitment. Too often they’d been disappointed by ‘briefcase unions’. SCAWU’s campaign communication emphasised the benefits of joining a union.
So near yet so far
In December, we'd grown our membership by over 70%. But due to delays at the Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration Committee, we lost a big number of PPTs at the beginning of 2018. Some workers joined other companies and others returned to school. That meant we had to put even more effort.
Our win was because of the GFA, our hard work and support from the Shoprite Alliance Network. Signing both the Memorandum of Agreement and Recognition Agreement was very emotional for us.
After the euphoria, the real work for us has just begun.