Ben Chacko discusses inequality, workplace organisation, Brexit and the trade union-led fight for a living wage with the national president of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union IAN HODSON
PUNITIVE strike ballot thresholds came into force yesterday with the Tories’ vicious Trade Union Act taking effect.
But while the government might hope the Act will cripple unions as a fighting force, bakers’ union president Ian Hodson has other ideas.
For over two years, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) has been fighting a Fast Food Rights Campaign aiming to organise staff in one of the lowest-paid and most precarious sectors in Britain.
“This is an industry of huge profits,” Hodson says of the fast food, bar and restaurant world, “profits that aren’t being shared. Staff are being exploited, underpaid and left to survive on in-work benefits.”
But it’s a notoriously hard sector to organise. I put it to Hodson that a high turnover, predominantly young workforce, most of whom want to move on to other work, is hardly promising ground for signing up trade unionists — why should they take risks for future rewards if they’re not planning to stay?
“It’s a myth, this ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fast food industry,” he retorts. “We’re recruiting workers at McDonald’s who’ve been doing their jobs four, five, six years. It isn’t that short-term.
“Only so many people can win the X Factor — or become press reporters,” he grins. “There aren’t many jobs in manufacturing. The only jobs available are in bars, fast food chains. So maybe people do want to move on. It doesn’t mean they can. There are a wide range of ages in the industry now; it’s not just young people.”
Hodson is indignant at the caricature of hospitality workers as unskilled drones. “People paying money want a good time, whether that’s a night out or a kids’ birthday party at McDonald’s. These workers are making that happen. It’s not easy to smile all the time, to be courteous and helpful to every customer’s needs.”
That’s why the fast food campaign was launched, its key objectives are a £10-an-hour minimum wage (applicable to all, not just over-21s), an end to zero-hours contracts and an organised workforce that can stand up for itself.
The drive was partly inspired by the “$15 and a union” campaign in the United States, pioneered by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
A combination of protests, walkouts, publicity drives and political pressure has reaped rewards across the pond, with over 22 million workers having won wage increases since the campaign began.
“We have a fantastic relationship with the SEIU,” says Hodson. The unions have worked together, as well as with others around the world such as New Zealand’s Unite.
“That international co-operation is what you need if your adversary operates globally. We’re talking about McDonald’s.”
McDonald’s isn’t the only fast food chain the bakers have targeted, but it’s certainly the biggest. “Why McDonald’s? Because as Scott [Courtney, of the SEIU] says McDonald’s is ‘the driving force on the route to a low-road economy’.
“The second-largest employer on the planet and with some of the worst employment practices and dreadful corporate citizenship.”
In 2015 unions helped launch the Unhappy Meal report, which highlighted tax dodging by the corporate giant — prompting an investigation by the European Commission over its abuse of a Luxembourg subsidiary in order to avoid tax. Since 2005 at least six countries have initiated tax avoidance investigations into McDonald’s.
The company is under pressure — but it smelt an opportunity in Theresa May’s push for a “bargain basement, tax-haven Britain,” announcing late last year that it will shift its non-US tax base over here. Tax dodging is bad, but does it affect McDonald’s workers? “Yes. The workers are paying their taxes and the firm should too. But it’s about more than that. “With our public services under pressure, our NHS on its knees, we can’t afford super-profitable firms like McDonald’s not paying their way. And its staff use those services.”
Nor has it treated its employees like adults — imposing a social media policy seen by the Star, for example, which bars them from referring to their “political affiliation” online.
The union has submitted evidence relating to the firm’s use of zero-hours contracts, and the way they are abused to deny staff their most basic rights.
“You get horror stories all across the world of zero-hours,” Hodson says. “You get pregnant women being told, don’t come back here till you’re fit.
“We had a ruling in November from the European Court of Justice, that all employment legislation applies to zero-hours contract workers, but if you’re not guaranteed any hours it can be hard to establish your rights in that situation — especially if you don’t know what they are, and most people don’t.
“Then the cost of workplace justice has gone through the roof, thanks to the Tories and Lib Dems and their employment tribunal fees. Workers can’t afford justice.
“So we need to make sure they get it. Unions are more important now than ever.”
That’s why he expresses frustration with all the sound and fury over Brexit and too many on the left looking to the EU to guarantee their rights.
“My union campaigned to leave the EU. That had nothing to do with immigration — nonsense.
“It was about democracy. We think you should have the right to remove the people who make the laws. If you’re in the EU, you don’t have that right.
“As for it protecting us — the government has got away with the erosion of our rights, this bloody Trade Union Act included and the Lobbying Act that preceded it — all within the EU.
“Now we’re leaving. And there’s no more blanket to hide behind, for the government or us. If Tories want to take away our rights, then trade unions have to fight.
“Laws are not the be-all and end-all. The labour movement is about collective action, our duty to say we’re not standing for this.
“It’s working for us. We’re making a difference to local communities.”
He tells me about the BFAWU campaign in Scarborough, where the English Defence League (EDL) had been using a local pub as its meeting place when it marched.
“The workforce weren’t happy. We organised them and we got talking to the managers, who at first weren’t supportive. But we kept up the pressure, and now they close the pub when the EDL is in town.
“Organise one workplace and it starts to spread. Workers in a fried chicken shop who drank at the pub got talking to staff. They were paid till they stopped serving, they said, but then they had to stay and clean the restaurant and kitchen. They weren’t happy but the bosses weren’t interested.
“So they organised a joint protest, the pub staff and the restaurant staff together outside the chicken shop.
“Pretty soon, the bosses decided it was ‘all a misunderstanding,’ and they got their wages. They’re all in the union now too.”
There are other success stories — Hodson praises the United Voices of the World (UVW) for its campaign to make Harrods pay tips, and Unite (the British one) for its campaigning over the same injustice at Pizza Express.
“When working people come together, we’re still capable of winning,” he points out. Organising these workplaces is key, Hodson argues, to countering the poison of the far right in this country.
“Young people can and will come forward. On February 20 we had that One Day Without Us, we did a great protest at Kings Cross, with RMT members as well. You had loads of young migrant workers coming out — and we occupied a McDonald’s, you know.
“The threat to democracy is media barons misrepresenting what the people voted for. It’s security, not antiimmigrant feeling. I campaigned for Labour in Stoke.
“I told guys saying they would vote Ukip, ‘telling you who to hate doesn’t offer any solutions.’ And they said, ‘But we don’t hate these people’.”
Would people be worrying about immigration if they had jobs, if there was a £10 an hour minimum wage? I don’t think so and neither did some of the doors I knocked.”
What the labour movement faces is a concerted effort, he contends, to shut ordinary people out of politics — and to leave it to the great and the good, the corporations and the super-rich.
“It’s the Lib Dems as much as the Tories. They backed the Lobbying Act before the Trade Union Act came along. What was that about?
“Taking people out of politics. Shutting unions and NGOs up, so they can’t say ‘we don’t want the NHS to shut down’ or point out that government policy might be linked to rising homelessness.
“They portray unions as somehow sinister. But members take the decisions in the unions — the nurses, the bin workers, the fast food workers.
“We’re the strongest force capable of starting to rebuild our communities, and explaining to ordinary working people that politics can change lives for the better — and that is the mission Jeremy Corbyn’s on, one where he needs our support. None of the others are interested in helping our members.”