Shoppers stood in amazement when demonstrators entered the shop accompanied by the Rhythms of Resistance samba band. With the crack of drums echoing around the building, activists unfurled a huge banner spanning the checkouts saying ‘All we have to lose is our chainstores.’
According to Fermin Fernandez, one of the Precarity Network organisers, ‘the reaction of the workers and customers was good, and they enjoyed the samba band. The fact that it was in Hackney, one of London’s most deprived areas, meant that people were responsive to our message. We were saying that people in precarious situations need to be responsible for changing their own situation through action.’
The Community Support Officers on the scene were initially powerless to act, but reinforcements soon arrived and the demonstrators were surrounded, removed from the store and, after two hours, escorted to London Fields, amid accusations of heavy-handed policing. Nine people were arrested. A statement from the Metropolitan Police claimed they had ‘thwarted’ the protest.
This was the first UK May Day event to be organised as a ‘flash mob’ demonstration. Details were announced by text to protesters’ mobile phones an hour before the event, in order to avoid the meticulously planned police operations of previous May Days. In the run up to this year’s action, 750 mobile numbers had been collected by the Precarity Network, but on the morning of 1 May the SMS email account to be used to distribute the information was mysteriously frozen. Nevertheless, activists managed to contact over 500 people.
Tesco was specifically targeted as a symbol of ‘precarity’ at work. Activists accuse the company of exploitative working practices, including paying new employees less than the minimum wage, cutting Sunday pay and ending sick pay. They point to reports of Tesco using immigrant labour under gangmasters to pack its food, and of appalling conditions on Tesco-accredited farms in South Africa. In April Tesco became the first UK retailer to announce profits of over £2 billion. It is thought that the chain takes one in every eight pounds spent in Britain’s shops.
The Hackney action marks a significant change of tactics for the anti-capitalist movement. Previous demonstrations have involved set-piece events in the commercial centre of London. According to activist Bob Black, ‘This action wasn’t about smashing up Tesco and leaving broken glass behind us. There has been a valid critique of the anti-capitalist movement, saying that just smashing-up McDonalds won’t challenge capitalism. We were attacking Tesco from a different angle. To stop this company we look for the issues that unite the workers and the activists, and it comes together around working conditions. This is a progressive development.’
Although the new approach may have attracted less media coverage, Black believes it was a success: ‘There is a perception that the only purpose of May Day is to get in the press. But it’s really about communicating issues. A week after May Day we went back to Hackney and handed out leaflets. We had conversations with workers and shoppers and explained our actions. We showed that we weren’t just an anarchist mob that had come to attack Tesco.’Bob Black and Fermin Fernandez are aliases used to protect the speakers’ identities
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