A report by a zero hours, minimum waged fast food worker of their experience joining the Bakers’ union, recruiting and organising:
by Lorna,Branch 500, Glasgow
In November 2014, fast food workers from the US came to Glasgow to share the story of their struggle. After a fantastic meeting with powerful and inspiring speeches from the fast food workers, along with representatives of Unite the Resistance and the Bakers Union, the need to join the BFAWU seemed imperative.
I was surprised how much my experience as a minimum wage, zero hours contracted worker was so similar to the experience of the fast food workers on low pay, working unreasonable hours in the US. It was clear that joining the union was part of joining this global fightback.
I work in a fast food outlet in Glasgow. My zero hours contract means there is a complete lack of consistency with my work. The recent introduction of two hour shifts means that after tax and travel expenses, I can earn less than £9 for a day’s wage. The minimum wage is impossible to live on, and I don’t have children or a mortgage to pay.
Sexism is another issue we face in our workplace. Backhanded sexist comments about our personal lives have become the daily norm. Racist and homophobic attitudes are often expressed by the boss after customers leave. Why should anyone have to endure this in their workplace? And why should bosses with these prejudices not be pulled up for their bigotry and face consequences? I realised I couldn’t take on the boss on my own. We are strongest together when we are united and taking action together. Joining a trade union was the best way of fighting back. And more than that, it was in the best interests of my workmates to arm themselves in this way and join too.
Toni is one of my workmates who joined and became active in BFAWU. We have been involved in the fast food rights campaign which has mushroomed in the UK.
We have been taking part in meetings and protests, including the occupation of the KFC on ‘greedy bosses corner’ in the centre of Glasgow and have been working hard to recruit as many fast food workers as possible.
We attended our first Bakers Union conference as delegates this year. The experience was overwhelming. The week was overflowing with ideas, debates and discussions on the best way forward. We didn’t hesitate to take part.
It was, however, clear that there was a disparity in age, with very few young delegates. This stems from a much wider problem in society; young people feel so disillusioned and battered down with the current economic system that the benefits of joining a union are muddied and unclear.
They are targeted by the Tories and are one of the groups worst affected by their vicious austerity attacks. Now more than ever we need to work closely together to strengthen our resistance to the Tories but also reach out to as many young people as possible and get them involved. For most young people the idea of joining a trade union might not have even crossed their mind. Our experience at conference, however, has left us in no doubt that it is absolutely essential for young workers join a union. It is in their best interest to be part of a collective of workers who are committed to fighting their corner.
It’s no surprise then that we were met with the warmest welcome at this year’s conference.
Toni and I had prepared contributions and in spite of our nerves, stood behind the rostrum and spoke to a hall full of delegates on issues that included our experience as fast food workers, the future of the Labour Party and sexism in the workplace.
The delegates wanted to hear what we had to say and it really felt that our contributions were valued and well received. It injected a perspective that was less common at conference and the phrase ‘breath of fresh air’ was part and parcel of our everyday conferencing experience.
This may have had something to do with my expectations of the leadership body. For some reason (I’m not sure why) I thought the National Executive would be made up of dusty old-timers, out of touch with the workers’ experiences. How wrong I was! Actually, it was made up of people who have battled tirelessly in many workers struggles.
It was made up of men and women of different ages and ethnicities. More than that, this leadership seemed extremely accountable and held in check by the members. Perhaps the greatest example of this involves our General Secretary, Ronnie Draper. Standing orders decided that if delegates left the hall to take a personal phone call they should be fined £10. You can imagine the shock, and glee, it must be said, on the delegate’s faces when Ronnie Draper did exactly that. President Ian Hodson, leapt up from his chair with excitement and called for justice to be served! Sure enough, Ronnie Draper made his way to pay his fine without delay or hesitation, to great applause from the approving members. The point here is that there wasn’t an undemocratic structure with one rule for the members and another for the leadership. This particular example was completely humanizing and cut through the top down structure that can result in corrupt, high levels of bureaucracy and was a reminder to delegates that the collective is the engine of the union.
The famous karaoke night was also symbolized this idea. Everyone had a go. Even Toni and I! The entire evening was a reminder of what is so brilliant about our class; we are full of confidence and spirit. Singing really is one of the best ways to express yourself politically as well. Toni and I mustered the courage to address the conference in this way on the last day. We sang a song from the fast food picket lines in North Carolina with adapted lyrics like “life ain’t no fun, living on £6.51”. Compare this to our first contributions where we were shaking with nerves. The Bakers Union conference really was a huge confidence builder. The members were on our side, encouraging us to speak and take part at every turn.
Whenever we did speak, it was clear we were doing so in a completely democratic and open environment. The whole conference operated in this way. Any delegate from the floor could go up and speak on any issue for as long as they wanted. Even controversial issues like affiliation to the Labour Party were not brushed under the carpet but rather, the arguments were encouraged to be hashed out. I joined the union because of the issues I face in my workplace. However, I also joined because of the politics and ideas they firmly maintain. I am proud to be a member of a union that takes an uncompromising position on UKIP and the racist immigration policies meted out by the Tory government. I am proud to be a member of a union that calls for the closure of dehumanizing detention centres like Dungavel in Scotland. I am proud to be a member of a union that bans the right wing, sexist Sun newspaper, values every member they have and is committed to the fightback against the austerity.
One of the greatest achievements of the BFAWU has been the work they have done around The Fast Food Rights Campaign.
We call for £10 an hour now, an end to zero hours contracts and union rights and recognition, all of which are demands that resonate with the struggle in America.
As a result the campaign has been used as a launch pad to recruit young workers, like Toni and myself.
The Bakers Union is one of the smaller unions, but the role it has played in this global movement has been hugely important.
After a long day of debates and discussions it was good to participate in the fringe meeting for Unite the Resistance, which was taken so seriously by the delegates. It was a packed meeting with over 80 delegates attending, all participating in a lengthy discussion on the way forward for the trade union movement.
One of the strategies being called for was coordinated national strike action. It was clear the BFAWU is committed to work in solidarity with other trade unionists, students, young people, the unemployed, pensioners and anti-cuts campaigners in order broaden the fightback against austerity. Unite the Resistance is one vehicle through which we can do this. Delegates at the meeting expressed the union’s overall commitment to collective struggle in order to build the widest possible support for national strike action. A fantastic symbol of unity and solidarity.
Later that same week, Toni and I, filled with new found confidence, attended the annual STUC Youth Conference. We prepared and delivered a presentation on zero hours contracts and how to mobilize young workers into challenging unacceptable wages and conditions.
As Toni has experience in film making and I am a musician, we have started moving on a project that will reach a wider layer of young workers.
We plan to make a short film about workers on zero hours contracts with low pay, working in difficult, unsafe and hostile environments.
The aim of the film will be to expose these conditions and stress the importance of young people joining the union. Interviews with fast food workers and footage of the global campaign will be central to communicating the idea that workers are not alone.
They don’t need to feel isolated.
We also have plans to approach the STUC’s ‘Unions into Schools’ in Scotland in order for us to provide information and advice to school students, one of the most common groups to work in fast food outlets. Any union or organization like Unite the Resistance can access the film which is targeted at fast food workers. Similarly, we plan to organize a Fast Food Rights Campaign gig with the aim of encouraging fast food workers to enjoy live music, watch the short film, but most importantly, the gig could symbolize what is possible with collective activity.
These projects will be made by young people for young people and the objective is to pull in a whole layer of young workers to join the union. After conference, Toni and I felt armed with the understanding of how to contribute to building the union, but also, the broader fightback. I’d like to pay special thanks to Mark McHugh for his invaluable guidance, patience and support around our activity in the union. Our experience at conference sharpened our understanding of what it means to be part of a united collective. A collective that is solid in its uncompromising opposition to austerity, racism, sexism, homophobia and the need for unity with workers everywhere.