- Interview by
- Dawn Foster
Wetherspoons is a ubiquitous pub chain in the UK. It serves cheap food and drink, but treats its staff shoddily. In Brighton, young workers had enough: risking their precarious low-paid jobs, they formed a union branch in their workplace. Following their first strike, they won higher wages and more accountability.
The #Spoonstrike is part of a wider group of precarious workers organizing in McDonalds, other branches of Wetherspoons, and other chain restaurants. Organizing takes place largely on social media, with WhatsApp used for communication, and Facebook and Twitter deployed to publicize strikes and win outside support that pressures management.
Jacobin’s Dawn Foster spoke with Alex McIntyre, a ‘SpoonStrike organizer and branch secretary at the Bright Helm pub.
What prompted you to begin to unionize? Did you have a background of activism, or just decide the working conditions were awful?
My entire childhood and teenage years were ripped apart by austerity. My mum’s benefits were cut when I was a kid, my youth club was shut down, the emergency department in the local hospital was shut down, all of my schools were regularly forced to fundraise for basic items. There’s something about this, combined with working in grueling conditions for a pittance while getting harassed by bosses that, really, really sends you over the edge. I don’t have a background in activism. I think it’s apt to say I, along with everyone I unionized with, are the products of our environment.
What was wrong with your pay and conditions in the bars?
Wetherspoon made record profits to the tune of £68 million last year. Meanwhile, I was on £7.90, struggling to pay my rent, feed myself, and live like a basic human being. Where’s the justice in that? Why do we, the workers who actually create wealth, have to live in destitution? ‘Spoons is a place of the working class. We pour cheap pints, cook cheap meals, and are a social space for many in towns and cities across the UK. That shouldn’t mean cheap labor – paying staff less than the real living wage while management and shareholders capitalize from us.
How did you go about organizing in the first instance?
I work in the kitchen. Teamwork, communication and comradeship all go hand-in-hand to the workings of a good shift. This means that after work, we typically go for pints as a group, too. (I think it’d be impossible not to have a pint after 10 hours of sweating, shouting and getting burnt). This leads to natural groaning about crappy rushing in busy periods, customers, colleagues, you name it. I remember going for a drink with my buddy and he literally just said: “Mate. I’m fed up. Are you?” It’s easy to overlook the fact that you’re already in a union with the mates you endure crap with at work. It just doesn’t have a fancy label yet.
How enthused with the idea of organizing were your colleagues?
I’d say it was 70/30 in favor of organizing, to begin with. People had perfectly understandable reservations. Some were worried about losing their jobs, getting bullied or transferred to different pubs. However, when we looked at it as a collective we realized we were much, much stronger than management. If they were to come for one of us they were to come for us all. We had amazing support from the Baker’s, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), who kept our morale high and showed immense solidarity and support for the months ahead. We were unanimous in balloting for strike action.
Tell us about the first strike? What were your demands?
The first strike was magical. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Months of planning had led to this point where we could finally hang up our aprons and say “sod it” to the toxic low pay, long hours and overall demeaning attitude towards workers in hospitality.
The strike began with a midnight walkout for the union members working the finishing shift in both striking pubs. We’d spent the last few hours making placards, practicing chants and generally enjoying ourselves. This was a celebration, and although emotions were high, we were in control.
As expected, head office employees and bouncers were on the doors of both pubs in an attempt to intimidate and discourage us. To put it bluntly: it really didn’t work! We were joined by hundreds of supporters across trade unions, local Labour parties and members of the public. For the first time I saw that we weren’t alone — we were on the right side of history.
Our demands were £10 an hour, union recognition, and an end to zero-hour contracts and youth rates. These are basic, floor-level demands. However, we obviously can’t rely on concessions from the top (else we wouldn’t need to strike). We have to fight from the grassroots up to secure a basic standard of work.
How has Wetherspoons responded? Have they tried union-busting?
Seven months on and Tim Martin [Wetherspoons’ owner] still hasn’t sat down with us to discuss concessions or an agreement. Though I do recall him accusing us of “gunboat diplomacy” in the Mirror. Make of that what you will. (I’m actually quite proud). He also made a video defending paying us poverty wages.
Some people tried to make life at work difficult for us, and older management had tried their very best to break up any sense of power we had.
A pay rise was brought forward, Brighton stores were given a rate to reflect the local cost of living, and bullying managers were held to account. I think that counts as a win, right? We’ve only gotten stronger. There’s still so much to do.
How did the movement grow, and what outside support did you get?
Wildfire. That’s all I can say to describe the momentum behind our movement. #SpoonStrike is part of the fast food rights campaign — encompassing McDonald’s workers (#McStrike) and TGIFriday workers. We represent the youth who disproportionately work in precarious employment, suffering some of the cruelest conditions in the industry. Young people talk to each other — using Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, you name it. Getting our voices heard amongst ourselves happens very naturally.
We had floods of support from local politicians and the general public at large. Obviously, we were going to lose out on pay by striking, so our GoFundMe was remarkable and kept spirits high. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds, we were able to pay everybody who went on strike £10 an hour for their shift. See Tim? It’s not hard.
What does the movement look like now, compared to the beginning?
One of the arguments against our organizing capabilities was that hospitality has notoriously high turnover, and any union members we gain will soon leave. The opposite effect has actually happened. Since we have better pay and management we actually have an incentive to stay. This means our union in Brighton has steadily grown since the strike in October last year, and we’re stronger than ever before. We have contact with various people in pubs around the country, too. It’s really exciting.
How is work now?
It’s still hard work! Despite the pay rise I am still paying the majority of my wage on rent. Food bills are an afterthought. The atmosphere at work has completely changed, though. Staff no longer feel afraid of senior management because we know we have strong support in the union. We are treated more fairly as a result. There’s honestly no downside other than getting called a “hipster lefty” (I don’t get it, either) every now and then by a couple of old men I work with. But the fact they talk about what we did at all is good enough for me.
Good question. For the benefit of head office staff who’ll read this: No, we haven’t planned any more strikes in the immediate future. Who’s to say if we do though? We are a collective force of staff standing up for ourselves. If the need arises, we will do it again.
We are also working with comrades across the country in similar employment, particularly in Brighton, and are helping to organize within their workplaces alongside ours. The ‘SpoonStrike was a catalyst for the hospitality revolution that our country and its workers are desperately crying out for. Four million workers are in poverty, and this figure has increased faster than employment. Things need to be changed, and if our government won’t do it, we will.
What does an ideal Wetherspoons workplace look like?
One where every worker has guaranteed hours, at least the real living wage of £10 an hour, union recognition and democratic influence in the running of the pub (i.e. workers on company boards). It’s really that simple.