Supermarkets: Shops emerge as unions' bedrock

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The position of the supermarkets as modern-day industrial giants was underlined yesterday by the news that Tesco employs more trade unionists than any other private company in Britain. There are now 80,000 members of the shopworkers' union Usdaw at Tesco, half the company's workforce.

Retailing and other service industries are replacing the traditional heavy industries as the bedrock of British trade unionism. Between them the big four supermarkets (Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Safeway) now employ some half a million people.

When the company began to move upmarket a decade ago it decided to allow trade unions to play a key part in the consultative process. Tesco retail director Michael Wemms said: "We want our staff to like us and understand how we want them to treat our customers."

A generation ago, the big trade unionist employers were the likes of British Leyland, Ford and British Rail. Today, the picture is different. William Brown, professor of industrial relations at Cambridge University, said: "The big battalions of unions are not where you would think of them because the mining, steel and docks industries have declined so much in workforce size. The supermarkets are now the giants of the employment world."

The Trades Union Congress hopes that Tesco's success will encourage other employers to accept that union recognition does not necessarily harm profits. Membership of TUC-affiliated unions has dipped from a peak of 12 million in 1980 to 6.7 million today.

- Ian Burrell