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The politics of pub culture

Pubs are not only integral sites of communal solidarity, but of the struggle for workers’ liberation, writes Amardeep Singh Dhillon

3 minute read

The Ivy House pub in Nunhead, London, one of many community owned pubs in the UK

In February, half a million workers took part in Britain’s largest strike for a decade. Polls indicate increasing support for unions – a trend supported anecdotally by chats I’ve overheard while pouring pints at the Ivy House, the south London community-owned pub where I work.

Here, drinkers are greeted by a large wall panel plastered with DIY posters. The local mutual aid group, Nunhead Knocks, is advertising non-means-tested hardship grants. Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants are requesting clothes for asylum seekers – the pub is a collection point. In the back room, a community library, with everything from young adult fiction to feminist theory, operates on trust There are yoga classes, jam sessions, comedy nights, gigs. Opposite a roaring fire, a hot water dispenser with free tea and coffee reflects the pub’s status as a ‘designated warm bank’ where anyone can sit and stay warm without having to purchase anything.

There are now more than 150 community-owned pubs across Britain

These small reminders of communal provision just about stop me from screaming during a busy shift. Within the constraints of needing to turn a profit to survive, the Ivy House offers a glimpse of what ‘a public house for the public good’ can be.

There are now more than 150 community-owned, not-for-profit pubs across Britain. For some, like the Bevy in Brighton, their radicality is contested – it was David Cameron’s ‘big society’-era legislation that enabled it and others to be saved from developers. Those with charity status must commit to political neutrality, and ultimately all pubs still need to make money and cover costs. Nevertheless, they are spaces people go to in search of a sense of community. Pubs matter.

Contingent ‘community’

The ‘community’ is highly contingent, however. British pubs are increasingly owned by private equity and venture capital firms that benefit from profits and can recover potential losses via real estate speculation, actively gentrifying locales in the process. They usually require a disposable income to access, are maintained through surveillance and the threat of police, and are sites of assault and bigotry as well as solidarity and joy.

Working conditions remain poor: often minimum wage and zero hours, frequently in breach of employment law, all washed down with a romanticised culture of addiction. Even the most mercenary-run spaces are at risk of closure, struggling amidst rising energy bills and people’s reduced spending power.

That makes it especially remarkable that, with such a bleak outlook, hospitality workers are organising towards big wins. Dalston Superstore became London’s first unionised queer venue last year. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union recently established a Cornwall branch targeting hospitality workers. And in January, Unite Hospitality launched its Manchester branch with workers from more than 20 workplaces, building on its astonishing success in Scotland.

I took part in wildcat strike action at the Ivy House in 2018. I’m working proof that staff organising can be the first step towards making our pubs more inclusive, dynamic and community serving. So next time you pop into your local for a pint, ask the staff how they’re being treated – and offer to put them in touch with a union if they want to do something about it.

This article first appeared in issue #239, Spring 2023, Flight, Fight, Remain. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Amardeep Singh Dhillon is a Red Pepper editor

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