South London Bartenders Network grew out of the experiences of hospitality workers in Peckham and Nunhead, motivated both by the universally dire conditions of work in the industry and the unions’ lack of capacity for supporting long-term organising in the sector.

The idea for the network had been developing since workers at The Ivy House pub went on wildcat strike in 2018 and won their demands (union recognition, fixed-term contracts and the rehiring of unfairly dismissed staff). While the campaign was a success, bolstered by informal support from Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) organisers, the subsequent negotiations over terms of recognition and new contracts dragged on until 2020, with an exhausted workforce ill-equipped to sustain a cohesive strategy and unwilling to let union officials take over. Workers at The Ivy House had hoped their strike could be a catalyst for widespread organising in South London more broadly, but exactly how this might come about remained unclear while many workers lacked capacity for further organising.

In winter 2019, the BFAWU organiser who had supported workers during the strike of the previous year returned to Peckham with the Fast Food Rights campaign. One of a few campaigns in the UK making in-roads with Community Unionism, it immediately struck a chord as an alternative to tried-and-tested models of organising we’d seen attempted elsewhere in hospitality. Witnessing the appetite for organising among local fast-food workers and the strong community networks already existing within South London, a few bartenders from The Ivy House began speaking to friends working in other pubs. The response was enthusiastic. By January, around half a dozen workers were seriously interested, and when Covid-19 reached the UK we realised we couldn’t afford to delay any longer.

We set up a basic website, Twitter account and our first zoom call soon after lockdown kicked in. Six months on, around 30 active members from a dozen sites across South London, organising with BFAWU, Unite, UVW and IWW respectively, have shaped a network of mutual support that - as far as we know - is making history as the first of its kind in living memory in UK hospitality. This piece is drawn from hours of transcribed conversations between members, and the writers’ grant from Notes from Below will be used as the basis of a strike fund for hospitality workers in South London. In order to safeguard workers, most of the sites and cases discussed are anonymised.

The Workplace

Members of SLBN are working in very different workplaces with different structures, including:

  • A community-owned, not-for-profit pub run by a volunteer committee that employs a General Manager (GM), who in turn employs Front of House (FOH) and Back of House (BOH) staff, and a cleaner via an agency. (The Ivy House).
  • Multiple pubs from a medium-sized chain that franchises out sites to GM’s (who set up as self-employed), who then employ staff. GM’s claim back a (low) percentage of all takings from the chain, out of which they pay themselves, their workers (including cleaners/security if needed) and buy stock. GMs are estimated to earn 12-15k annually on average. In some cases, GMs are drafted in by head office to run sites directly.
  • A pub owned by Star Pubs and Breweries (Heiniken) with independent leaseholders (zero hours).
  • A social enterprise coffee roastery owned by a parent company of multiple regular ventures and social enterprises (self-employed).
  • A free house pub with an owner who also has two other sites (zero hours).
  • A brewery spanning two sites owned by managing partners who hire a GM.
  • Multiple pubs from a small chain based mainly in South London (zero hours).

With the exception of The Ivy House, no sites pay London Living Wage or higher for ordinary staff (i.e. not management). Workers are young, and for many this industry is their first experience of employment. Many are studying or have side-hustles as artists, writers, musicians, designers (freelance or part-time jobs in unpredictable industries), or are between other forms of employment and need to earn some extra cash. These factors - combined with the relative ease of finding another hospitality job (pre-Covid) - contribute to high staff turnover.

The lack of consistent structure throughout the industry makes the prospect of organising within it particularly daunting. While in some independent sites, the GM reins supreme, in other chains GMs are arguably as much the victim of exploitation as the staff they exploit in turn. In one site, every single member of staff is on a different wage, and members have been hauled into “informal chats” warning them that discussing pay at work is unacceptable behaviour. In another, 5 GMs have come and gone in the last 12 months, unable to handle the stress of working 60+ hour weeks for half the national average annual salary for full-time employees . While managers and sometimes supervisors are expected to work more than 48 hours a week, not all of them have actually signed an opt-out of the European Working Time Directive.

While the specifics of power relations vary from site to site, a consistent attitude among many workers is that they do not actually deserve more for what they do. Precarity and poverty pay are not only taken as standard, they are framed as a fair price to pay for access to a romanticised lifestyle of socialising, drinking and drug-taking, and a job that nominally requires little commitment or skilled labour.

As anyone who has worked in hospitality is aware, however, our labour is hardly unskilled. Pouring a pint or making a good cappuccino might just require some training and practice, but conflict de-escalation; safeguarding ourselves and customers in situations involving alcohol; spending 7-13 hour shifts on our feet, often understaffed; delivering good customer service to people whose disposable incomes often dwarf our actual incomes; cleaning up vomit, excrement and shards of glass - to do this labour week in, week out, in the knowledge that a single complaint from a customer can put your job at risk, is no easy thing.

Social Relations

These dynamics of exploitation are obscured by the uniquely social aspect of the work. On the one hand, the emotional labour of counselling customers through divorces and bereavements, depression and the stress of their own working lives, can take its toll. On the other, we share milestones - weddings, funerals, birthdays - with them, and genuine friendships can develop across the bar.

But while it’s true that there are communities formed within and around pubs, bars, tap-rooms and cafes, these communities are often rhetorically weaponised by management against staff. There’s a common idea that the pub as a community venture is doing God’s work, as one of few remaining social institutions fulfilling the role of a community centre where people come together. While this is true to an extent, it’s equally true that we’re essentially legal drug dealers being exploited to keep these community centres open.

The capacity to challenge exploitation is softened through close personal relationships with management in some cases. Each site pushes the perception of the workplace as one big happy family, where you have disagreements but all get along in the end. There remains, of course, a power disparity and fundamental difference between our interests as workers and theirs. Their behaviour is often excused in much the same way as putting up with a problematic friend is justified on the basis of long-standing association. Yet their behaviour directly impacts on our ability to make rent.

Further complicating the presence of consistent solidarity among workers is that we are not usually treated equally. Bosses play favourites, microaggressions and privileges manifest along the lines of gender, race, age, sexuality and gender expression, and poor behaviour is tolerated for some workers while swiftly punished for others.

At the same time, codependent relationships between workers are common in a high-stress, drink- (and drug-)fuelled environment that occupies evenings and weekends that would otherwise be reserved for socialising and relaxing. Our co-workers are the friends we see the most, the ones who know the most about our lives outside of work and have taken care of us on messy nights out. Outside of the routine of the 9-to-5 norm, we lean into the idolised subcultural lifestyle of extremes that customers tell us we’re lucky to experience. These strong bonds do foment solidarity; it just takes a coordinated approach to bring it to bear in the workplace itself.

One key advantage within hospitality, which informs our approach to organising, is the revolving door of workers moving between sites. All of us know workers in other sites, living in our neighbourhoods or frequenting our own workplaces. In fact, many of us have direct access to workers at breweries and coffee roasteries - suppliers that our workplaces could not function without, and whose workers experience comparable problems. We’ve all been complaining about bosses and customers at industry nights and after-parties post-shift since we joined the industry - the challenge is to reframe that anger into something strategic, to build up the community of workers to counteract the atomisation of our site-specific situations, and from that perspective to cement clear understandings of how power operates.

Organising

The hospitality industry is notoriously challenging to organise within. Most workers are precarious and on poverty pay, and in a Covid-19 context anxieties around loss of income due to organising have been heightened. Many workers do not see hospitality as a career, and this makes them reluctant to put energy and time into organising - to do so could be seen as a concession that hospitality is more than a “stop-gap”. Workers who have been at a site long-term and do see it as a career are often reticent for the opposite reason - they intend to stay at their current job, and don’t want to create a difficult atmosphere.

For those of us interested in organising, it can be difficult to be consistently evangelical in social circles that we spend most of our waking hours in. As one member puts it, it’s hard to avoid being seen as “an Avon Lady for socialism”. This is partly why we stress the support element of the network over the political language favoured by some organisers - not all workers want to seize the means of production, but a fair few would quite like to get some basic respect, or for a racist manager to face consequences, or for their employers to pay a living wage. We try to be as accessible as possible in our language but we trust that workers have the ability to grasp the issues at hand and strategies available to them with relative ease: we aren’t here to lead the proletariat - at its core, SLBN is simply about telling people who know they’re getting fucked over that we’ll stand by them if they want to do something about it.

Our approach to organising is rooted in the idea that workers can self-organise effectively, and direct their own struggle. This is inspired in part by experiences of some workers at The Ivy House, and in part by experiences of other workers in campaigns where paid organisers took the lead and campaigns became unsustainable as a result. The network is not affiliated with any one union, and members do not have to be members of a trade union to join or make any specific commitment in terms of time or intention, and there is no membership fee. We meet weekly (usually via zoom) to discuss developments in organising, casework and updates from working groups.

We reject the prevailing view of trade unions as “insurance policies” - the labour movement must be an active participant in society more broadly, must demonstrate its utility to workers before demanding a direct debit and must have the central aim of empowering communities to fight their own battles. While some of us are rooted in the labour movement, we see our role as within and against our respective unions, recognising that in even the most militant unions workers must build their own power in order to organise sustainably.

We are engaged in community construction as much as we are workplace disputes - and that means that no single member is indispensable. Founding members of the network have been able to step away due to lack of capacity and it has continued to function, with working groups developing power analysis models, social media campaign ideas, taking on casework when unions are slow to respond, arranging rep. training and continuing to bring in new members.

Our work is as much in the tradition of mutual aid (in its truest sense) as it is in the tradition of trade unionism. We are not service providers - emotional and material support is reciprocal - but if anyone (a member or not) has issues at work half a dozen members can be on a zoom call within hours, centring the worker while coming to a consensus-based decision on strategy. This is solidarity in action, and multiple members have voiced its centrality in motivating them to fight back against bad bosses. At the same time, we always defer to the workers themselves - we have held off on publicity stunts and direct action when workers weren’t confident enough to escalate.

So far, we’ve helped multiple members through disciplinaries when trade unions simply did not respond in time, or when workers were not yet unionised; we’ve educated ourselves on workplace rights and unionised whole sites within days where big unions failed even to gain a foothold; we’ve made contact with community spaces and new solidarity networks in the surrounding area (particularly Croydon Solidarity Network), local mutual aid groups and trade union campaigns (particularly the Fast Food Rights campaign), and the local TUC council and Labour party branches, and strengthened links with local media; we’ve empowered members to begin organising within their unions in parallel with SLBN, and we’ve planned outreach strategies that are innovative by the standards of the labour movement.

Once it’s safe to do so, we’ll be facilitating 5-aside football tournaments between local pub staff, hosting monthly industry nights where we can reach “non-politicised” workers, putting on interactive workshops on workplace rights, hosting banner-making sessions in anticipation of direct action, and running panel discussions on organising approaches within different unions. Long-term, we’re looking at media and social media strategies to raise our profile, we hope to get merchandise made (think crop-tops rather than pin-badges) and to assist similar networks to grow across London and elsewhere (we have contacts in East London, Central London and Bristol who have expressed cautious interest).

Building local cultures of solidarity takes time, but each victory has an impact - doubly so in sectors like hospitality and fast food, where wins are rarely expected. As well as changing the dynamics of our localities collectively, each worker who has experienced solidarity has the potential to bring that same will to fight to their roles in other sectors (the arts, journalism, music, careers following current education pathways etc), in the future or currently. The fact that hospitality work functions as a key financial channel towards these other forms of precarious labour sets it up as a key site for organising against precarity, not only to make the hospitality sector a better place to work but also to highlight the precarious nature of all employment in the 21st century. Workers who experience successful organising against casualisation in the hospitality industry will hopefully take this with them as they move into other casualised sectors and therefore provide vital links of solidarity across sectors.

“It’s the most anti-social social situation you can ever be in.”

Below are some extracts from our last “ranting circle” (a loosely directed conversation between workers about our experiences and feelings), to illustrate the emotional, mental and physical toll hospitality can take, that both inhibits and drives attempts to organise in the sector.

AWhen I was working in Brixton, we were getting paid nothing. When we did work it could be 60 hours a week or 6 hours a week. We had a really disunified workforce, you didn’t want to rock the boat - you wanted to take all the perks offered instead of proper pay, like the vodka/coke/weed that was always on offer. So then you’re drinking all the time, you’re tired, your sleep schedule gets fucked, you don’t have any money to do anything else, you can’t actually socialise with people when you feel you need to; you don’t feel you can step away from work even though you’re being overworked and when you do you can barely think let alone mobilise. For me, it led to a level of housing precarity, and also to going without meals - that’s exacerbated patterns of disordered eating that I still struggle with today.

BOne week I might be working Friday-Sunday, maybe I’m doing 2 full day shifts one after the other - I’m exhausted. Then, on Saturday night I get sent a rota saying I’m working Monday through Wednesday. Now I’ve made plans - minor personal plans, nothing major, so I cancel them. But in this industry you just lose the small freedoms you should have. I should be able to plan my week out, even though I’m just working a shitty bar job. It doesn’t make any difference. There’s a basic lack of respect for our lives outside of work. We’re treated like machines.

CI really relate to that. There’s lots of different experiences - students, people with families, single people ducking and diving to make rent - everyone’s got slightly different concerns.

DSame at my workplace - you have graduates, students, people with families, everyone’s in a different level of precarity. It’s very stressful, it weighs a lot on everyone’s mental health. I’ve seen and experienced breakdowns mid-shift, and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s immune to them. Shiftwork generally does bring you down a lot.

EWell it’s inevitable, right? You’re constantly working, and then you drink after shift to relax, and then you sleep all day and then roll out of bed in time for your shift. Hospitality specifically is a lifestyle as much as a job. The people you see at your work are the only people you see every single day, they become your support system for that period, and it’s really damaging for your social life. It’s the most anti-social social situation you can ever be in.

FIn so many jobs they expect you to give your life to the company and live and breathe the brand - in hospitality it’s in a much more pernicious way. You’re thrust into a situation where you miss out on the social aspects of the rest of your life because you’re usually at work, and then you’re driven to drink and drugs because you’re being overworked in a situation where drinking heavily is so normalised.

GAlso, this social friendliness can be used to get away with shitty stuff. It’s difficult to organise around how some managers behave because no one wants to dob in their mate. It’s hard to call things out, and then you end up feeling like an Avon Lady for Socialism. It can become really incestuous with staff and managers dating or hooking up, but there’s also a weird expectation of absolute respect for your superiors. I’ve received complaints to my general manager about not being deferential enough.

EMy attitude problems have been talked about too. I was speaking to [redacted] from Head Office, because she didnt know what the fuck she was doing behind a bar but was trying to be in charge of everything while being so rude and condescending at the same time. As soon as I spoke back to her, I was in trouble, told I needed to watch my tone. I’m not gonna treat someone like they’re better than me just because they are above me.

GBeing rude to you is seen as a managerial quality. I got told off for not being managerial or disciplining enough, even though there weren’t any issues with staff and everyone was doing their jobs properly. I’ve always been encouraged to bollock people but it’s never worked in my experience.

FPeople in a position of authority should be earning respect - it shouldn’t be a given. When they are rude to people the fact that they expect people to roll over is disgraceful.

Thinking more broadly about what we’re all trying to do here…things like shift work - they might have different effects on us, but they do affect all of us. These are things people can rally around. What are we trying to do with the network? Are we trying to fix some small things or have a massive overhaul of the whole industry or just improve working conditions?

BI think it’s an amalgamation of quite a lot of the things you just said. Obviously we’re looking at changing our workplaces individually, but if you can shift the mentality of how people in this area at least feel about bartenders, or the way things are managed, it’d be good. The more momentum we can pick up, the more people’s minds we can change. Obviously, the first step is trying to sort out our individual workplaces first.

HI’m hoping if we can launch this campaign and win our demands, that will inspire more people in our area to do the same thing. And if we’re organised as an industry and campaign over the same issues and win them, then as an industry we can set the bar even higher. That’s kind of why I’m here as well. It doesn’t seem like there’s many unions that do much organising in hospitality.

AIt’s been interesting to me personally, to see that given we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, there’s appetite for what we’re trying to do. People are hearing about it even during lockdown. There’s definitely a need for what we’re trying to do here.

Post-Script: The Road Ahead

SLBN began as lockdown hit the UK, in anticipation of an accelerated need for effective counter-mobilisation against the most precarious period of work in living memory. The government’s late-announced furlough scheme came too late for many workers, who were summarily laid off and therefore initially ineligible for furlough. Workers who had recently moved jobs - and there were many in an industry characterised by high staff turnover - fell through the cracks. Nevertheless, the furlough scheme has thus far provided some small level of security to some workers, allowed a greater capacity for organising and delayed the worst effects of the crisis at a larger scale. Covid-19 has not disappeared - but these safeguards are about to.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the oncoming great recession is going to change our experiences of work almost unfathomably. Much has been said of localised lockdowns: less has been said of localised furlough. Evictions on a scale not seen in recent years are on the cards, and the benefits system has been squeezed to its most punitive, cruel and inadequate iteration yet. The carceral cosmopolitanism of the Hostile Environment is advancing to unprecedented levels, and rhetoric pitting migrants against non-migrant workers will reach new heights. Austerity - the effects of which are ongoing and worsening - is going to return in full force, and vital services cut once again. Businesses - often at the mercy of exploitative landlords - will shut down. Workers who demand more are going to be blamed.

We need to get ready for this, and we need to do it quickly. There isn’t time to wait for the antiquated machine of the labour movement to lurch into this new reality - it was barely equipped for the old one. Organisers have a vital role to play in educating and empowering workers, but the only power that can last is in the collective. We desperately need structures to support and connect workers that aren’t solely reliant on the capacity and capability of overworked union employees. Embedded in communities, these structures have a role to play in supporting migrant solidarity, anti-gentrification, public space conservation, renters’ rights, anti-austerity and (women’s, LGBTQ+’s, people of colour’s) liberation campaigns, too. Since our struggles are linked, so must our strategies be.

If you’re interested in setting up your own network, please get in touch. If you’re in South London and want to join SLBN, whether to help us develop into a network that can make a difference in the hospitality industry, or just to come to some socials to meet other hospitality workers and complain about your boss, sign up at: https://southlondonbartenders.com/

Email: [email protected]
Twitter/Insta: @SouthBartenders

Love and solidarity,
South London Bartenders Network


author

South London Bartenders Network

grew out of the experiences of hospitality workers in Peckham and Nunhead.