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“I WASN’T involved in this world before January. Now I’m very involved.”
This month’s Trades Union Congress saw repeated calls for a transformation of the world of work as ordinary people start to fight back against a broken system.
And few people are fighting back harder than Lauren Townsend.
Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the Labour Party dismiss its massive growth under his leadership, deriding the influx of new members as infiltrators, relics of the old left who have somehow seized control. But Townsend’s story suggests that the socialist upsurge is strongest among young people who have simply had enough of a corporate culture that sees their rights and wages steadily eroded.
The TGI Friday’s tips and pay dispute that has seen the 26-year-old and her fellow activists recruit hundreds of the chain’s workers to their union Unite began in January, when bosses summoned waiting staff to a meeting and told them they were going to lose 40 per cent of their card tips, which would be redistributed among kitchen staff. But she says the tips dispute was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It came after a few years of them taking things,” she says.
“We lost time-and-a-half over Christmas and new year, then they took our shift meals. People who had worked there for a while — I’d been there eight years — could see that they had been cutting labour.
“When I began, I never had to wait more than six, maybe seven tables at a time. Now it's often over 11. Each year we were doing more for less.
“People would get angry but then just accept it as the new normal. Young people coming in don't know any different, they don’t think they deserve better. They’re astonished when I tell them I once worked in a pub where management would book me a taxi home at the end of a shift because they cared about my safety.
“The tips campaign took off because every shift you could see how much you were losing. A girl in my store lost £1,000 over 18 weeks. She has two kids, school lunches and dance classes to pay for. She had to leave the company. Working out what you'd lost each shift kept people angry.”
Though TGI Friday’s claims redistributing the tips is fair, Townsend believes it is a way to avoid giving kitchen staff a long overdue pay rise.
“They used to be on more than us and then, as the minimum wage went up, they just kept staying where they were,” she says.
Kitchen staff have been supportive of their colleagues, she notes, with one in her store even offering to transfer back the tip money — an offer that was declined with thanks.
“It’s not about taking from them. It’s about all of us earning enough.”
Townsend had been “fired up” by the first ever strike at a British McDonald’s in September and when TGI Friday’s said it was taking the tips she decided right away to join a union. As the McStrikes had been organised by the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), it was the one she turned to first.
“I didn’t know how unions worked or anything. I just tweeted [BFAWU president] Ian Hodson on a Sunday. He was amazing, got back to me within half an hour and said: ‘We’ll help.’ He put me in touch with [McStrike organiser] Gareth Lane.”
Using social media to raise awareness of the dispute she quickly got some staff together from her store and one other in Milton Keynes, one in Northampton and one in Watford. Lane came to Milton Keynes to meet them and they had their first meeting in a Sainsbury’s cafe.
“We were a trial region for the tips policy,” she explains.
“I started reaching out on social media, looking at Facebook profiles, cold-messaging people. Waiting staff are called dubs at TGI Friday’s. I’d just write: ‘I’m a TGI Friday’s dub from Milton Keynes and this is what’s happening ...’
“Eighty per cent of people replied to me and 90 per cent of the replies were positive,” says Townsend, who attributes the enthusiastic response to years of worsening treatment by the company. She immediately began recruiting members to BFAWU.
“I would ask for numbers and start setting up WhatsApp groups,” she recalls.
In mid-February “a contact in Brighton gave me a contact in Covent Garden who gave me a contact in Haymarket ...” She came across Sallie Baker, a London-based worker who had been organising very much as she had in response to the new tips policy, but had been recruiting members to Unite.
“We felt it was really important to strike but that we had to be working together.” She sees the way the unions handled the matter as a model of inter-union co-operation — BFAWU and Unite met and discussed the campaigns.
“We decided the BFAWU priority would remain fast food while Unite would take restaurants,” she says.
Unite had experience in campaigning around tips as they had already done so at Pizza Express. “They did the right thing for the members.”
They still work closely together — “we’re on their picket lines and they’re on ours.” On the May 12 TUC march for a new deal, the McStrikers and TGI Friday’s workers jointly led the demonstration.
Part-way through our meeting Townsend breaks off for a conference call with members of the BFAWU and War on Want to discuss a joint day of action. On October 4, TGI Friday’s, McDonald’s and newly balloted Wetherspoons workers will walk out together on strike for the first time, calling for change across the wider hospitality sector and promoting an updated Fair Hospitality Charter, which calls for £10 an hour, an end to zero-hour contracts, union recognition, fair tips and respect at work.
And she hopes the disputes will have a knock-on effect across the industry. “The McDonald’s dispute inspired ours. We’ve both inspired the Wetherspoons staff who are now balloting at two pubs. I’d like to see Bella Italia get on board next or perhaps Las Iguanas.”
Organising workers in hospitality is key to the revitalisation of the entire trade union movement in Townsend’s view. “Next stop is retail. These are the gateway industries — almost everyone gets their first job in retail or hospitality.
“If they find a union culture there, they will take that with them whatever their later career. But the issue at the moment is that most people don’t know what a trade union is, what a trade union does.
“That’s why it’s so important Corbyn has put [adding trade union education to school curriculums] in the manifesto because young people haven’t got a clue. This generation aren’t getting it from their parents. Carry on like this and you’ll find people whose grandparents were never in a unionised workplace. The unions will die.”
That’s why she is so enthusiastic about the Institute of Employment Rights and its Manifesto for Labour Law. “Such good ideas in there. A ministry of labour — how is that not already a thing?” she asks.
“It should be normal that workers get a say in how the workplace is run.”
Townsend sees organising workers as absolutely political, and is emphatic about the need for a Labour government. “It’s Labour councillors on our picket lines, Labour MPs speaking up for us. John McDonnell and Dan Carden marched with us.” She joined Labour in “2015 or 2016, because of Corbyn. We were always a Labour-voting family, but for the first time the party had a leader who really spoke my language.
“When people started slating him, loads of us were like ‘hang on a minute.’ We joined up to support him. It’s disrespectful the way some MPs attack Corbyn.
“Isn’t it a good thing he’s enthused so many people to get involved in politics, to start voting? He’s not after glory or money, he just wants to leave this Earth a slightly better place and that’s brilliant.”
Townsend is well aware of the risks of organising in a non-unionised workplace. She herself was suspended for three weeks after speaking about the dispute at Unite policy conference, accused of misrepresenting the company, which was a shock for someone who had been “a loyal Friday’s girl through and through. I’ve got all the pins on my braces, was on the front of the Christmas menu one year, even on a billboard in Leicester Square.”
She was suspended on full pay, but “you didn’t get overtime and you didn’t get tips,” meaning in practice she was losing a huge amount of money. In the end the company dropped the charges, but she believes she would have had to leave the job if it hadn't been for the support of her family and Unite.
“People are nervous about joining a union. Especially among young women there’s a feeling that it’s just sitting in a room with a bunch of middle-aged men.
“But they’ve been so welcoming. I was embraced by the BFAWU and embraced by Unite. Knowing I had that support when I was suspended meant so much.
“We all deserve dignity at work. We all deserve guaranteed hours and enough to live on. Now is the time to stand up and make some noise.”
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