Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Eight days a week?

Bosses have seen the deregulation of Sunday trading laws as a chance to attack workers conditions and increase 'flexible' working. Judith Orr looks at the debate surrounding whether shops should be open on Sunday

'Keep Sunday Special!' was the slogan of the churches and unions against the expansion of Sunday trading. For after all, the argument went, 'even god rested on the seventh day.'

Strikes can resist flexibility
Strikes can resist flexibility

Despite this backing from heavenly quarters, the Sunday Trading Bill was passed in August of this year. It is now legal for large stores to open for business for up to six hours on Sundays. Many large chains of supermarkets had been breaking the law regularly, as the profits outweighed the penalties. It was becoming obvious that the government was turning a blind eye to the illegal trading of its rich friends while pursuing pensioners who couldn't afford their poll tax all the way to prison. This hypocrisy over the law was all the more sickening when it coincided with calls by the Tories to clamp down on crime.

The debate did cause splits within Tory ranks, but those who decided that the opportunity to make more money was more of a principle than any moral question about the sanctity of the Sabbath finally won the day.

This should be no surprise. Bosses now see they have an opportunity to increase exploitation of the workforce, to make it harder for workers to refuse to work on Sundays and to make sure all of us spend what money we do earn in their shops. So the argument for socialists is not about keeping the days free for going to church but about any increase in the working week being an attack on pay and working conditions, which, as one shop worker from Asda describes, are already under pressure:

It's obvious even though for many working people the extended opening hours of shops are seen as an improvement, the idea of people having to work on a Sunday as if it were like any other day is not accepted. Workers rightly still expect higher rates of pay for working at the weekend. This tradition comes from factories and workplaces where union organisation is strong. The employers' attempts to break it down in shops, and a whole number of other industries, are part and parcel of the bosses' strategy of making workers 'more flexible'.

One worker from Lowfields, a company which delivers for the food giant Sainsbury, told Socialist Review, 'Flexibility is management's favourite word.' After winning a strike vote to reject a change in contract which would mean working five Saturdays and Sundays out of six in the depot at Middleton in Manchester, the workforce ended up agreeing the contract. They were also advised by their union officials to accept a no-strike deal, which management then claimed was necessary before Sainsbury would give their work back to them:

The story of Lowfields is proof that workers don't take these new 'flexible' working arrangements without protest. Only the compliance of the union officials made the deal possible. Similar deals are afoot in British Telecom where, as in Lowfields, there has not been a problem with getting enough volunteers to work at the weekends. Management just want to get them to work for less money, and on a more flexible basis.

As with all management attempts to make workers work harder and longer, these attacks have to be opposed. However, there were many arguments during the campaign against Sunday trading that showed that defending workers' conditions is more than just demanding the government uses the law to keep shops closed.

Sweetheart deals: union leaders petition the government over Sunday trading
Sweetheart deals: union leaders petition the government over Sunday trading

The shop workers' union Usdaw had played an active part in the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign, joining the church leaders' pleas that Sunday was a family day of rest. Then, after a dramatic U-turn, which caused a bitter debate earlier this year at the Usdaw conference, the leadership changed its position.

The conference discussion reflected a degree of anger, with some union members saying that the union executive agreed under pressure from Tesco for whom over half of its members work, agreeing to go along with Sunday trading in return for winning the legal right for shop workers to refuse to work on a Sunday.

So now the shops are legally open, but shop workers (excluding those employed to work on Sundays only) have the right to refuse to work, even if they have worked Sundays in the past. On the surface this looks like a good agreement but there are major flaws.

There is no legal requirement to pay workers at an increased rate for Sundays. Some employers have already introduced a set 'premium' rate instead of double time and many pay workers who work only on Sundays at the basic weekday rate. The protection offered by the law covers only 'shop workers'. These are defined as those who 'work in or about a shop on a day on which the shop is open for the serving of customers'. A shop includes any premises where any 'retail trade or business' is carried out. This covers hairdressers and auction houses but not catering or the sale of programmes in theatres or cinemas.

So although Usdaw has trumpeted the clauses in the new bill as being watertight for workers this is far from the truth. As the dispute at Lowfields shows, workers who pack, prepare and deliver goods are not covered by the law and so only the strength of union organisation stands between them and management's plans for seven day working.

Yet underlying all these developments there is a contradiction for socialists, which is demonstrated by the feelings of the Asda worker quoted above. She wanted to maintain Sunday as being 'different', that is a day that by tradition if not law is a day off for workers, so that any work on that day attracts extra pay. At the same time she liked to have the opportunity to go out and do some shopping. Many readers of the Review will probably share her dilemma. The huge increase in shift working and flexibility in other industries, and especially the rise in women working, also means that Sundays may be the only day free for shopping.

If we support the demand that the government should ban shops from opening on Sunday, why not the pubs, restaurants and cinemas too? Follow the logic and you find yourself in the bizarre situation of Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland in the early 1960s where the Protestant church held such sway that not only was everything firmly closed on a Sunday but even the swings in children's playgrounds were tied up! Not only was everyone expected to be happy with a day of church and the all too often claustrophobic family hearth, but even a card game of snap was frowned upon by the devout.

This is not the vision that most workers would like to have on their only day off in a working week, nor should socialists play a part in arguing for such a day. Not everyone has a cosy nuclear family they want to spend the day with. And even if they do, most people's homes do not resemble the immaculate kitchen, kids and garden image that the Sunday supplements love to portray. The fact that pub opening hours, despite recent liberalisation, are still restricted on Sundays is a scandal--the rich have never had a problem getting hold of a gin and tonic in the golf club seven days a week.

None of these arguments are new. Karl Marx described the massive demonstrations called by the Chartists in the 1850s against a bill that was designed to keep places closed on a Sunday.

Workers were up in arms because most worked a six day week and didn't get paid till late on Saturday--so Sunday was the only day that they had to go out and have a good time. First there was the Beer Bill, which closed all places of public amusement between the hours of six and ten on Sunday evenings, then came the Sunday Trading Bill which, as a Chartist poster at the time proclaimed, 'prohibited newspapers, shaving, smoking, eating and drinking and all other kinds of recreation and nourishment both corporal and spiritual, which the poor people still enjoy at the present.'

The Chartists called on people to gather in Hyde Park, where the rich normally paraded on a Sunday, to protest and 'in order to see how religiously the aristocracy is observing the Sabbath'. At least 200,000 answered the call and a battle broke out with the police who tried to hold the masses away from the 'elegant gentlemen and ladies in high coaches with liveried servants in front and behind, elderly gentlemen alone on horseback, a little flushed from their port wine'.

The riot lasted for three hours with crowds chanting, 'Go to church', to the occupants of the carriages, and was repeated the following Sunday with crowds swelling 'to gigantic proportions even by London standards'. This time the rich stayed away and the police were out in force--'Instead of the wafting of fans, a hail of truncheons'. At least one protester died of his injuries from the police attack and many were taken to hospital.

Then Marx argued that 'the straggle against clericalism, like every serious struggle in England, is assuming the character of a class struggle waged by the poor against the rich, by the people against the aristocracy.' Then it suited the bosses needs to keep things closed on a Sunday, now it suits them to keep things open.

Today the ruling class wants the ability to both make money on Sunday and to keep workers from having the freedom to enjoy Sundays how they choose.

The ability of workers to 'Keep Sunday Special', to keep and extend higher pay for Sunday work, depends on the strength and militancy of the working class and the level of union organisation rather than on laws which aim to protect the profits and the ideology of sections of the ruling class.

We can fight for proper pay rates and working hours without giving in to the idea that Sundays should be miserable for the majority of the population. The union leaders should be using the increased competition between the big shop owners as a means of winning better conditions and stronger unionisation, rather than accepting low paid 'flexibility' as a matter of course.

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