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Greggs, Spoons and Unions: "They have the pasties, but we have the power"
One of the phrases people in the food world are fond of using at the moment is “food is political”. “What we eat is political” you say? No shit.
“Food is political” is simultaneously true and completely asinine. Of course food is political, nearly just about everything is, - even the Lib Dems - but more and more often this phrase is being used as a placeholder for describing what those politics actually are and what they seek to achieve. When you say food is political, are you also advocating for policies that will bring about a change in the system and lift up those who are most vulnerable to its ravages? When you say ‘food is political’ are you in favour of better wages, universal basic income, stronger unionisation? Are you against wage exploitation, social displacement and the increasing gentrification of our cities? Editors, when you say ‘food is political’ are you also platforming writers from diverse backgrounds. Do the pieces you’re publishing cover working class and immigrant spaces and stories, or just one type of space, one kind of story? When you say ‘food is political’ is that a springboard to fight for change or is it merely rearranging deckchairs?
Ok, that’s the rant part of this intro over. But do remember that all the things that were wrong with the food world before COVID-19 will be exacerbated by it, and will still need to be fought against when this is over. One of these things is the lack of strong unionisation in the workplace, particularly for minimum wage workers and those with precarious workplace protection - the kind of workers who have been serving you when all the other restaurants have closed, the kind of workers who have been stacking the shelves or picking the food that a huge swathe of people have only just realised are actually ‘key workers’.
I am trying to commission more pieces on this topic, and today’s newsletter is the first. It is an anonymous account from one of these workers on hospitality’s front line, talking about their experience of the workplace while the COVID-19 pandemic started to take effect. The piece focuses on two companies who many people have strong views on and which are a very much a part of the everyday experience of living in the UK: Greggs and Wetherspoons. Both of these companies have been criticised in the past, but are also defended passionately by many, even on the left. I get it: I’ve seen criticisms and reviews of both which are absolutely rooted in classism, and focus more on mocking the taste of those who find the food served at them delicious and also vitally cheap. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t very valid criticisms that can be made from the left that focus on the companies themselves and on worker’s rights - particularly now we’ve seen how these companies respond in times of crisis. Perhaps save the ‘nationalise Greggs’ and ‘cheeky Spoons’ chat for when we’ve sorted that out.
Greggs, Spoons and Unions: “They have the pasties, but we have the power”
On the face of it, Greggs and JD Wetherspoons - the two companies who dominated the news last week due to their response to the COVID-19 pandemic - are polar opposites of each other. Greggs, where I work (though probably not for much longer) is regularly held up by left-wing commentators of the ‘Nationalise Greggs’ variety as an example of what food service companies should aim to be: with a unionised workforce, profit redistribution and a living wage. Wetherspoons, on the other hand, is somewhere I’ve avoided like hellfire even though I’ve worked in the service industry for 5 years and come to expect to be low-paid and overworked. It’s not just CEO Tim Martin’s hypocrisy in being the poster-boy for Brexit while employing a large number of EU nationals, but also seeing first hand the effect it’s had on the mental health of friends who work there, their stories of low job security in a stressful environment and the violence and abuse they have been subjected to from customers.
Yet the two companies’ recent responses to the pandemic have shown that, despite it supposedly being the ideal, Greggs still makes a profit in the same way as the self-styled bad guys of the food service industry – by overworking and underpaying its frontline staff. During my last shift at Greggs I finally cracked; I found out that multiple members of staff had to self-isolate, leaving four people to staff a shop that usually depended on ten. I assumed that we would close. I was wrong. After telling my manager that I would also be self-isolating, the shop was down to three members of staff. Astonishingly it still stayed open. I have spoken to Greggs workers who I met on Twitter who were forced to work despite themselves or people in their immediate family having conditions such as asthma, including someone who recently had pneumonia.
Greggs did try to change its breakfast making procedures on March 16th to reduce contamination but these were impossible to carry out due to understaffing – a problem I consider persistent at the company. The old procedure involved one team member handling both the till and making breakfast, which allowed customers to be served quickly. The new procedure, which I supported, meant one person handling money and another making and collecting drinks and preparing breakfast. However, if you only have two staff working a breakfast shift, you’re not going to be able to serve people quick enough while also cleaning surfaces every 30 minutes and filling the ovens. In addition to this, employees received abuse from customers due to the lack of hand sanitiser provided, as well as no enforcement of the social distancing measures, because it is practically impossible to do in small shops. I myself had seen customers sneeze into their hands, and then recoil away from me when they give me change, despite washing my hands so often that I began to develop eczema.
A friend who works for JD Wetherspoon described similar experiences. The only information they received from head office was to wash their hands more, with all measures focused specifically on personal hygiene. Anyone who wished to self-isolate without having symptoms was classed as committing gross misconduct. They said that workers at their pub had to use their own intuition; banning people from drinking at the bar, moving tables two metres apart from each other, and even, at one point, refusing to serve people who didn’t wash their hands. Customers largely ignored this. From 12th March till closure on the 20th, four out of the six emails sent to employees were about the stock market. Workers were told by Tim Martin that they would only be paid up until 22nd March, which would have left tens of thousands of workers unable to pay for food or bills until the government’s wage payment scheme is put in place at the end of April.
Throughout this crisis, the most undervalued workers in the system have suddenly been deemed as “essential” or “key”, when at any time before this they were seen as undeserving or low value. This is why the fight to have union representation for fast food workers is necessary, and one of the most important union fights in this country happening today. Unionisation has meant that, thankfully, I will get *some* pay - even if it may only correspond to my contracted hours and not the extra hours that we regularly put in, either due to choice or to understaffing. While workers at JD Wetherspoon were hung out to dry, it has been the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) who supported them in their struggle against Tim Martin for the last two years. The BFAWU have been at the forefront of supporting fast food workers, many of them young people, in organising at companies like McDonald’s who are well-known for their poor working conditions. They have also had success in supporting Allied Bakery workers in Belfast, their traditional base, with Liverpool members recently voting to go on strike as well. This news shows the power of having a trade union behind you: so why do I feel so disillusioned in my own workplace?
When I first joined Greggs, I was excited to work for a company that recognised a union; my granddad was a trade unionist during his time as a miner and later a bus driver. Since 2016 the union has been fiercely campaigning for the company to implement the Real Living Wage of £10 per hour, however this has so far been unsuccessful. Recently I’ve seen smaller unions like United Voices of the World (UVW) organise successful campaigns for the rights of migrant cleaners in universities, hospitals, and retailers across London, and the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) doing incredible work campaigning for courier’s rights. By contrast, when multiple Greggs workers broke their contracts by speaking about the company on social media, I saw little, if any, response from the BFAWU. In fact, the majority of the people I told about this had no idea that this clause even existed in their contract. Around a month ago, I was speaking to one of my co-workers about how the company has changed since she started working there a decade ago. She told me how the shop opening times have gotten earlier, closing times later, how you’re no longer allowed to take waste food home when you could before, how much harder the job had become. She’s so overworked that it is causing long term damage to her health. Before the pandemic, we were set to begin rolling out a delivery service, despite not having enough staff to even run the shop. When I asked her whether the union had fought against the changes, or spoke to staff about how they felt about the changes, she shrugged her shoulders. That’s a problem.
On the 23th March, following a huge effort by workers breaking their non-disclosure clauses on social media, Greggs made the decision to close, while workers at JD Wetherspoon have pushed back against the company’s refusal to pay wages until the end of April and forced Tim Martin into an embarrassing U-turn. While I do believe that Greggs would have closed anyway due to lack of staff, I also think that the angry response by staff and the support of customers on social media helped to weaken their polished PR image. The rose-tinted glasses are off, and hopefully this will provide an opportunity for the BFAWU to go on the offensive in ways similar to Spoons Strike. The BFAWU is one of the oldest unions in the country, having been founded in 1847. Unfortunately sometimes it shows. In 2018-2019 it lost 1,000 members and was at risk of losing its independent status. The newly elected General Secretary, Sarah Woolley, recognises the need for an expansion of democracy in the union, an issue that is true of trade unions more generally, and the need to “step out of our comfort zones” by drawing in new membership from the fast-food industry. I largely agree with this, and if the union’s recent successes are anything to go by, I’m hopeful that Woolley’s election means broader change.
But this mentality of “expansion” should not stop the union from assessing its own institutional problems, particularly concerning democracy but also racism, sexism and ableism, issues which can and do make workers reluctant to become active in the union. The experience of UVW and IWGB shows what the future of 21st century trade unionism looks like: militant, democratic, anti-racist and membership-led. These unions should be seen as a source of inspiration, rather than competition. Seeing so many Greggs workers speak out for the first time brought back that sense of excitement that I felt when I first started. It demonstrated that there is a strong wish for change among workers, but that our union has not been able to harness it. When this is over and we go back to work - at Greggs, at Wetherspoons, and at everywhere in the food industry in between - it is of vital importance that the trade union movement grows and moves forward. To do this it first needs to take a long hard look at itself, and then to the new world we now live in.
If you wish to join a union, please consider the options below:
Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union https://www.bfawu.org/join
United Voices of the World Union https://www.uvwunion.org.uk/join-online
Independent Workers of Great Britain https://iwgb.org.uk/join
The identity of the writer of this piece is known to Vittles and their account has been verified in emails. They have been paid for this piece.
The wonderful illustration is by Ada Jusic, whose work you can see more of here https://adajusic.com/ . Ada was also paid for her work.