Ethan Shone 4th October 2018
Depending on where in the country you are today, you might find it hard to get a cheap Wetherspoons pint, your Big Mac fix or a table at TGIs. It might also be a bit of a struggle getting your takeaway of choice delivered or an Uber home from the pub.
This is because workers from JD Wetherspoon, McDonald’s and TGI Fridays are on strike and are being joined in solidarity by UberEats and Deliveroo couriers, with more gig economy workers expected to join in on the day.
Originally called by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) and Unite, workers are striking to call for union recognition and an end to what they say is poverty pay, insecure work and the unfair distribution of tips.
After the industrial action was announced, the Independent Workers of the World (IWW) Couriers Network, Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and GMB called for UberEats, Deliveroo, Uber Private Hire and other gig economy workers to join the strike, and to not log on to their work apps. These workers are calling for an increase in guaranteed pay per delivery and per mile, to £5 and £1, respectively.
This industrial action — which, in uniting workers from different companies across the hospitality sector and gig economy, is unprecedented — will see workers meet in London’s Leicester Square for a rally, as well as a number of solidarity events at locations all over the country, including cities like Bradford, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield.
It’s not just British fast-food employees. Workers at the rally in London will be joined by an international delegation of workers from four different continents in a show of solidarity and a symbol of the mobilisation of fast-food and hospitality workers currently taking place around the world.
The small scale of these strikes means most people in the UK won’t be affected but, whether you are or not, it’s worth thinking about why these strikes are happening.
Out of hundreds — thousands in the case of McDonald’s — of locations in the UK, strikes are only taking place at two Wetherspoons pubs, four McDonald’s and three TGI Fridays. The number of staff participating in the strikes is small, tiny even, considering the vast army of workers these three corporate entities employ. The impact to profits will likely be negligible.
So, why bother? We investigate.
One clue can be found in the reactions of companies who have already seen industrial action take place but, more broadly speaking, this day of strike action takes place at a time when attitudes toward workers rights are shifting globally. The rise of gig economy employers, zero-hours contracts and stagnant wages has called into question the balance in power between employee and employer.
Everyone’s favourite budget boozer, JD Wetherspoon is Britain’s largest pub chain, with around 900 premises employing upwards of 35,000 people. The group has consistently posted increased profits in the last few years, and seen share prices rise steadily as a result, bucking the wider industry trend of decline.
This is only the beginning, we will keep fighting for everyone
Workers from The Telegraph and Post and The Bright Helm, both in Brighton, will become the first ever Wetherspoons workers to take industrial action. They do so as part of the BFAWU, Britain’s largest independent food-sector union, which organised last year’s McStrike action. More than 20 were balloted, with 100% of those endorsing strike action. Striking workers hope to draw attention to what are described as “poverty wages” and the insecure nature of their work. According to the chain, the starting rate for bar staff over 18 is £8.05 an hour, and £8.25 for kitchen staff — this then increases by 10p per hour after probationary periods.
Many workers complain that considering this rate of pay, the working conditions and their flexible shifts, it’s very difficult to lead a normal life. Also, given the rental market in Brighton and the South East, they find it impossible to pay rent, live and then set aside any savings. They are requesting a wage increase, to a minimum of £10 per hour, as well as union recognition.
Despite the minor scale of this action, the reaction from the company’s management to the announcement of the strike ballot earlier this year gave some indication of the power and impact that even extremely limited industrial action can have. Wetherspoons moved forward a scheduled pay rise — originally billed for April next year — to this coming November, in a move that was welcomed by workers, though many consider it not enough.
Matt Rouse, 22, a kitchen worker at the Bright Helm says: “We’re excited and happy to be going on strike. I’ve been inspired by my co-workers, as we stand together to call out injustice in our workplaces. We are determined to stand together and make our demands for £10 an hour, for all, and union recognition, heard. This is only the beginning, we will keep fighting for everyone, for better wages and rights for hospitality workers, across the country.”
A spokesperson for JD Wetherspoon explains to The Overtake there’s “nothing to report”.
One of the biggest fast-food brands in the world, McDonald’s needs little introduction. It boasts more than 1,000 outlets in the UK, though the vast majority are franchises. Global profits were up 10% in 2017, to $5.4bn. The UK operation has seen consistent increases in turnover and customer numbers for 12 consecutive years.
Workers from four London McDonald’s outlets — Brixton, Crayford, Cambridge and Watford — have called the strike as part of an ongoing campaign to see fast food workers granted a £10 an hour minimum wage and greater choice around the nature of their contracts.
Hospitality workers are rising up, and all those who suffer similar conditions should join with us
Last September, workers at both Crayford and Cambridge were involved in the first ever industrial action taken by UK McDonald’s staff in the company’s 40-year history. This was followed up by further action across four branches, in May of this year. As is the case with Wetherspoons, it would seem bosses were sufficiently concerned despite the small number of workers involved with the strike and in January offered staff a banded pay increase, which would see some workers’ wages grow by as much as 5%.
McStriker Lauren McCourt says: “We’re joining with Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays workers because when we come together, hospitality workers have the power to transform our sector. The days of poverty pay, insecure contracts and lack of respect for workers are numbered. A living wage of £10 an hour for all ages, security of hours, and our right to a union are the basic rights we are fighting for. Hospitality workers are rising up, and all those who suffer similar conditions should join with us. We will win.“
A spokesperson for McDonald’s tells us: “Fewer of our employees are involved in potential industrial action than last May, with the support from our people of the union diminishing. The numbers also represent an extremely small proportion of our workforce — in Brixton, for example, just two of our employees have been balloted for strike out of a workforce of more than 100. These small numbers and this planned industrial action do not represent the majority of our 120,000 workforce”
It’s not been a good year for TGI Fridays’ PR department. The US-owned restaurant chain found itself on a list of businesses deemed to be “minimum wage dodgers”, published by the government in March, alongside Wagamama, hotel giant Marriott and a number of premier league football teams.
TGIs was one of several companies on the list whose uniform policy landed them in hot water — employees were forced to buy smart black shoes out of their wages — and the company had to repay almost £60,000 back to 2,302 staff members.
Though the issue of underpayment caused by uniform policy has been resolved, another dispute between workers and management has raged throughout most of this year. In February, the firm announced plans to offer 40% of card tips to back-of-house and kitchen staff, in lieu of a basic pay rise. The benefits of this tactic for the company are clear: without actually spending any more money, bosses can be seen to boost workers’ pay. Also, tips distributed via a pool are not subject to national insurance but PAYE payments are.
The problem is the 40% of card tips were taken away from serving staff, in order to be given to kitchen staff. Unite-represented waiting staff claimed that the changes would leave them up to £250 worse off every month. Even kitchen staff, as the recipients of extra money, were unhappy with the decision because it took money from other staff members and was not a set, guaranteed pay increase.
It’s in this context which workers at three TGI Fridays have decided to call strike action, organised by Unite. Staff at Milton Keynes and Covent Garden will walk out for the eighth time and will be joined by Stratford City workers, in their second case of industrial action.
Boni Adeliyi, TGI Fridays waitress in Milton Keynes says: “We’re striking on 4 October, to show the strength we have when workers come together. The movement is growing and change is coming. All young workers should join a union — it’s important to know your rights, and how to fight for them, when they’re being ignored. Together, we are stronger.“
A spokesperson for TGI Fridays says: “Our team members are a part of our Fridays family. We believe they should be — and are — treated and paid fairly. Out of a workforce of over 5,500 team members, less than 1% are involved in this action.”
Uber Eats and Deliveroo
Gig economy companies like Uber and Deliveroo have built their business model around flexibility and low costs to consumers, and despite their popularity, have attracted much controversy for their treatment of workers.
Since their inception, these types of companies have attracted the ire of labour unions and employee rights advocates, as well as their own workers, with protests popping up in various cities all over the world in recent years.
Making improvements in response to courier feedback is a top priority, such as the sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections we recently introduced
While the figures released by these employers state that on average their couriers will make £9-£10 per hour at times of high demand, workers claim they can earn as little as £2.80 per delivery, and that there’s no guarantee that an hour’s worth of delivering will earn them a living wage. As self-employed couriers, even if they do earn national minimum wage, workers say its not enough to cover holidays, sickness or the maintenance costs of their vehicles.
Organised by the IWW Couriers Network, IWGB and GMB, workers will today refuse to log-on to their apps, and demand an increase to their minimum fees, to £5 per delivery and £1 per mile.
Callum Cant is a Deliveroo courier taking part in the strikes, and the author of a forthcoming book which looks at the experience of working for the company. He speaks with The Overtake a few days before the strike and explains: “This strike marks a forward step in the creation of a rank-and-file socialist workers movement. Precarious workers are leading the fight back against exploitation in the rigged economy. We should all support the courageous workers at McDonald’s, Wetherspoons, TGIs and Uber, who are standing up to multi-millionaire bosses, on behalf of us all.”
A spokesperson for Uber Eats says: “Uber Eats provides a valuable way for local residents to supplement their income and bridge gaps in work. Couriers can work when and where they choose by simply logging in and out of the app. Last week, couriers using our app in the UK took home an average of £9-10 per hour during busy mealtimes, with many also using other delivery apps. Making improvements in response to courier feedback is a top priority, such as the sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections we recently introduced. Our door is always open for feedback and we host regular events with local couriers, to discuss questions or address any issues they’re having.”
Ethan Shone 4th October 2018