Working at JD Wetherspoon is hard. That might come as a surprise for some, being an ‘unskilled’ job and all, but it’s true nonetheless. In the many years I’ve been doing this, the company hasn’t introduced a single policy that makes any material difference to this fact. The level of work hasn’t been reduced, the staff level hasn’t doubled, the menu hasn’t shrunk and the customer’s haven’t gone away. Far from it. Profits are at an all-time high. So high in fact, that we are due to receive a pay increase a whole six months early, out of sheer generosity from our shareholders and the main man himself, Tim Martin. It’s just pure coincidence that this raise happens to be announced shortly after two pubs have balloted to strike for the first time in the chain’s history.
The job carries with it all the trademark symptoms of its industry: long hours, poverty pay, precarious employment and a daily dose of stress that sees associates and management alike break down in tears. I wish I could say this is an isolated incident, but in organising and communicating with workers across the country and beyond, it quickly became evident that this is a nationwide problem. The stress and anxiety that comes from pouring pints to Britain’s most belligerent punters cannot be understated. The situations workers are placed in to sustain profits regularly includes some form of sexual harassment, homophobia or racism. If you’re lucky, you’ll just have a boring ol’ ignorant customer to hand over a pint of Doom Bar to and that’ll be the end of it. But it can often be very real violence you face in these establishments. Fights are inevitable when you mix low-priced alcohol and a 15-hour trading license, and when there is no door staff on to sort things out, it is not uncommon for the manager to have to break up a brawl or remove customers directly.
The pressure isn’t confined to the front of house team either. Kitchens face unrealistic food delivery times that become harder to achieve as the menu expands and the hours tighten. An ever-changing menu means a training program that grants no additional time for training. Injuries are expected and
worked through; battle scars from fryers, ovens, grills, knives and chemicals are worn like a badge of honour. A false, masochistic pride keeps workers grinning through gritted teeth as they toil to make a little more profit, climb another rung in the ladder or just struggle to pay the bills. The most recently announced pay rise will put a strain on further profits and this can only lead to one thing: more pressure to sell at higher and higher volumes with the same amount of hours.
The reluctance to pass the cost of a fair wage for staff onto the customer means that the conditions for lasting improvement in the workplace can never exist. The reduction of salaried hours doesn’t mean managers will work no more than 42.5 hours per week (soon to be 40). It means the management team will work their first 42.5 hours paid. The reality is there just isn’t enough support for this to
work without somebody or something suffering as a result. And this reality ignoring attitude is so prevalent through the industry – from the most down to earth workers to the Powers That Be – that any attempt at forming solidarity is scoffed at. “I’m alright Jack” has never been so widespread and so untrue.
So that’s what we’re up against: a culture that alienates its employees, pays them slightly above minimum wage, refuses to instate mandatory sick pay and introduces the most hollow, impotent mental health policies imaginable.
Industrial action is a last resort. It cannot be a surprise to them that people are unhappy – on the few occasions it has ventured to talk to those at the very bottom, complaints about the pay have been routinely ignored. The arguments we’ve faced – that we don’t deserve to be paid so much when other professions such as nurses aren’t even on such a wage – fail to acknowledge that we all need this money to survive. Everybody deserves to live and somebody needs to do these jobs. If it’s impossible to live on these wages then the workers don’t deserve to live? The argument quickly falls to pieces. When the average one-bedroom flat in Brighton costs £900 per month and the average bedroom in a house share is £600, you quickly realise that the upcoming pay rise – 25p per hour for our kitchen associates 18 and over – is meaningless.
This is why union recognition means so much to us and why this strike is not just for those of us at Wetherspoons. We recognise that TGI Friday’s and McDonald’s workers face the same problems that we do, and that together we are stronger. The industry needs to change and it needs to be pushed up from the bottom. Striking is so important to us because our voice can no longer be
ignored – it’s effect can already be seen in small concessions on night time wages and the continued push of “free shares”. We’ve been inspired by the McStrikers and their success and it’s time we inherit the responsibility of winning victories for our workers.
There is power in a union.