Hugh Caffrey, of Manchester Socialist Alternative, interviewed Amy Ferguson, a Unite hospitality branch activist in Belfast, about the struggle to organise workers in this low-paying, exploitative industry.
Why did you start the Unite Hospitality branch in Northern Ireland?
Myself and two other socialists Neil and Chris who started the branch all worked in the industry. Us and a lot of our co-workers were getting fed up in terms of just how dire and I mean really how dire the conditions were: the really low pay, the average pay for hospitality workers was £10,000 below the average pay in NI, and that’s including managers’ wages of £16-17k [that would raise the average figure].
Then there was the issue of zero-hour contracts, which made it impossible to plan your finances, to plan your life, actually there ere was a UCL study done at the time which found that those on zero-hour contrasts were 50% more likely to develop mental health problems than those on guaranteed hours contracts, and we could see that among our co-workers at the time as well.
You’re treated with such a lack of respect, especially from management, they saw you as replaceable and didn’t really care about how they treated you, they thought they could just get someone else to take your job. We’d got workers moving from job to job because of the conditions without dealing with the problem at the roots.
So we wanted to bring together our co-workers to campaign on these issues and to take collective action on these issues, because it was absolutely clear that the employers were not going to tackle these issues and that the politicians at Stormont [in the Northern Ireland assembly] weren’t going to tackle these issues either.
How did you get it started?
When we decided to launch Unite Hospitality it was in the midst of the McDonald’s workers’ strikes and the strike at TGI Fridays over in England and we just found that this was big news. Unions haven’t been in this sector for so long that everyone was talking about it, most people didn’t really know much of what it was about and what was happening but it was exciting, and they could see that their counterparts in England were doing something and they wanted to do something about it as well.
So then with that in mind what we decided with talking with the strikers in England was to hold a big public meeting, and get one of the McDonalds strikers and one of TGI strikers over to speak about the issues facing hospitality workers. We plastered the city with posters and we got a really good turnout. The venue was filled right to capacity, we had the speakers speaking at the main stage and an overspill meeting downstairs having the same discussion with separate groups of people. It was clear that the mood for doing something was there and that’s how it got started from there.
What were the difficulties you encountered?
There were three main problems we faced. The first was just how little education there is on the trade unions, what a union is, what a union does, why you should join one. So many people had not heard of the union so we were trying to raise people’s awareness about what the unions have done in the past and concretely what it means in the workplace with them and their co-workers – instead of just complaining about the issues, they could get together and do something about it. So that was the biggest barrier, lot of industries wouldn’t necessarily have a union presence.
The second thing was the huge culture of fear, the employers really would discipline people over the most ridiculous things, like coming in to work with nail polish or something like that. The employers were flexing their muscles and making workers afraid to raise issues, that if they rocked the boat they wouldn’t get given any hours, which because of zero-hour contracts would have been perfectly legal. The employers were making it clear that if you don’t like it then we’ll get someone else to do the job, we can get whoever we want in. That’s starting to turn now with the staffing shortages, but that was the big problem.
The final thing was the turnover in the industry, conditions being so bad it just was a pattern where people would rarely stay same job for more than a year, by then they’d get fed up and move to the next job, stick it out there for a few months and then move to the next job. It made it quite hard to really build organising campaigns around specific workplaces for recognition or to win a dispute and trying to get round that barrier was quite difficult. To deal with that, we started launching sectoral campaigns where people could get involved with those campaigns regardless of their workplace.
What have been the successes?
We’ve had some very solid concrete successes in individual workplaces. Our first campaign was at a Northern Ireland food chain called Boojum, where workers got organised to win a fair tips policy. The employer was keeping tips to cover shortages in pay, and the workers organised a campaign with collective grievances and collective action. Now the workers have got control of tips, so that was the first victory.
Also in another local café chain, we got workers coming together and demanding an end to the employer using zero-hour contracts, and we won that one as well.
The other big workplace victory and definitely one of the most impressive campaigns was that of Queens University student union in the bar/shop there. Queens University is a multimillion pound educational institution and Queens told workers one day that they wouldn’t be taken on furlough because Queens thought that would be fraudulent because there would be no work for them once furlough ended. Obviously that was complete nonsense. The workers came to Unite Hospitality and asked for help, we told them how important it was for them to join the union and get that security, and to bring all their co-workers together to discuss how to challenge the employer on that issue. Very quickly they did get together, about 90% of the workers joined the union.
Obviously there were big challenges because this was in the middle of Covid, but we worked out a number of collective techniques for struggle, for example we hijacked the Queens University hashtag so if people went on Twitter and searched for QUB or Queens University the only thing you’d see is that they were really exploiting their precarious workers. We staged protests outside the main university buildings during the times of the workdays as loudly as possible when we blared tunes about anything we could find that was about money. We had posters showing the vice-chancellor of Queens as the grinch, and we linked up with other workers on campus like the academic staff. This meant that there was huge pressure on Queens management and who actually gave in completely. The workers didn’t just win furlough pay at 80%, they won furlough at 100% of their wages and [union] recognition as well which is really significant.
A general point I’d like to make is that the presence of there being an active militant union branch in the industry made such a huge difference to people’s consciousness about what to do when you have a problem in work. More people are aware of what a union is and does, and it gets people more comfortable that if I have a problem in work then I must speak to the union about this. People do understand that if they’re bullied or have problems at work then they can do something about it with the union.
How does the branch look now?
When we started it was with 50 members, these were people who worked in the sector and were already members of Unite. During Covid, despite the huge wave of redundancies we actually grew to 500 members, so we’ve grown ten times bigger in just a couple of years. Our branch is made up mostly of workers who are under 25 years of age, and just at the moment we’re preparing our campaigns for the upcoming year.
There’s some quite exciting work that we’re going to do, working with Rosa the socialist-feminist group to deal with the issues of spiking and sexual harassment in the industry, we’re going to take on a battle to ban zero-hours contracts and we’ve got a few organising campaigns at big local workplaces we’re working on which we hope to really pick up in the next coming months too.
How do you involve the membership in your campaigns?
How we choose our campaigns in the first place is based on what issues people raise in the branch meetings we have, where anyone can raise an issue they want to. We maybe help members with issues they have and we can see a common theme coming up in that. In our actual campaigns we don’t just take the approach of arranging a meeting with the employer or with a politician and trying to resolve it that way, we try to get as many branch members as possible involved in the campaign, by running solidarity stalls in the streets, putting up posters, going and getting people in their workplaces involved. So it’s not just a couple of reps trying to do it all, it’s about people talking to their co-workers and building a campaign that way.
You’ve linked up with other branches of Unite Hospitality, tell us about that.
So now we’re also working with branches in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and activists in the likes of Liverpool and some other places as well. It just felt like it was the natural and obvious thing to do. The issues facing workers in the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland aren’t just issues explicit to us, it’s across sectors and across all these different regions. Linking up with activists in other sectors, because we are all such new reps, gives us so much assistance. If someone wins a victory somewhere, if someone is running a campaign on an issue somewhere, then we can pass on good ideas and tactics between branches. There are so many companies like McDonalds that have outlets across all the regions that if there’s a campaign in a workplace somewhere then we don’t want to accidentally undermine that with a campaign in another region. So it gives us solidarity and we can support each-other’s campaigns, pickets and so on.
Where do you want to go from here across Britain?
I think it’s super important to recognise now more than ever that there’s such a big opportunities for getting trade unions in the sector. Because with the staffing shortages, people do have much more confidence, they don’t feel as replaceable as they once were, they know that the employer needs them more than ever, no-one else is going to be at an interview for their job when they return. So it boosts confidence and now you get people wanting to act.
I’d like to see Unite Hospitality right across the UK in the next while, aiming to really capitalise on that anger and confidence. We’re hoping to see different organisers and branches across the regions and from there to really show the power of workers in this sector for the first time in decades.
If people reading this article are members of the union or workers in hospitality, then I’d encourage them to reach out to Socialist Alternative or one of the Unite Hospitality branches, and talk about how you can get involved and get organised and bring Unite Hospitality to workers in their area too.