Profits for Lidl, sackings for workers

Roughly a year ago, Lidl – German supermarket chain known for its extreme dislike of workers organizing (trade unions) – saw the founding of Lidl Union Slovenia (Sindikat Lidl Slovenije – SLS), itself part of Retail workers Union of Slovenia (Sindikata delavcev trgovine Slovenije – SDTS). SLS’s president Tjaša Kozole is currently facing the threat of sacking. She has been Lidl’s employee for ten years. But in the three months after the union’s founding, she received two official reprimands for mistakes which are – given the turnover and the number of staff – commonplace. The management is reproaching her with careless performance of her duties, “gross negligence”, that is disregard of care expected from the average employee. But this is merely an excuse. 

Even though the reprimands’ exclusive purpose was to discipline the union, the awareness of it among the workers as well as the membership have grown. At the same time, both members and non-members are reporting about the mounting pressure directed towards new members, in some cases going as far as superiors intimidating staff. According to the information obtained by journalists at the television programme Tednik, Lidl has already started the process of discharging the union’s president. 

The aim of the dismissal is clear – to nip the unionization efforts in the bud by sacking the key player in setting up the workers organization in Lidl. This article presents the situation in the company and argues that the threat of sacking faced by Tjaša Kozole is merely a calculated move by the management attempting to undermine workers’ constitutional right to unionization.

Why?

Tjaša’s alleged error is her attempt to set up a solidary workers’ collective, capable of standing up for itself and other retail workers and therefore resist the squeezing of workers. Relations of solidarity that are being built within a union are something normal in Slovenia. Why, then, is this retail corporation opposing it? The sole reason is the fact that unions are undermining the dictatorship implemented by the company’s management in order to squeeze as much labour and profit from them as possible. Let’s get a better picture of what Tjaša’s unionization effort is prodding at by examining some of the key aspects of working at Lidl. 

How do they do it?

Lidl builds its low-price business strategy on ruthless squeezing of its workers. That is why they employ workers who will be a pliant and cheap workforce. This does not mean that the salaries are low but rather that the workers will – with some extra monetary stimulation – overwork themselves to the point of exhaustion. Significant here is the manner of employing – it is in particular the candidates with no other employment options who are picked. The most suitable for being employed in the precarious service sector are the workers who have only their labour power and nothing else to offer. 

On the other side is a forceful multinational corporation with important influence over the labour market and the politics and equipped with highly-skilled legal consultants and refined management techniques. Firms like this build their competitiveness strategy on relatively low wages and exceptional flexibility of the workforce. Power disparities between labour and capital in the precarious service sector are immense. Unions are a thorn in the capital’s side, so it tries to get rid of them. In general, this is not too difficult. In comparison with industrial workers who are organized into big collectives, retail workers are scattered around different supermarkets and only form small collectives which are easy to break up by simply reassigning workers to other locations.  

The most critical role in the supermarket is that of a floor manager. They are the key component on which the maintenance of discipline and high workload depends. The latter arises from the ratio between the high volume of tasks and the low number of workers which is the central component of the supermarket’s business model. It seems that the management has a particular tactic when hiring floor managers: they predominantly only finished high school and are thus well aware that they cannot get a comparable salary elsewhere.

An additional disciplining element, for the floor managers in particular, is the gap between the official store regulations and the workers/workload ratio. To realize high profits, the rate is so low that all the planned work tasks cannot be performed without infringing on the company’s internal rules. Workers are on the one hand educated about health at work and asked not to overburden their backbones while on the other hand simultaneously requested to perform work which – at the given number of workers – cannot be finished without breaking those same rules. These could only be respected if the number of workers was to be increased. However, understaffing is built into the very business model. This means that it is normal for workers to either break the company’s formal rules or give up on trying to get the job done. Floor managers are, therefore constantly in violation of the rules. 

Methods of disciplining 

An essential part of disciplining the workforce is breaking up the working collectives through both setting up competitive relationships and prohibiting union organizing. Each worker in the store is expected to perform and is trained for all tasks. But the workload is so high that satisfying results can only be achieved if everyone works at the limit of their abilities. If one worker is absent, others have to work proportionally more. This causes mutual resentment and pressuring of colleagues who fail to perform all the tasks, blaming them for being too slow or “lazy”. This means they urge each other to pick up the pace of work, thus contributing – to their detriment – to the company ideology of highest possible productivity. 

Lidl is using punishment, surveillance and competition among workers while at the same time trying to discipline the workers with slightly higher wages than they would get working in a competitor’s store. The workers are well aware that it is not very likely they will get a similar or even better-paid job with the same low education and qualification requirements. For this reason many stay in Lidl for the sake of those few extra euros per month. 

Because the work does not require specialized knowledge and skills besides speed, diligence and assiduousness, the workers are easily replaceable, which worsens their structural position. Those workers who have put themselves forward have been chicaned and threatened with being sacked. This strengthens the fear of joining the union among other workers. Those who have already become members are often being approached by their floor managers, asked to leave the union and called in for questioning by the management. Reallocations of workers who dare to resist and build solidarity relations within the collective are also common. 

The company maintains the above-described situation by pitting different stores and their floor managers into competing against each other. This is then transmitted onto retail workers in the form of constant pressure. The floor manager or the collective themselves have no authority to introduce any changes with regards to how the store functions – every last detail is planned in advance and from above. With the authority of the floor managers limited, their only means of achieving the targets is organizing the work process and disciplining the workforce. Maintaining the pace of work while managing the increasing workloads and with it productivity is the main responsibility of floor managers. Due to an insufficient number of workers, the work is performed at the brink of what is humanly possible, which makes mistakes unavoidable. But each mistake can cost a worker her job. Workers, therefore, regularly receive formal reprimands with the effect of putting them under increased pressure, stress and fear of sticking their neck out. With reprimands pilling up, the workers are of course even less inclined to complain and draw attention to themselves. 

What are the effects?

Extremely high workloads are causing many health problems. Many workers suffer from back injuries. While they are putting their health on the line, Lidl gets rid of them as soon as they are unable to perform. This factory producing an army of disabled has no place for them. When the workers reach this point, they are still far away from retirement. With the majority of workers employed for reduced hours, they are not getting full retirement insurance benefits. A person working a 30-hour week (instead of the standard 40-hour one) for four years therefore only gets three years that count towards the retirement age. Lidl workers exhaust themselves earlier than other retail workers but get to retire later. Low-prices in the supermarket, therefore, have a very high price  – it is primarily paid by the workers but also by the society as a whole which one way or another has to take care of the expended workers. 

Lidl and other discount supermarkets are the best reflections of contemporary capitalism’s logic. On the one side of the equation, we have a precarious, impoverished consumer seeking the lowest price available. On the other side is a precarious worker at the extreme limits of the human body, putting her health on the line and thus enabling both the low price for the consumer and high profits for capital. In a way, the consumer and the worker are the same person. 

Tjaša has resisted this logic and is for this reason threatened with termination. If we want to at least preserve social standards, let alone expand them, we have to defend people such as Tjaša. Can we do it?

Lidl and the international struggle

The strength of organized labour in Lidl differs from country to country. In some places, the unions are in the first stages of being founded, while in others union organizing has already reached the point where the management has to budge under the demands of the workers. In Spain, Sweden, and Belgium the collective bargaining agreement covers the Lidl workers, union membership is high, and unions are engaged in a dialogue with the management. In Belgium, a mass collective action – a strike – achieved more workers per shift without changes to the intensity of work or wages. In Italy and the Netherlands organized labour obtained relatively good working conditions and has used recent labour actions and negotiations to solve some problems with regards to health and safety and working Sundays. In Ireland, Great Britain, Poland, and Hungary workers are using public campaigns in their fight for the official recognition of the union. Workers in the mentioned countries then are facing obstacles similar to those confronted by their Slovenian colleagues. 

What change can a union make?

In usual circumstances, a well-organized and active union would be an essential element of Tjaša’s defence. But Lidl is doing its best to prevent its workers from freely organizing into unions. Thereby, it violates their rights enshrined in the Slovenian constitution, which states in article 76 that the “freedom to establish, operate, and join trade unions shall be guaranteed”. Yet again we are witnessing a multinational corporation disregarding workers’ rights guaranteed by local legislation. This way, it exhibits its (pre)dominance. What can be done to reverse this balance of power? 

Above all, there is no point in relying on the “redeeming power of the rule of law”. What counts is relying on each other. The assault on Tjaša Kozole is an assault on the working class as a whole. This includes both its organized segments and all the rest. Only activities on the ground guided by the principles of workers unity and solidarity can deliver the result we all want so much. That is a representative trade union in Lidl, strong enough to confront the business model described above. The business model which is sentencing the workers to crutches and the society to pauperization. 

What is happening to Tjaša Kozole cannot be a fight confined to the Retail workers Union of Slovenia, since this pattern of abuse can be replicated against union activists across Slovenia. For this reason, we have to meet these practices with a resounding NO, once and for all! Let’s do it in Tjaša’s case first!  

Written by RO CEDRA

Translated by Jaša Veselinovič

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