by Ella Gilbert and Francis Bell
Bartenders, waiters, baristas and other hospitality workers have one thing above all else in common: we are over-worked, under-paid and misrepresented. We are both bartenders, and we deal with drunken idiots, entitled twats, and aggressive yobs on a daily basis. Woman bartenders also have to deal with unwanted sexual advances and harassment, comments about our clothing choice, and implicit assertions about who we are and what we’re doing there. Despite all of this, we value our work, and we want to do it well – for those that actually appreciate what we’re doing, and for those that are well-behaved and fun to spend time with.
All of these things were important at the inception of the Norwich Bartenders’ and Hospitality Union. Norwich has a pub for every night of the year, as well as its fair share of cafés, restaurants, hotels and other service industry employers. We are committed to a multi-faceted approach to the hospitality industry: we want to improve our members’ skills and create a pool of people who are committed to, and good at, their jobs. We also want to challenge the daily issues faced by workers in the sector – discrimination, low pay, difficult customers, demanding management and limited employment rights. On top of that, we want to educate people in the sector on their rights and represent them in any employment disputes or grievances that arise with their employers. In that regard, we’re committed to forming positive relationships with management, rather than antagonising them, and demonstrating that the NBHU is a collection of workers who really care, and are the kind of employees you want, and need, to run a business in Norwich.
The NBHU is an industrial union branch of the IWW, one of the oldest and most radical unions in the UK, if not the world. The IWW is committed to true democracy – it is run by its members, and does not have paid officials like nearly every other union. It does not have its equivalent Len McLuskey or Dave Prentis, and it is run by the rank-and-file, for the rank-and-file. At the heart of the IWW’s principles is the belief that workers should be organised within their industry – that means that rather than having a separate union for teachers, admin workers, caretakers, Teaching Assistants and cleaners in a school, for example, all of those workers organise together and are classed as ‘education workers’. Similarly for us, hospitality workers have shared struggles across workplaces regardless of whether those workplaces are restaurants, hotels, bars or anything else, and we feel that we should all organise together to improve our working conditions and the industry for everyone working in it.
As a union, we believe we can produce positive change through collective action. The success of BECTU Union Ritzy Cinema workers in Brixton has shown how this might happen – they recently celebrated a famous victory in their dispute by picketing outside the cinema and winning a 26% pay rise to match the London living wage, backdated from last October. Despite the recent upheaval and job losses, their struggle demonstrates the importance, and power of collective action. This is a huge victory for small workplaces and the Living Wage is arguably another tick on a long list of landmark rights won for workers by trades unions.
As a union, we believe we can produce positive change through collective action.
The NBHU aims to have representation in as many venues across the city as possible. At present, we represent workers in many pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes, and are labouring to extend our work further. We are particularly keen to represent those who are frequently distant from trade union politics, such as students. Contrary to some of the larger unions, we are industry-specific, and can therefore offer tailored advice and representation based on our own experience and skills. Of course the lack of bureaucracy in the IWW also helps us get things done quickly and democratically, without having to rely on a hierarchical model of decision-making. We value all of our members equally, and consider all of their views on all decisions we make. That’s important to us as a nascent union branch because we’ve got relatively broad-based support.
In our union we have a broad demographic: some of our members are committed hospitality workers, in it for the long haul, whereas others work in pubs and restaurants to finance other things in their lives, such as higher education. We have a wider range of ages, two of three of the rotating committee member seats are currently filled by women, and we aim to be as inclusive as possible in everything that we do. We want all of our members to be involved in what we do – participation can be the best way to build skills and confidence at work, as well as take back control for the workers. For far too long the workplace has been a “bosses’ market”, able to dictate terms to employees arbitrarily, knowing an army of desperate jobseekers will gladly take their place following dispute. Now, in our industry, we are waking up to the possibility of reclaiming workplaces for ourselves, and running hospitality and bar workplaces for the benefit of all, not just the bosses.
Currently we are campaigning on issues that particularly affect our members, such as the living wage and zero hours contracts. More and more large employers are becoming living wage employers, such as the student union at UEA, Norwich City Council and City College, but very few small and medium-sized businesses (including many pubs, cafes and restaurants) are able to offer their employees an amount considered sufficient to survive on: £7.65. In addition to low pay, hospitality workers are frequently denied the security of a contract – while zero hours work may be good for those who require flexibility (such as students or carers), the lack of job security can be a constant source of worry for many. The NBHU is actively trying to campaign on these issues, and other things that are important to our members. Of course, it is about taking baby steps – we’re a young but growing union and things are slowly picking up. We’re committed to changing things for the better in this city.