2008 makes for a sad story, and in 2009, the working class will begin really paying for it. Some of the worst to be affected will be young unskilled workers; cleaners, shop-workers and caterers, like myself. Minimum wage workers at the best of times, we have, during the period of boom (which apparently was the last 10 years, although no one told us) eked out an existence, hovering from one place to the next for as long as moral holds out. Most I have worked with were young, often migrants, demoralised but unorganised and so usually without contracts of employment and subject to very poor working conditions.
An anecdotal example:
In 2008 I worked in a pub, one of a chain of a very well known free house. Known to many for cheap grub and beer, but not for poor working conditions. This particular East London establishment was infested with rats. They ran behind the bar, into the kitchen and the restaurant, on a daily basis. We eventually all complained vocally to the management (in front of astonished customers); a phone call later and we were told to accept it or hit the road. Later that day all staff members were made to sign contracts on company headed paper promising not to talk about the rat problem (or other problems of this nature) to customers, family or friends, and if we did we would be sacked.
The rat problem was eventually dealt with, that is to say, there were less rats. On top of this, most of us worked 50-60 hours, management included. Generally the conditions were dirty, because of lack of staff, and unsafe. By the time I left, 50% of the “team” I joined had been replaced, the 50% who left, work in other pubs in similar conditions or don’t work. In my 7-8 years of working in catering such conditions are the tip of the iceberg, and typical and getting worse. And now we are told; “But these were the good times”. Well, as it turns out, they were.
No one of my generation knows anything about mass unemployment. Some are getting a taster, but we are all about to receive the full three courses. Over the Christmas “holidays” it was reported that some 30,000 workers from Woolworths would join “The Job Hunt” (it wasn’t even mentioned that Woolies could be nationalised, as were the banks).
Bourgeois commentators tell us that the likes of Woolworths and MFI just weren’t competitive anymore, that it was inevitable, although we would all have to be blind to believe this has nothing to do with the mass layoffs in the City. They say ‘The Sh*t trickles down’, but the money didn’t.
The layoffs aren’t confined to retail. The beauty of catering was, that, whilst during the period of boom, pubs were always being closed at a rate of knots, new ones were fast opening in place of the old and so the industry could always support a large number of part-time students, full-time college dropouts, migrant workers and youth from traditional working class families in the locale. Most workers could stay in one location for while, until they were sufficiently demoralised with poor wages and deteriorating conditions. In the recent period this has been the de facto introduction of tips as a legitimate part of a workers wage/deductable from the wage (which is more often than not, in reality untaxed anyhow), or the use of tips to subsidise the establishment’s stock purchasing power enforced by threat of dismissal - and then leave and find similar employment. So the ability to cross the street and work for the competition, which over the last decade has provided catering and retail workers with a very relative form of stability, no longer exists.
This means workers in this industry will be facing the tough choice in the next period of organising or facing increasingly poor conditions as management cut corners to protect bleeding profits, or, piecemeal layoffs as companies go to the wall. The mass layoffs haven’t fully begun in catering as they have in retail, but they are sure to come.
And so, as young unskilled workers join the ranks of the quickly expanding unemployed, tipped to be 3 million by the end of the year, and the permanently unemployed, options are fast running out. The cold reality is that there are only two options, organise, or die on your feet, slowly. And this will not stand!
Unskilled workers must organise and quickly. It has never been more important for workers in this sector and all unskilled sectors to unionise with a sense of urgency. Catering, retail workers and cleaners must organise in solidarity with the fast growing unemployed and in solidarity with workers from all sectors of industry, many of whom have marvellous traditions of fighting in the workplace and can provide invaluable practical experience. With this experience we can utilise the discipline, diligence and sheer graft required to work 50+ hour shifts in often highly pressurised environments to fighting the bosses to protect our jobs and conditions, and some.
We must unionise and form workplace and regional branches so that we can coordinate action. Through this we can protect our jobs, conditions and pay. And through this we can call for the right to work and for a programme of mass public works to achieve this. We can call for a liveable wage - £8.00 an hour without exemptions, an end to casual employment and for contracts that are written by us to protect us, not ones that ensure that we can be dropped at a moments notice as they do now.
For nationalisations to protect our jobs, as a step to the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, so that all workers are afforded the same protection. No more need go the way of the Woolworths workers.
And, for a socialist Labour government to change society.
Lenin once famously remarked that; “Any cook should be able to run the country.” Let us make it so.