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Getting supermarkets to pay the real Living Wage

Getting supermarkets to pay the real Living Wage

The ambitious plan to take on retail giant Tesco

Living Wage Graffiti.jpg

In late 2010, the leaders of the real Living Wage campaign gathered at the Citizens UK offices in Whitechapel, east London. The space was too small; the large group sat shoulder to shoulder around the edges of the room.

The campaign was growing year on year, but it faced a giant challenge: what to do about the retail sector? A million people worked in retail, almost all of them paid less than the Living Wage.

Taking on TESCO

The diverse group of Leaders were ambitious, and had the big supermarkets in their sights. By the end of the meeting they’d come to a decision: Tesco – the UK’s biggest private-sector employer – would be the target.

The strategy was to create public pressure on Tesco: to levy a cost on its reputation and push it to the pay the Living Wage. Failing that, to demonstrate to other retailers that they should pay the Living Wage, so they would look like the good guys and avoid a nasty fate.

The next question was, how to take on a giant opponent and get a meeting with the people that mattered?

An ingenious plan

Tesco is everywhere, and that meant there was always a local opportunity to take action. Their strength was also a weakness. Over three months, 25 teams of local community leaders in six different cities visited their local Tesco store to talk to customers and workers about the Living Wage.

Each time they visited a store they would ask the store manager to notify Tesco head office that they had been, and they wanted a meeting with Philip Clarke, Tesco Chief Executive. Head office were receiving letters from stores but were not responding.

An Easter surprise

At Easter 2011, 60 people from west London Citizens descended on the local Tesco store, bearing chocolate gifts for staff and customers, and accompanied by someone dressed as the Easter bunny.

“We’d like you to notify head office that we’ve been. Tell them we want a meeting with Philip Clarke,” they said. The store manager responded, “Why don’t you talk to him directly? He’s just downstairs.”

And there was Mr Clarke on the shop floor. Accompanied by journalists and photographers from the Sun and the Daily Telegraph, and quickly surrounded by the Citizens team and the Easter bunny.

What happened next?

Eight-year-old Lucas Pinto, who was attending with his mum Simone as parishioners of Holy Apostles Catholic Church Pimlico, looked up at Clarke and offered him some chocolate. “We’re here because we want you to pay your cleaners the Living Wage,” said Lucas, as the photographer snapped away.

Clarke looked confused and Tesco’s Director of Communications looked distressed. He proffered his business card and muttered something about a possible meeting. The Telegraph published their big piece soon after. The opening paragraphs and accompanying photograph were focused on the Living Wage encounter with Lucas. It wasn’t the profile and profits announcement the company were hoping for.

A seat at the table

A couple of months later, a team of ten Citizens leaders ­– including Lucas – attended the Tesco Annual General Meeting of shareholders to publicly challenge Clarke and the Tesco Board over the Living Wage.

After a tense huddled discussion with his senior advisors, Clarke approached the Citizens team. “Lucas, how nice to see you again. I think there’s been some miscommunication. We’re very happy to meet and my office will arrange a date.”

The threat of a public question from the bright eight-year-old kid on behalf of an organised campaign, in front of the AGM and assembled media, finally extracted some recognition and a commitment to meet. During shareholder questions, Lucas stood on a chair and thanked Clarke so it went on public record.

A detailed dialogue followed with the senior executives in charge of Tesco in the UK and a negotiating team of Citizens leaders travelled to Tesco Head Quarters at Welwyn Garden City for a series of meetings. Lucas won awards for his leadership.

A bump in the road

We were close to a public, in principle commitment to the Living Wage from the company but then in March 2012 we hit a barrier with talks. The company’s performance was poor, and the key leaders we were negotiating with were let go. We found ourselves back at square one.

But we did not give up! In partnership with Share Action, the campaign continued to pressure Tesco and other supermarkets at AGMs.

This powerful campaign had a knock on effect, with both Aldi and Lidl also pledging to pay their workers the real Living Wage to in-house staff.

This is a big and positive development. Although ultimately it remains important that employers make a full commitment and accredit with the Living Wage Foundation as a full real Living Wage employer - so that contract staff are included.

The campaign continues.

What did we learn?

Campaigns like this one can achieve quick wins - but sometimes take years of patience and interim wins before the ultimate goal is achieved.

With creativity, persistence, and hard work, we were able to get a seat at the table with the most powerful decision-makers of the biggest private-sector employer in the country.

Decision makers respond to pressure, or the threat of pressure. It is important to focus on what is important to them: their self-interest, and who they are accountable to.

Find something that most people can do. In this case, it was to visit their local Tesco and start a conversation with the people there. It is also powerful to target specific people as well as organisations. Individual interest and reputation matter—as well as the corporate.

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Inspired by this powerful example of Community Organising?

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Posted by Aanisah Khan on 9 Apr, 2021

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