A former bar-hotel worker in a remote coastal village in North Devon reflects on an organising project at their workplace. They examine the grievances and the formation of a workplace committee, as well as the initial successes and the reasons why it ultiamtely failed.
The hospitality industry in Devon, as anywhere in the UK, is difficult, unpredictable, and poorly paid work. In my experience, the situation is so bad that even the less class-conscious worker will take risks for change when supported, making this industry a key target for syndicalists.
In 2021-2022, me and a colleague began organising our workplace with the support of the IWW. We had no previous organising experience and had yet to receive the organiser training offered by the IWW but after a bit of talk, reassurances of support, and advice from more experienced Wobblies, we eventually gathered 8 workers into a group chat for discussing workplace grievances, forming an unofficial workplace committee to discuss our grievances and how we’d solve them. Despite the difficulties posed by conflicting rotas, we managed to hold our first organising committee meeting with no less than four attendees. A modest but promising start.
This all coincided with talk within the IWW of kick-starting a Southwest Hospitality Union, several meetings for which took place, and the resulting materials were shared within our little committee. While more open talk about pay and a little leverage succeeded in gaining pay rises for a few colleagues, this was marred by favouritism from management. Eventually, this favouritism, among other factors, led to fear and betrayal and our attempt at organising fell apart. It is my hope that our successes and the lessons learnt from our mistakes will be useful for others trying to organise in hospitality for the first time.
For context, the workplace was a pub/hotel in an exceptionally scenic location along the coast of North Devon. It is one of five pubs in the same village and, during the summer, it was both the busiest and lowest paying of that five. The owner? The knighted patriarch of a landed aristocratic family that hadn’t realised feudalism was now considered ‘old fashioned’. Thankfully, we didn’t see much of them and the day to day running of the business was handled by managers, assistant managers, and supervisors. Seems like a lot of hierarchy for a single village pub/hotel, right? I could garnish my description with complaints of furlough fraud, rumours of bribery to keep the owner’s name out of certain newspapers, and our manager expressing a hatred for unionised workers. Suffice it to say that the context of our effort was not hospitable and our inexperience an obstacle.
This picture is not unique, however, as the hospitality industry, especially in tourist heavy locations like the South West, continues to be synonymous with terrible pay, unpredictable hours, understaffing, and weak contracts (if you’re given one at all). With low staff numbers and the high volume of young workers in hospitality it is a shame that unions have not made more progress. I think there is plenty of potential here and a focused effort by an IWW South West Hospitality Union, if one were established, could make a meaningful impact.
How things went down
It is in this context that me (a kitchen worker) and my colleague (a bar worker) managed to recruit eight out of a rough total of 30 employees into a group for the purpose of discussing workplace grievances and the potential for forming a union. Given more time and training, I believe we could have recruited a good many more. The word ‘union’ was expressed openly within this group, and many showed interest in the minutes of union meetings held to discuss a South West Hospitality Union. This came after weeks of mapping, small talk of workplace problems, and an effort at minor agitation.
Talking to each other about wages proved to be a really important early step. Asking a colleague the simple question “I get the national ‘living’ wage now, what are you on at the moment?” revealed that management had accidentally put them into a higher age bracket than their similarly-aged colleagues. This provided leverage for other bar staff to demand a pay rise equal to that of their colleague. While they succeeded in getting higher pay, management could just as easily have reduced the affected colleague’s wage to the ‘appropriate’ minimum, though it would be at the risk of further agitating an already upset section of workers. Use caution if this happens to you, making sure that you have good leverage and support.
Besides talking, having a good relationship with your colleagues and the ability to speak to them about work and grievances confidently goes a long way to establishing trust and solidarity. In our case, we had solid friendships with many of our colleagues and have sociable personalities, so the initial recruitment phase went rather smoothly. Eventually, we managed to hold our first meeting. The result of this meeting was a fairly comprehensive list of grievances (a list I will dedicate to an appendix). We also talked about possible solutions, such as a formal grievance procedure, a collective request for physical copies of our contracts, and the demand for the actualisation of a long since promised but yet awaited supervisor meeting concerning pay.
In regards to the establishment of trust, it is worth discussing, briefly, the pros and cons of the language of ‘family’ in the workplace. I believe that such language has a generally positive impact on the building of solidarity among workers, creating an atmosphere where ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’, under the right conditions. This language starts to pose a threat when management is allowed to coopt it to incorporate them or the business as a whole. In which case, an injury to the business is an inury to all. In our context, while a familial feeling was useful in the recruiting of people with similar grievances, it was also used as a weapon by supervisors to villainise and alienate those working to make positive change. This particular subject of family deserves special attention in the future, if there isn’t already a syndicalist analysis of it. Keeping this issue of family loyalties in mind, let us return to the narrative at hand.
Sometime during the spring, aided by the inability of management to find any staff older than 15, the threat of certain staff leaving, promted supervisors to discuss the issue with management. The result of this meeting, however, was nothing short of disappointing for everyone involved. A pay rise for a single colleague was issued and they attempted to keep it a secret.
Unfortunately, significant distrust was generated by this act of favouritism and it was soon revealed that this particular colleague had been sharing the contents of our discussions with management. Trust had been shattered and those in more financially precarious situations backed out for fear of repercussions. This all might have been avoided if it weren’t for our careless approach to the vital art of Social Mapping. We were somewhat aware of a certain hazardous worker-supervisor relationship but did not properly consider the risk. On the other hand, there were quite a few colleagues that we neglected to approach that in hindsight would have bolstered our number to a more resilient one.
Two other factors played a role in our effort dying away. One was periods of inaction during busy season at work that killed vital momentum. If the main organisers take their foot off the accelerator, then there’s a risk the group will lose enthusiasm. The second factor was a lack of solidarity and the bullying of one colleague by another. You can imagine how difficult it is to talk about a grievance in a group where one of its members is the source of the issue.
It is here our attempt dies despite at one time having almost a third of the workforce and a potential plan of action. Shortly thereafter many of us quit our jobs at about the same time, just prior to their busiest season. While this isn’t really a story of success, I hope that our little victories help inspire other first time organisers and that there are useful lessons in our failures. If you can, take the training offered by the union before anything. This will help you navigate the treacherous reefs that capsised our committee.
A list of our biggest grievances that you should also look out for at your place of work:
- An unsustainable minimum wage.
- Understaffing during busy periods (a result of grievance no. 1.)
- Denied decent hours during quiet periods.
- No contracts for majority of staff.
- Poorly written contracts with contradicting content when finally receiving one.
- No contribution to commuting costs.
- No contribution to water bills resulting from regular uniform washing.
- Harassment, verbal abuse, and angry behaviour from management.
- Furlough fraud.
- Promise of talks about pay that never happen.
- Favouritism by management.
- Short notice rotas.
- Inconsistent practice of child labour laws.
Written by a member of IWW North Devon.
Do you want to try organising to form a union where you work? Join the IWW and reach out to your local branch for support!