The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) is the fourth largest union in Northern Ireland and also across the UK as a whole. USDAW’s membership in Northern Ireland totalled 14,832 as of 31 December 2010, out of 398,859 nationally. As of April 2011, the union’s rolls totalled 414,000 for the whole UK and 16,500 for Northern Ireland.
Most USDAW members work in retail, although a substantial minority are also drawn from drivers, and warehouse and factory employees. Some of the largest branches in Northern Ireland cover the Coca Cola plant in Lisburn and the major meat and dairy firms.
Shop assistants were regularly exploited in late Victorian Britain and formed small, local associations to demand better conditions. The United Shop Assistants’ Union (USAU) was founded in 1889 but union mobilisation really took off in 1891 when a parliamentary Bill to limit women and children’s working hours was defeated.
Several associations coalesced into the National Union of Shop Assistants (NUSA) and the Manchester and District Co-operative Employees’ Association, both formed in March 1891. The NUSA expanded to include warehousemen and clerks in 1893 and merged with the USAU in 1898, becoming the National Amalgamated Union of Shop Assistants, Warehousemen and Clerks (NAUSAW&C).
The Manchester association merged with the Bolton Co-operative Employees’ Association in 1895 to form the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative Employees (AUCE). That union was renamed as the Amalgamated Union of Co-operative and Commercial Employees and Allied Workers in 1917. It subsequently became the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW) in 1921, on a merger with the National Warehouse and General Workers’ Union.
USDAW was formed by the merger of NUDAW and NAUSAW&C in 1947. The union has seven regional divisions, with Northern Ireland forming part of its North West Division, based in Preston with an office in Belfast. It has no overall head in the province but employs four area organisers, whose areas roughly cover Belfast city, greater Belfast, County Antrim and the west.
The union was briefly suspended from the TUC in 1972, when its conference voted to comply with the Conservative Government’s Industrial Relations Act. The membership’s vote was overruled by a special delegate meeting and the union was readmitted.
Cutting working hours has been a long-running campaign theme for USDAW and its predecessors. The union campaigned vigorously against the Shops Bill 1986, which would have liberalised Sunday trading in England and Wales. Its defeat was the Thatcher Government’s only defeat in the Commons. USDAW members also supplied food to the families of striking miners.
Other campaigns highlight the pressures on parents and carers, violence against shop workers, adult education and demands for recognition at Marks and Spencer. Locally, in March, the union reversed Primark’s proposed two-year pay freeze and obtained pay increases for shop floor workers.
Its national Deputy General Secretary Paddy Lillis is a former heavy goods driver at Abbey Meat Packers in Newtownabbey and has worked for USDAW since 1989. He took up his current role in August 2004, following John Hannett’s election as General Secretary, and sits on Labour’s National Executive Committee.
Local subscriptions for 2009-2010 stood at £1,180. The union’s overall income for that year was £40.8 million, with an expenditure of £37.0 million. Its end-of-year funds were £18.7 million, assets £47.1 million and liabilities £28.4 million.