A flurry of letters published in the group's weekly newsletter called for a referendum to settle the matter "once and for all". Others accused the group's directors of a "double standard", advocating the firm's commitment to democracy on one hand but failing to give staff a say on the ownership structure on the other.
The debate has been fuelled by suggestions that staff at John Lewis, which is collectively owned by its employees, could be in line for a windfall of pounds 100,000 if it were sold. However, the company says this would run contrary to its founding principles, established by Spedan Lewis in 1929, which state that the business should be collectively owned by each future generation of workers.
One employee, writing under the name "Rollerskates" in The Gazette, calls for Sir Stuart Hampson, chairman, to "put your money where your mouth is and let's have a democratic vote".
Another accuses management of protecting their own jobs. "There is a considerable groundswell of opinion among partners on the fundamental importance of being able to vote on such an issue," it claims.
John Lewis repeated comments made by by Sir Stuart last week, which said: "Let me make it absolutely clear: there will be no sell-off under my chairmanship."
"The business is not ours to sell," a spokesman said yesterday, adding that the ownership is held in trust which would require an Act of Parliament to break.
The company said there was a huge body of support within the partnership that was in favour of maintaining the existing structure. It pointed to several letters published this week from supportive staff saying that "enough is enough" and that the sale of the partnership should be put to one side.
The debate comes as John Lewis prepares to put a new version of its constitution to its central council next month. It denied it had been reworded to make a sale more difficult. "It has just been made clearer, in plain language to update the version produced 30 years ago," John Lewis said.
According to John Lewis's weekly trading figures, produced yesterday, sales in its department stores last week were up by 12.3 per cent on last year. Sales at its Waitrose supermarkets fell by 0.5 per cent due to "unsettled weather, the eclipse and customer holidays". Outlook, page 17Reuse content