A crowd of red flags had already mostly blocked the road by the time I got to the St James Tavern in Kemptown. At 4pm on a sunny Saturday, which would normally be prime drinking time, the bar staff were walking out and a large crowd was there to cheer them on. The workers had signed up with the UVW (United Voices of the World), a relatively new grassroots union which specialises in organising precarious, low paid and migrant labour, which had organised supporters from Brighton and also brought union members down from London for the day to show support.
The St James Tavern strike is demanding an end to zero-hours contracts, a raise in pay to £11.50 an hour and full sick pay. The landlords of the pub have responded by refusing to negotiate with the union but instead issuing all the striking staff members with notice of disciplinary proceedings and by suspending Jake Marvin, one of the strike leaders, the day before the walk-out. Union organisation and strikes are really rare in the hospitality sector, which is plagued by low-paid precarious exploitative jobs. This sort of labour forms the backbone of a large chunk of Brighton’s economy – all the pubs and bars and clubs and cafes that crowd the centre of town and make sure all the hen parties stay drunk enough. The St James Tavern is just one average sized pub but is leased from the Stonegate Group, the largest pub company in the UK. A victory here could inspire others to organise and raise conditions for everyone in the hospitality sector.
It’s interesting that sometimes a huge demonstration can leave you feeling very flat and uninspired and a small little action or protest can feel like the most hopeful thing you’ve been to for ages. The St James Tavern demo was only relatively small in the grand scheme of things, but it was one of the more inspirational things I’ve been on for a while. A hundred people spilled out into the street outside the closed pub which was now redecorated with UVW flags and became the impromptu backdrop for a series of speakers from the UVW, the striking workers themselves and supporters from other unions. The energy and atmosphere were infectious and after the speeches the picket line turned into a dance party in the street. Often demos can feel like going through the motions. You know there’s precious little point shouting at the outside of Downing St, but we go and do it anyway. By contrast this felt purposeful and powerful. This mood was summed up by my favourite demo chant: “We’re going to win, we’re going to win”. I think there’s a lot to be said for getting 100 people to shout this all together. It’s like a bit of cognitive programming: if everyone chants it all together, maybe we start to believe it and start acting like it’s true and maybe the opposition do too. As it was ‘the opposition’ did briefly show their faces one of the pub landlords appeared briefly before scuttling away to chants of “shame on you!”
I suspect a bigger more established union might not have pulled out all the stops for 5 people in one pub going on strike. UVW brought a bus full of people from London and put on a full demo on their behalf. I think they understand the value of examples and of victories. And the UVW have an impressive track record of victories – getting outsourced workers taken back in-house, and winning pay rises and secure contracts for precarious migrant workers. They have done this by being more militant and more inventive than larger unions that often seem more constrained and hidebound in their approach. But despite these differences of approach, another refreshing aspect of the rally was the presence of people from these bigger established unions like GMB and Unison alongside newer unions like UVW and the Acorn community union, as well as various socialist and Trot groups and anarchist groups or unions like IWW and SolFed, with apparently no bitching or antagonism.
The new wave of unions
In recent years we have seen the emergence of a new wave of union organising. Some contemporary developments in the USA, especially the organising of Amazon, Apple and Starbucks employees through new upstart unions have gained a lot of publicity, but we have seen the same thing happening in the UK. Newer, more campaigning-oriented unions organising previously unorganised workers have appeared. This is a massively positive political development. The IWGB (founded 2013), UVW (2014), App Drivers Union (2015), CAIWU (2016) and others are doing what the traditional union movement didn’t seem capable of doing.
As we have seen with the RMT strike, the existing established unions can sometimes hold a lot of power, but they are concentrated in particular corners of the economy – especially in the public sector or in privatised public services where it is not possible to send production overseas or just close down entire industries. But whole new sectors of the economy have sprung up around them which didn’t exist back in the heyday of union power in the ‘70s. Entire new industries are thus unencumbered by any worker organisation and are hot-beds of low paid, flexibilised hyper-exploitation. Which was of course the entire point of smashing the unions, privatising everything in sight, and de-regulating and de-industrialising the economy in the first place.
This class war waged by the rich has resulted today in the unprecedented situation where theoretically the economic situation favours workers – there is full employment and many businesses are wanting and failing to find staff – and yet we find this combined with stagnant or falling wages and rising inflation. But after many years, an answer has emerged to the neo-liberal onslaught of precarity, outsourcing and flexibilisation. The new unions are addressing several related trends that have resulted from years of austerity and Thatcherite economics:
Firstly, highly exploited migrant labour doing low paid work – especially in sectors like cleaning, hospitality, catering and delivery. This is partly a racialised division of labour that is relying on migrants’ lack of leverage and alternative options in society to extensively exploit them. Secondly, the collapse of many traditional employment routes and career paths. For university graduates the expectation that university was a gateway to a middle class career has dried up and there has been a partial proletarianisation of a whole swathe of graduates who are saddled with thousands of pounds of student debt and end up working in jobs they could have got without going to university. This has often been interpreted as one of the main drivers behind the Bernie Sanders and Corbyn phenomena. Thirdly, there has been a drying up of any idea of a meritocratic ladder for working class youth. Class mobility has declined since the 1960s and 1970s. People’s status in society is more than ever determined by birth. Relatively high-wage, high-status working class jobs, which were often unionised and had a possibility of progression, have been replaced with a lot of low-wage, low-status jobs with no possibility of progression.
These factors have combined with the generational inequity of the housing market to ensure that many working class and middle class young people see themselves locked into a situation of precarious jobs with static low wages plus ever-increasing rents effectively indefinitely. The converging fortunes of these different groups have led to them finding common cause. As the Occupy movement pointed out, although there are many differences amongst the 99%, as the wealth of the 1% accelerates off into the distance, these differences come to seem less significant by comparison.
Here’s to a long hot summer of strikes!
Whats happening next and how to support:
Send a message to the pub’s owners:https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/en/letter/tell-bosses-to-give-bar-staff-proper-contracts-and-respect/
Sign up for the action group to support the strike:
Donate to the strike fund:
Come out for the next strike day:
2 July, 4-8pm St James Tavern, 16 Madiera Place, Brighton BN2 1TN
Join a union!