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Bakers' Union Interview: "We can stop this race to the bottom"
Last year the Bakers Food and Allied Workers' Union (BFAWU), along with Youth Fight for Jobs and others, initiated the Fast Food Rights campaign to fight for decent pay, terms and conditions for fast food workers. This came after the union's successful strike against zero-hour contracts at the Hovis Factory in Wigan.
In the run up to the union's annual national conference, BFAWU president Ian Hodson spoke to Claire Laker-Mansfield from Youth Fight for Jobs.
Why did BFAWU initiate Fast Food Rights?
It was the issue of zero-hour contracts and the success we had at Hovis. In that dispute, we saw that by standing up and fighting back, workers can win.
The bosses see McDonalds, Subway, KFC etc as a great testing ground for the type of working conditions our members have been subject to in bread factories and sweet factories and cake factories. All of those practices that have been in place for a long time in fast food are filtering through into every day employment practices in our organised workplaces.
We saw this as an opportunity to help people who aren't currently involved with a trade union, who don't believe they have any rights - to point out that they do have rights and that by joining together with the different elements, not just a trade union campaign but a community campaign and a political campaign, we can stop this race to the bottom.
Research shows that 80% of people who go into a workplace that has never been organised by a trade union will never join a trade union. What we're hoping this campaign will do is bring an understanding to people who work in this industry that there is an alternative to what they get told on a day to day basis. By doing the campaign we're going to places we've never been - we normally organise outside factories, we don't normally go on the high streets. It's brand new territory for us.
What were the lessons from the Hovis dispute?
It demonstrated that if people stand and fight together, they can win. The company tried all sorts of tactics - threats of closure, £1,000 to cross the picket line, bringing people in to intimidate the pickets. But the workers said no, we're not going to be intimidated, we're not going to take the cash, we're going to stand here until you recognise people should be treated fairly.
Fast Food rights is an attempt to organise the unorganised - how have you been able to win people to the union in places like Greggs?
The first thing we did was organise the bakeries and then through our negotiations with the company we said we want access to the shops as well. We've been able to represent a number of shop workers and demonstrate that by being in a union they can get better terms and conditions - they get a pay increase each year, they're not on minimum wage, they don't have to put up with zero-hour contracts, or accept that they're not entitled to holiday pay.
What sort of demands Fast Food Rights should be making of politicians and the government?
Employment legislation is key here. Legislation that allows an employer to treat people like second class citizens or that they're not important needs to be changed. It can't be right that politicians sit in the Houses of Parliament and debate about improving employment by making people more vulnerable, more insecure and worse paid. Politicians have a duty to actually start serving the electorate, not just the people who buy their dinners.
Since our founding in 1847 we've had a commitment to a living wage. One of the things this campaign has highlighted to me is that the youth rate needs to be scrapped. The argument when it was introduced was that it would save jobs. But jobs haven't been saved at all - all it does is forces young people to accept low pay as the norm.
There needs to be a review of how franchises work. One of the problems in the fast food industry is that a lot of these places are franchised out. But then they're restricted on being able to control any other forms of making a profit other than by using a race to the bottom contract - the McDonalds of this world say 'you must buy your burgers from here'. There has to be a review of how people can look at alternatives to the high costs to purchase from that sole provider.
What has inspired you to develop the campaign?
Something that's really inspired me is what's happening in the US and New Zealand and places where people have been brave enough to actually put a figure on the minimum wage - like $15 in the US. We don't currently have a figure as a trade union but I'm going to try and put one at our upcoming conference.
I think maybe we need to give working class people a clear understanding of what our trade union is fighting for - a £10 figure, why shouldn't working people get £10 an hour? Even if they get the current living wage, it would still only give them enough to maybe afford to throw their children a party and maybe afford to pay for a holiday. I don't want people to 'maybe' afford, I want them to be able to - that goes for all workers. There's enough money around!
I went over and attended the International Union of Foodworkers conference in New York and listening to some of the McDonalds workers about why they decided to take action. One of them was a single mother, the other was a 22 year old young woman. I asked her, what she would say to other young people about why they should join a union or take action.
She said: "because it's all been given away and we've got to take it back - if we're going to get out of the poverty we're living in, so that I don't have to make a choice between whether I catch a bus to work or I'm able to eat, then the only way to do it is to organise". It was so inspiring.
They weren't just fighting for themselves but for people who weren't currently organised but wanted to be and were afraid that if they stood up they might lose their jobs. These young people said: "if I lose my job, to hell with it, I'll have stood up and I'll feel that I've done the right thing."
I met a young woman from New Zealand, 18 years old, been working for McDonalds since she was 15. It was absolutely amazing to see how the campaign had inspired her to get involved with organising workers.
We need young people. Whenever we're in a role, it's not our job to sell because there are people coming up behind us and it's their right to be entitled to employment too - decent, paid employment.
In The Socialist 4 June 2014:
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