by Walt Whitman
“If we don’t get it, shut it down!” was the defiant chant of fast food and hospitality workers at a rally held in Leicester Square, central London, on 4 October 2018. There has been pressure building up amongst fast food workers and hospitality staff since the major industrial action taken by McDonald’s staff that started in the US last year and which then spread to the UK.
Over 250 people attended the London rally (including international supporters) as part of a nationwide action across Britain, including the cities of Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, Plymouth and Southampton.
The workers main aims in the fight are for:
£10 an hour minimum wage
No zero-hour contracts
Leicester Square is a tourist-driven entertainment area in the centre of London and has in proximity cinemas and many restaurants, e.g., a MacDonald’s, TGI-Friday and a large Weatherspoon’s chain pub. It is also an area that attracts a lot of local non-unionised labour to the surrounding businesses, and it is rare that a rally of any kind, much less one around trade union rights, takes place there.
Most of those taking action are quite young and working class, so these are not jobs in between college or university. Being from different parts of the globe, they have a shared experience of terrible working conditions.
The feeling at the rally was very much an eagerness to fight and to win. It was inspiring to see so many young workers with fire in their bellies.
The most popular call-and-response rallying chants were:
“Power to the Workers, right across the Nation!”
“No to Corporations!”
“Louder by the Hour!”
“I believe that We can Win!”
Low pay in the industry is rife, and it does not just affect sections of workers deemed to be the most vulnerable. One example is the Birmingham care workers, who are striking against their Labour council’s plans to rob them of their jobs and gut the service. Striking traffic wardens from Camden (another London borough) also attended the rally in a show of solidarity.
‘Bosses, Can You Hear Us?’
Francis O’Grady, head of the Trade Union Council (TUC) spoke at the rally pledging support, but not any sympathetic industrial action. Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) president Ian Hodson told the crowd: “No longer is it acceptable for workers in the sector to be oppressed or exploited. Employers are finding that workers are fighting back.
In terms of speaking at the rally, the primary spots were given to international fast food and hospitality delegates from Thailand, USA, France and other countries. All of them described that despite how hard they work, that they just cannot earn enough to pay rent on somewhere decent, buy enough food, and so forth, while under pressure of speedups. In light of recent reports here in the UK of low industrial productivity but long hours, this will strike a chord with workers elsewhere. All of the speakers pointed to the fact that bosses had tried to divide the workforce, intimidate them, or in some cases they had caved in pretty quickly after only a few days of industrial action.
The rally has to be seen within the context of what is regarded here in the UK as the “gig economy”. Their experiences have, in turn, gone towards radicalising a section of workers in the food and hospitality sector.
For a long time, fast food workers and those in the hospitability sector were regarded as being “too difficult” to organise. It has been the success of smaller, independent unions such as United Voices of the World (UVW) and BFAWU that has forced the bigger ones, such as Unite, to change their organising strategies.
Being super-exploited does not necessarily lead to people becoming rebels against their onerous conditions. But self-organisation can be a liberating factor, as we have seen with the new union UVW: it means the dead hand of union bureaucracy is also less of an issue; for example, UVW are now directed by a non-hierarchical executive committee.
It is becoming clear that what was regarded as the “precariat” has moved on from its original definition and is far from being a passive entity to which things just “happen”.
Who are the ‘Precariat’?
The TUC, the umbrella organisation for UK trade unions, used official labour market data to estimate that 3.2m people are in some form of insecure work, with fewer rights and protections than traditional, permanent jobs provide. Sarah O’Connor, Business correspondent for the Financial Times (FT), wrote December 16, 2016, “One in 10 workers in Britain is in the precariat, according to an attempt by trade unions to quantify the extent of insecure work at the bottom of the labour market”.
Since the near-collapse of the world economy in 2008, attacks on the working class have been unrelenting on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet this did not lead in turn to either an upsurge in union membership or industrial action—until now, when it seems that groups of “precariat” workers are emerging who are up for the fight.
Starting in late 2016, there has been an upsurge in industrial action by fast-food workers and those who work in the hospitality industry in the USA (maids, waiters, waitresses, bell-hops, janitors, etc.). But it was the great McDonald’s strike of 2017 in the US that seems to have inspired momentum and imagination over here, with at least two strikes. More actions by workers who deal in fast-food delivery or preparation followed, including Byron’s, Uber Eats, Deliveroo, TGI-Friday, Wetherspoons pub chains and others.
Some on the Left argue that the intense restructuring of the workplace, including wages, terms and conditions of work and erosion of job security, has led to the rise of a distinct social class with separate conditions and interests from other workers. Guy Standing, (Professorial research associate, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), writing for the World Economic Forum on 9 November 2016, argued for this idea in “Meet the precariate, the new global class fuelling the rise of populism”:
“We are in the middle of a global transformation, the painful construction of a global market economy. In the initial period dominated by financiers and rent-seekers, a new global class has taken shape: the precariat. The transformation started in the 1980s, with a vision of open liberalized markets. Less noticeable was the strategy of dismantling institutions of social solidarity; they stood against the market.”
Esme Choonera, in the 2011 October edition of Socialist Review, disagreed and wrote:
“For socialists these are not just academic questions. They are central to the debate about whether the working class can still challenge the power of capitalism. So what is the reality? Is there a new precariat? How far has the world of work changed and how should socialists respond? There are both continuity and change in our current situation. First it is worth stating that the majority of workers in Britain are still in full-time, permanent employment. Most of us still work in workplaces with more than 50 employees.”
The number of days lost to industrial action in 2017 in the UK was historically low—there were 276,000 working days lost due to labour disputes, the sixth lowest annual total since records began in 1891, and only 33,000 workers were involved in them, the lowest figure since records began in 1893. But where they did occur, it was in sections of the workforce not previously known for being militant, a case in point being the industrial action by the university lecturers in 2017-18 that saw not only their membership increase, but also threatened the union bureaucracy.
One of the questions that need to be looked at for the near future is the source of the current militancy; more data, both anecdotal and statistical, is needed in order to get a more rounded view. But it is clear so far that those who are labelled the “precariate” see their exploitation as linked to—not separate from—other workers.