Sally Campbell and Julie Sherry spoke to fast food workers about organising in an industry that is notorious for its poor conditions, widespread zero-hours contracts and poverty pay.
What are the issues you are confronting in the fast food industry?
Steve: It’s rife with zero-hour contracts and poverty pay, but it’s not just those headline issues. The more workers we talk to the more we find that workplaces are breaking the law. I reckon 90 percent of food and drink outlets in Scarborough are breaking the law. One of the most common things is that when places close, the workers stop getting paid even though they’re still there cleaning up, sometimes for several hours. So not only are workers paid poverty wages, they’re not even getting paid for all the hours they do.
Gareth: Even though it’s awful that these places are breaking the law, it actually makes a good terrain for organising. You can send a worker back into the workplace armed with the knowledge that the company is breaking the law, which gives them an issue to organise around that they can win quite quickly. Similarly, all these companies produce an employee handbook. When workers are not getting something they are entitled to, it gives them an issue that they can go in and win, something to organise around.
So you start with something very clear and straightforward that everyone can get on board with, and then that raises the wider question of the need for organisation to take on other issues.
Tom: Yes, I see poverty pay and zero hours and the company breaching its own contracts, but there are also questions of what I would call human rights! Issues like sexual harassment are just ignored or accepted. Discrimination — bad treatment of women, of pregnant workers, of workers from abroad — has become so normalised. I could give you an example of discriminatory behaviour from every single week at my workplace. But in terms of organising, this harassment and discrimination has sometimes helped get people on board, because they’re so shocked that it’s happening in their workplace.
How have you tried to take on the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination?
Tom: I’ve tried to get a collective grievance together, and get workers to give statements about harassment they’ve suffered, but it didn’t work because some of them backed out, out of fear. The person that was doing the harassing was in charge of their chances of promotion. But the experience has equipped me to take it on in the future — I feel like I now know how to go about putting a collective grievance together and moving more quickly.
Lorna: In our workplace a worker who was in the process of gender transition joined the union and one of the first issues they brought to the table was discrimination. They had changed their name and asked for it to be changed on the rota and it hadn’t been, and also the boss refused to refer to them as “they” (their preferred pronoun). The boss would actually laugh about it. It was through coming to Fast Food Rights open meetings and to an event with Sotheby’s workers and hotel workers who were talking about sexual harassment and other issues in the workplace, that they began to feel, “Oh, this is happening in other places and people are resisting it and winning better rights at work, and that’s what we need to do.”
So that’s what we did. We approached the boss collectively and told him that refusing to address this worker correctly was not just an offence to them but an offence to the entire workforce and to the gender neutral community. We threatened to take him to an industrial tribunal for discrimination and he quickly changed his tune. The name was changed on the rota.
What are the challenges of organising in a small workplace rather than a branch of a big chain?
Toni: It’s very tricky because you’re not talking about some nameless, faceless boss in a head office somewhere — more often than not you’re on the floor with your manager and your boss. It’s awkward if you’ve asked the union to step in and then the manager is there working next to you. But it’s crucial. One of the cafes I work in recently got new management. The new owner is two years younger than me — her dad bought her the business — and she really knows nothing about how to run the place. I was used to working about 20 hours a week in the café and 20 hours in a bar, and the first week she came in she cut my shifts to seven hours and she did the same to other people. She changed it back because I explained it to her — it’s just complete cluelessness on her part.
Lorna: That’s why we’ve focused on having a strategy to unionise the café again. Now is the best time, because the boss doesn’t know what she’s doing, and she won’t do certain types of work, like cut meats and cheeses because of her fake nails. If she didn’t have the staff now who know what they are doing, she wouldn’t be able to run the business. So we are going to try to use that to build the union again.
Toni: We used to have 100 percent union membership in the cafe, but because of the high turnover of staff it’s gone down to two or three of us.
How do you deal with the question of high turnover of staff?
Tom: It is a massive problem. I’ve had points this year where I’ve had eight or ten members and then it’s just vanished almost overnight. It’s easy to get demoralised about it. If you’re going to organise in this industry then you have to accept that you are going to have to commit to work in one place for a while. You can’t just give up and move on. I focus a lot of attention on training people up to become activists, so that they reach a point where they’re influencing other people. Also making sure that you’re showing people that working here and building the union is better than moving on to somewhere else where they’re not organised.
Gareth: We have to be realistic about what we’re going to recruit in a workplace with such a high turnover of workers. We’re never going to get 100 percent membership in each workplace, but workers will move between food workplaces. So it’s important that when we recruit members we stay in contact with them if they move on to another workplace. That’s why when we have a few workplace branches in a city we get those branches to organise together in order to keep track of where workers are going. Only about a third of workers in the fast food industry are basically permanent in their jobs. Two thirds are moving around between workplaces, and there’s a trend among these workers to start at the lowest paid workplaces like KFC and McDonald’s and work their way up to the slightly better terms and conditions at the likes of Zizzi and Pizza Express. We have to find a way of holding onto these people and I think that district branches, fast food branches city-wide, is the way to do it.
Lorna: Glasgow did it in reverse order. Rather than starting in one workplace and building it up and then moving on to other workplaces and getting them together, we built a community branch with one or two members from loads of different workplaces.
It’s great to have a big branch, but it’s hard to actually build in a workplace when you only have one or two members and that’s the next stage for us.
The Fast Food Rights campaign is known for putting on cultural events and using music and costumes in its activities. Why is it important to you to do that?
Lorna: This industry is just so demoralising. It crushes your creativity and your self-worth and that makes it hard to maintain activism. You feel so beaten down by these huge industries. But an example of how we deal with that was the Fast Food Rights day of action on 14 April https://fastfoodrights.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/incredible-fastfoodgloba...
We had all these young workers who weren’t used to politics or trade union action, and we went out and campaigned around town using street theatre to make the point. The next we had a victory with McDonald’s conceding on its zero-hour contracts, and when it came to the next union branch meeting there were hundreds of workers there because they could understand what the union is for! People realise that it is worth fighting because you can win.
Toni: I went down to show solidarity with the Hackney Picturehouse workers who were on strike in November and that was fantastic. The way they campaigned was very similar to what we do — with music, dancing, costumes, and so on.
Gareth: And Lorna went over to the US for the Fight for $15 conference.
Lorna: Yes — what we’re doing really mirrors what’s going on in America. The Fast Food Rights campaign takes on issues that affect a wide layer of industries — the fight for £10 an hour, the issue of zero-hours contracts, lack of respect and dignity at work, lack of union rights, low pay. So our branch is led by fast food workers but we also have call centre workers, teachers, we have two lawyers that are doing their internships on zero-hours contracts. It’s the same in America, where you have airport workers fighting for $15 an hour alongside health care workers, teachers, lecturers — but it’s led by fast food workers. I think that’s significant, because the fast food industry is one of the worst to work in, with the poorest conditions and pay. Here in the UK fast food workers tend to be young — often deemed unorganisable. In the US it is black workers, also deemed unorganisable, and they’re often single mums. Because black people in America face such entrenched racism from the state the Black Lives Matter movement has also been at the heart of the fast food workers’ movement over there. We went to a demonstration over there that had loads of young workers on it, Black Lives Matter at the heart of it, and a student block that was led by a massive transgender society from the local university. It was great to see all these different groups coming together.
Does the issue of racism and migrant workers come up in your workplaces?
Lorna: A Muslim woman who was a KFC worker got involved in Fast Food Rights around the time of the Stand Up to Racism Refugees are Welcome Here demonstration [last March]. When we took our FFR banner on the march through the centre of Glasgow it was really brilliant for her to see workers in the cafes and takeaways looking out and seeing other fast food workers marching together against racism. It’s like we’re saying, “We’re here to fight for your wages but we’re also here to fight for your human dignity and your right to be here as well!” It was through her involvement in that demo that she got involved in the LGBT network that we’d set up and actually came out as gay. She felt she was in a safe, democratic space and had the support of the branch to fight against the racism she faced in her workplace as a Muslim woman, and also fight for better pay.
Steve: In my workplace we are all white and English, but we did have a victory against the English Defence League (EDL). When the EDL decided they were coming to march in Scarborough this time last year, they wanted to have our pub as their meeting point. One of our members found out about this and let me know and I called an emergency meeting that night for all the union members at work. Every single member turned up and everyone took part in the discussion, and we decided that we would explain to the boss that there had been trouble when the EDL had met up in other Wetherspoons and ask for her to have door staff on to stop them from entering. We thought that would be the best we could achieve. So we all went in en masse to see the boss, which was quite effective because it made an impression on the other staff who weren’t members — they knew the union existed but this was the first time they’d seen us in action. The boss was really understanding and before we even asked about door staff she said she would speak to upper management about shutting the pub entirely, and that’s precisely what happened. So that Saturday, because of that union member telling me that he’d heard about the EDL coming, we were able to organise a counter-demonstration of 120 to their 20, and they had nowhere to meet up and get cheap beer! Now it’s the policy of Wetherspoons nationally that if there’s an EDL demonstration taking place nearby you shut the pub for the safety of customers and staff.
Were any of you in unions before you got involved in BFAWU?
Tom: No, I wasn’t. And almost no one I’ve worked with has been in a union before either, or knows what they are. Mostly I’m having to explain to people why we need unions.
Steve: Me too. I was never in a union before. Two years ago I didn’t even know there was an alternative to the system we live in; I just knew it was broken.