The modern union movement in Britain: an interview with a union member

Maryam Pashali interviews Pete, a BFAWU union member and kitchen staff worker for J.D. Wetherspoon, detailing the recent Spoon Strike and ways in which workers can organise within their workplaces

Maryam Pashali, is a member of the YCL’s London district

Today, trade union members account for 9.6% of the British population, compared to 18.8% of the previous century.

Despite the mass entry of women into the professional world and the resulting increase in the workforce, the trade union movement has struggled to keep pace.

Union membership within the private sector makes up a meagre 2.67 million as of 2019. Where trade union membership rises, another area experiences a serious decline. Union members no longer enjoy significantly higher wages than those of non-union workers, and the collective bargaining power of union leaders has been on decline since the 1980s.

Forced to play this game of perpetual catch-up, faced with the anti-collectivist, neoliberal welfare state and opposed by the increasingly hardening stance of employers, the trade union movement has largely turned into a lacklustre affair.

In the face of the deepening economic crisis and the crumbling myth of corporate self-regulation, it is time for the union movement to become an issue of social justice.

Historically, trade union membership has been dominated by mature workers in manufacturing and craft industries. As the primary and secondary sectors have declined in Britain, so has trade union membership, with 84% of hospitality employers hiring young people into the notoriously disunited industry.

Young workers tend to be less attracted to unions, partially due to the historical non-unionisation in the third sector. Moreover, because the gig economy and the hospitality industry are usually young people’s first entry into the workforce, the experience in these workplaces (usually dominated by the increasingly union-hostile managers) shapes their understanding of the function of labour.

But that does not mean that there is no appetite for organising. Is it possible at all for young workers in the third sector – specifically hospitality – to herald the new age of the union movement, now revitalised and adapted to the toughening circumstances?

I spoke to Pete, a 33-year-old kitchen staff member with a decade of work experience in the hospitality industry, who is currently challenging his J.D. Wetherspoon pub’s anti-union management with all the vigour and struggle that the modern labour movement so needs. 

MPWhere did your interest in organised labour come from?

P: My first memory of any talk about unions was of my mother insisting on membership and telling me about the benefits of organised labour. She emigrated from Ireland, like so many others, in the 70s to find work and support her family back home. I wish I had listened to her earlier. Later on, a politically minded friend brought me back around to the idea.

MPHow did the idea of unionising come to you in the first place?

P: A few years ago, myself and a handful of colleagues worked together to whistleblow on an abusive manager who had been making the lives of most of our colleagues a misery. We were successful and the manager was dismissed. The feeling of having a little control over our own fate, even for a moment, was a powerful one, and I continued to look for ways we could work together to protect ourselves and our jobs the same way we had done it then: together. When Tim Martin announced back in March that he would be paying us our last week’s wages and then nothing more for five weeks in the initial lockdown, I was furious about the injustice. Only a handful of us could not challenge this decision. But I remembered the Spoons Strike [The first strike in history by J.D. Wetherspoon employees] that took place in 2018 and how successful they’d been, so I checked their social media to see if they were still active and if they had a plan. Within 24 hours they had a petition signed by numerous MPs which forced J.D. Wetherspoon to relent and pay the staff their furlough pay.

MPHow did you start the campaign? Who helped you? Do you know why they helped you?

P: When I got involved in that campaign, I was contacted by an organiser from the BFAWU [Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union], the union of which the Spoons Strike are members. They asked me if I would be up for organising my workplace and prepare it for unionisation. I had a group of friends with whom I had worked against the previous manager, so I contacted them. They were for the most part reluctant and a little nervous, but one in particular, ‘Tracy’, was with me all the way. Despite being six months pregnant, she threw all of her energy into this. Outside of the workplace, the moral support I had from left-leaning friends was immeasurable.

MPWhat was the hardest part?

P: Initially, the most difficult part was getting the information out there. A lot of the early stages took place during lockdown and we were not sure if we would be able to hold anyone’s interest in work-related issues. The organising was slow, but eventually we built up a core group of colleagues and managed to spread the information to everyone. Before the end of the first lockdown, we were approaching a 50% membership. After that, the biggest difficulty, ironically, came with trying to introduce the discussion methods used in our meetings. It took a while for some of us to learn that disagreements can be constructive, and they do not have to devolve into arguments. But we got there in the end.

MPWhat was the easiest part?

P: There has not been much that I would call easy about it. But if I had to pinpoint one thing, it would be that – for the most part – our workplace is very open, and most of us are friends. So, while the initial discussions came with difficulties, once our colleagues were open to the idea of forming a union, it did not take much convincing. The fact that recruitment had been so easy was very encouraging for the core group of organisers. 

MPWhat reactions did you expect from your workplace and your bosses? Which ones did you not expect?

P: I was not expecting a vast majority of the pub to be on-board with unionisation. I was expecting just over half at best, but to date we are at over 70% membership. Everyone with whom I’ve discussed the future plans has been keen to learn more.
J.D. Wetherspoon has a reputation for not negotiating with unions, so I was expecting some pushback, but other than some management bullying (often towards people only suspected of being members) and some suspensions (which we are currently fighting) there hasn’t been much word from them, certainly nothing on a corporate level. Though I expect that is coming.

MPShare the most effective method you have found to convince your workplace to unionise

P: Having good relationships with your colleagues is crucial, and I don’t just mean friendships. Although my initial group are popular and well-liked at the workplace, I did not approach them for help solely for this reason. Our colleagues often relied on this core group in times of stress, and our mutual aid went beyond simple help at work and often involved material and moral support. I would say the most important building block is to foster trust between colleagues. After that, you can identify issues that are important to a large group, ideally everyone, that you can organise around. We achieved this through the use of a questionnaire posted in the staff group chat. We managed to identify the most pressing issues common to all staff members and rank them in order of importance.

MPDescribe a successful strategy, goal, or objective which you have in mind for the Union. What makes it so successful?

P: Recently the most important issue for us has been dignity at work. Many of our colleagues are subjected to abusive behaviour from certain members of the management. That manager has since been suspended pending an investigation, thanks to the collective action taken by our members, and support from our customers. My initial goal for establishing the union at our pub was to organise around pay issues, but in doing so I was made to realise that for some people, the more pressing need was to not be demoralised and humiliated at work. I suppose then that an important lesson I took from this experience personally is to recognise that not everyone will agree with you and it’s important to regularly examine your priorities.

MPIn Britain, there is a perception that organised labour has mostly lost its power, save for a few selected industries. Why do you think that happened? Is it ever going to change?

P: In my opinion, a lot of the blame lies with the media representation. Just look at the coverage of the issues pertaining the work conditions of nurses and teachers during the pandemic. When they are being worked to death and exposed to the virus, we clap for them and call them heroes. But applause doesn’t pay rent and calling someone a hero doesn’t prevent them from being evicted. So, when they ask for higher pay, or God forbid, better protection by keeping the schools closed, the media turns on them, calling them greedy and selfish. When the public transportation workers or taxi drivers strike, the conservative media demonises them. I’ve often seen newspapers question why, for instance, a taxi driver deserves the same wage as a nurse, but that is a diversionary tactic. It has worked very well on the working class that in many ways has lost its class consciousness.

I also think that certain elements of the entertainment industry, and social media have played a part. There is a growing culture of individualism, a sort of reverence for the petit bourgeoisie, the landlord, and finding streams of passive income. Inspirational quotes about “self-made” billionaires are everywhere, and they are mesmerising for many people. The allure of escaping the rat race without the knowledge that no substantial wealth is earned without a massive human sacrifice keeps many people unwittingly in line. They hope that by keeping “on the grind” and keeping money at the forefront of their minds they will be the lucky ones who get to consume without selling their labour. We must bring a cultural shift in opinion and turn it away from idolising people who profit from the coerced labour of others.

However, there is a growing Leftist movement on all forms of social media and I think this is an incredibly valuable tool, particularly for young people, to spread the messages that need to be heard. If it wasn’t for social media, I would not have known where to start, and in nine months that start has taken me from complete beginner to being a part of the formation of a robust union.

MPHospitality sector is expanding in Britain and the result of this has been a complete re-organisation of British life and economy. So why hasn’t this sector, which employs at this point millions of people, including many young people, successfully unionised by this point?

P: I think there is a perception in Britain that unions are something specific to a limited number of professions. Public sector, health workers, firefighters, TfL. You don’t often hear about strikes in the private sector. And I don’t think there’s ever been much of a union movement in the hospitality sector. Chefs and publicans aside, there’s also a perception of the hospitality industry in many ways as being a temporary job for teenagers to gain experience, and hard-up for people to earn a quid or two while they work towards a “real” job. So oftentimes people just accept poor conditions and low pay because they see their jobs as a very short-term situation. But there are five of us with degrees in my pub, one qualified mental health nurse, and a dozen or more people with varying qualifications, and many of us have been at this job for years. For many people, the reality is that this is no longer a stopgap.

MPCompanies and bosses often use minimum concessions to stifle employee dissent and prevent strikes last-minute. Are concessions on the table for future negotiations for your union?

P: Largely that depends on the concessions. We are willing to negotiate on a few issues. But we cannot compromise on the critical points, the things that make our working lives intolerable. I think the key is working out a balance. If we cave on crucial issues, then it’s just death by degrees, but if we’re completely unwilling to bend on any issue or consider alternatives, then we run the risk of fighting just for the sake of fighting.

MPFrom your experience, have you found that workers are willing to give time and energy to invest in unionising? 

P: Absolutely. Many of our strongest members and worker leaders are young parents, under the age of 25. Some are students, all have numerous commitments beyond work, and yet every meeting has been well-attended, with people sharing ideas and discussing issues openly and constructively. Again, I think the most important thing is to show people what a union means and demonstrate what is possible when workers have each other’s backs.

MPWhat are your future plans for organised labour? How many people in your position do you think share those plans?

P: I can’t say how much longer I will be working for this company, or at this location, but I do know that I will be looking to organise whatever workplace I am in next. This experience has taught me so much about what people, individually and as a collective are capable of, and it has renewed my interest in seeking justice for people who feel they have no access to it. Many of my colleagues feel the same way, and at least one is planning a trip abroad to speak to workers in their home country about organising and exchanging information and methods in the name of mutual aid.

Maryam also has blog dedicated to examining modern European social histories through a Marxist lense: https://mphistorian.wordpress.com

Maryam Pashali

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