Fast food fighters

The bakers’ union president Ian Hodson spoke to Red Pepper about the new forms of organising that have enabled the union, founded in 1847, to begin to grow again.

January 29, 2019 · 12 min read
Photo by Tanjila Ahmed (Flickr)

The bakers’ union (BFAWU – Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union) is one of the smallest trade unions in the UK with just over 20,000 members. At the beginning of the decade, it was in decline, representing aging, mainly white male full‑time workers. By 2018, though, it was turning the situation around by recruiting and organising workers under 30, increasingly more likely to be female and mostly on part‑time and zero-hours contracts in food service.

How did we turn around the decline in numbers and in relevance? It was the experience of the successful strike against Hovis’s use of agency workers on zero hours in Wigan in 2013 that stimulated the change of direction. Following the Hovis strike, we realised that attacks on our members’ pay and conditions were going to continue. Employers were (and still are) too weak to take on the supermarkets and instead, they look to reduce costs by attacking workers’ hard-won conditions and pay. We also realised that alongside ending higher-paid jobs in favour of agency or other short-term contracts, automation would also lead to job losses.

With so few manufacturing jobs, the likelihood is that people will find themselves working in areas like the hospitality sector, where workers are virtually unorganised and low paid, with zero or low hours contracts. Most of those working in this sector received age-related minimum wage, some getting a few pennies above. Yet at the same time. these companies make huge profits and always seem to be involved in some kind of tax avoidance schemes. Their workers probably receive more from the taxpayer by way of in-work benefits than these huge global corporations contribute to the economy. This is the background to our growing determination to challenge these companies and resist their attack, especially on young and insecure workers.

We organise Greggs, and now have a recognition agreement with the company to pay better wages than others in the sector and not use zero-hours contracts, proving that it can be done. So the idea grew that we should broaden the campaign to other fast food outlets.

We planned a campaign in which the union collaborated with political and community organisations and activists from other unions. Its well‑attended steering group meeting in January 2014 set three main aims: abolition of youth rates; ending zero hours contracts; and a minimum wage of £10 per hour. 

McStrike!

We launched the campaign by targeting the worst abuser of workers in the sector: McDonald’s. They had done more than any other corporation to drive down conditions and brought the first zero-hours contracts into the UK in 1974. The campaign started by leafleting outside a number of McDonald’s stores on Oxford Street, London. The aim was to leaflet workers, as well as customers and the passing public, and if possible speak to workers. We also leafleted the workers before the day of action to let them know what we intended.

The company refused our request for a meeting before the day of action and instead brought in security and flooded the workplaces with managers so we couldn’t speak to workers or leaflet inside. We returned to leaflet again that evening when we weren’t expected.

It was during this first wave of activity that workers started to come forward telling us their stories. For example, there was the manager who thought it was fun to text all those not on shift to offer a few hours’ work. Only the first one to arrive would get the hours – but if they didn’t turn up, he’d not contact them again for a few weeks. Another example was the pregnant woman who asked for support as she was struggling to work 12-hour shifts: she was told not to bother coming back if she wasn’t fit to work. We made a number of contacts, all with shocking stories.

We were also contacted by Fight for $15, a US-based campaign similarly fighting against zero-hours and other exploitative contracts. They were keen to discuss our campaign. The support from them and the 1.9 million-strong Service Employees International Union has made a huge difference to our ability to be able to make this campaign a success. We have worked with our sister unions across the US and Europe to challenge McDonald’s. We recently succeeded in getting the EU to confirm that a zero-hours contract worker should enjoy the same rights as a part-time worker.

From the beginning, our strategy has involved workers building their organisations around grievances. There are many issues: from bullying to sexual harassment, lack of safety, poor pay and unfair distribution of hours, to name a few. In fact, it was the number of grievances that McDonald’s failed to deal with that led to the first strike in September 2017. This won a significant response from McDonald’s, which was worried by the bad publicity and announced the roll out of secure contracts in an attempt to placate its workforce. The company also introduced its biggest-ever pay hike, 6.5 per cent, in January.

This was followed by a bigger strike in May this year. As in the first strike, the numbers taking part were played down by McDonald’s, but it was clear that the appetite for action was spreading. It also became clear that McDonald’s had decided to adopt a more aggressive approach, targeting anyone the company suspected of joining the union and using the Murdoch press to attack its own workers – something that didn’t go down well in Liverpool with ‘Don’t Buy the S*n’ campaigners launching a protest outside the city-centre store.

Then, in October, McDonald’s workers showed again they won’t be bullied and struck for a third time, joined on this occasion by Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays workers who took their inspiration from the first McStrike and wanted to show their bosses they are tired of being exploited. When they announced their intention to ballot for a strike, the company brought forward the pay increase due in April 2019 by six months; they also stopped the lower youth rate and introduced an extra £1 per hour for night shift workers who previously hadn’t received any enhancement for unsocial hours. The October strike, part of an international day of action by fast-food workers, also brought out Uber Eats and Deliveroo workers on the same day, meeting up for a rally in central London.

A changing union

Our resistance to this super-exploitative model has been designed to create a new approach to organising. We wanted to highlight how injustice and inequality are today’s big issues and we needed to organise to fight them. But first, we had to speak to and with each other through a political unionising campaign. It was a return to our roots in many ways: a movement for real change.

We constantly review the strategy. The idea of organising around strikes hasn’t really been seen since the 1890s, but we have seen that workers feel empowered by taking action and employers are reacting to the challenge by improving some of the pay and conditions of the workforce. We also find that action is infectious. With every action we take more people start to organise and make demands for improvements. People are inspiring each other.

It’s always difficult when trying to look beyond what is considered your ‘core’ area for any membership-led organisation. Some members feel that too much time is spent at the expense of the core membership. They see lots of attention on a new sector and they feel we are doing nothing about the situations impacting on their workplaces. But in many ways this was because they thought the campaign for £10 was only aimed at the fast-food sector. We had to explain it was for all workers and should be a key demand in all workplaces. The difference was that, unlike their workplace, where they had the ability to submit a wage claim, these workers did not have that possibility, which is why it is necessary to take direct action and gain a lot of media attention.

Our conference backed the campaign and introduced a new lower membership rate for the sector. In addition, we have provided an automatic place at the conference for a young member to attend from each branch. We hope this will lead to more youngsters from our traditional bakeries attending and becoming active. We have added an executive committee seat for young members, which has led to a fast-food worker being on the committee.

Workers’ voices

We have had to become more media savvy. We have tried to ensure the voices of workers and not paid officials are the front of the campaign. Traditional union organising has often concentrated on promoting union membership benefits such as insurance or money-off offers. By contrast, this campaign has concentrated on why we should act collectively and a set of clear demands.

The new members are more politically aware, mostly young, and as they are organising around taking strike action they are much more ready to be active in campaigns on climate or anti-racism, for example.

Changes in the union are deepening as these new members start to integrate with its structures in the union and at conference. They are bringing a freshness that has created a new agenda of change, pushing through policies on LGBTQ for example. They have also lowered the collective age of conference. A few years ago, we probably had two under-25s at conference; last year we had 35 out of 189. They are all prepared to contribute and they organise constantly. Time will tell how big the influence will be but they have brought new ideas and new campaigns.

The workers support each other in the community. For example, in Scarborough, one set of workers from a different fast-food chain didn’t get paid when they finished serving but had to clean up, which took about an hour. They told the workers in the pub who had just organised and made some real gains. The pub workers decided to take a banner and hand out leaflets telling the public what was happening. They now get paid for every hour they work.

We work closely with other unions. We can all learn from each other. The recent joint strikes demonstrated that we are working together, and there are similar strategies being developed in unions across the world. We can’t say one particular model is the best as change is the key to ensuring we are able not just to be reactive but proactive.

We share our experiences with the activists of other trade unions. We receive so much support and are regularly invited to send speakers to their conferences and other events. The campaign has brought out the best of our movement.

Then there are political alliances. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, like shadow chancellor John McDonnell, has been involved in the fast-food campaign from the beginning; John was the chair of the steering group. The Labour agenda could bring about a real change in our workplaces. The progressive and radical programme that formed part of the 2017 manifesto will bring about much-needed balance to our workplaces and to improving the lives of those who live and work in our communities.

Future strategy

In terms of our traditional membership sectors, the power of supermarkets and the ongoing pressure to reduce costs will continue to present challenges for our membership fighting to maintain pay and conditions. We are currently reviewing our strategy to deal with this. A recent landmark agreement with [bread firm] Warburtons, increasing the hourly rate and achieving more stable shift patterns, shows it is possible to improve terms and conditions and set higher standards and we are taking key lessons from this agreement and implementation.

BFAWU will continue to organise in our traditional areas, and in the fast-food sector we will look at what we have learned from our recent campaigns and try to spread what works. We are currently looking at our internal structures to make sure they are fit for purpose.

We will be launching a new initiative around ending the normalisation of sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace, working with Women Against Rape. Too often we are seeing employers either trying to move the victim or, after pressure, moving the abuser. We will be campaigning to demand abusers are dismissed and prosecuted. We will also be launching our climate charter and developing our safety, health and environment reps for the food sector with a conference in the new year.

As for McDonald’s: the campaign continues.


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