An east London nightclub has shown how to unionise the nightlife sector – and win | Owen Jones

The revelers of Britain’s revelers are kept alive by an army of low-paid, precarious and victimized workers. More than eight in ten bar staff earn less than £10 an hour and the hospitality industry has twice the national average staff turnover rate. Bullying by management and harassment by customers is common. Despite 425,000 people working in nightlife (that number has fallen by tens of thousands since the pandemic), union representation in Britain’s bars and clubs is woefully under-represented. Recently, a trendy East London venue has blazed a new trail. It could start a revolution in the industry.

At the Dalston Superstore, a queer venue in Hackney, LGBTQ+ partygoers and their straight allies are blazing shots while drag queens and gender-biased artists dance noisily on bar tables into the wee hours. “Anyone who is queer goes to the superstore or knows it or knows people who work there,” says 25-year-old Ayanna, who has been serving pints there for more than a year. When management hired a new welfare team to protect the welfare of customers and bartenders, existing staff found these new workers were being paid £15 an hour – more than the £11.05 London living wage most staff were being paid . The bar’s management insisted that this was standard pay for a stressful job, that social workers’ working hours were limited due to the intensity of the role, and that their pay was not supplemented by tips. Still, that frustration opened a floodgate.

The staff called a meeting at which other complaints quickly surfaced. Some were mundane, such as dishwashers not running hot water on certain nights. Others were more serious: The staff are all queer and many are people of color. Some feared for their safety as they traveled home in the early hours (these fears are well founded – hate crimes against LGBTQ people are on the rise). In April, workers at the Dalston Superstore asked the Unite union for support.

It’s worth noting that Dalston Superstore’s owner, Dan Beaumont, is widely regarded as a well-intentioned employer. Its bar staff is better paid than most in the industry. Tips are earmarked for staff; in many other places they are taken on by management. “Dan is obviously a very good person and politically conscious,” says Janet MacLeod, service sector organizer at Unite, “but it’s the workforce that has stood up and actively sought out a union and unionized.”

What Superstore emphasizes is that no matter how benevolent the management, checks and balances are needed to mitigate the inherent power imbalance between workers and bosses. Only unions can provide this control of power and a space where workers feel safe to voice their grievances.

Management at the superstore quickly recognized the union and held a grievance meeting with workers. Some complaints were based on misunderstandings, others were more serious. For example, workers who previously lacked opportunities to raise grievances said they felt managers were unresponsive to customer aggression. “It was very difficult because I’ve always wanted to be a role model as an employer,” admits Beaumont. “Having shed some light on your mistakes, particularly the most vulnerable members of your team: well, it was a necessary wake-up call for us on those things.”

The company quickly made changes: employees are now reimbursed for taxi rides home in the early hours, a toilet is reserved exclusively for employees, monthly training sessions have been introduced for new employees, and pay negotiations have started recorded. Superstore’s newly unionized workers have set off a chain reaction: workers at another nearby queer bar have followed suit, and other bars in the area are taking notice. “I’m a long-time union organizer and have brought many agreements,” says MacLeod, “but it’s the first time I’ve seen union building be so contagious.”

One of the biggest challenges for unions in the hospitality industry is that many of its young workers simply don’t know what unions are. Many have no relatives who were union members. After the early 1990s abolished wage councils, which made it possible to set wage levels for entire industries, nightlife bosses were able to suppress pay and cut training opportunities. But union weaknesses also play a role, not least their failure to make many workers from marginalized backgrounds feel welcome.

The notoriously poor nightlife conditions have led to a brain drain. Now, staff shortages could empower the remaining workers, while rising prices leave low-wage workers with a choice: fight back or sink into dire need. Beaumont also reckons that the ongoing trauma of a pandemic that has forced precarious workers to put their health on the line has spurred demand for change in the industry.

These struggles depend on workers in low-wage sectors finding their voice. “It’s easy to feel worthless as a hospitality worker that you’re just an ant in the system,” says Superstore bartender Sophie. There is a widespread feeling in our economy and society that low-wage workers deserve their hardship. “But you are Employer value, it’s a skilled barista job that should be rewarded,” she tells me.

Superstore’s new Unite branch is already planning to hold regular meetings and publish a zine for hospitality workers who want to learn from their example. If this revolution is to be successful, it must face major challenges. As members of a discriminated minority, many young queer workers are already politicized and are therefore more receptive to progressive ideas such as unionisation. This is not always true for their peers.

Compared to Superstore’s management, other managers are not so benevolent. Throughout the industry, high staff turnover complicates organization. But Unite is optimistic about overcoming these obstacles. Success stories like Superstore will only encourage workers who have long been expected to accept uncertainty and hardship for the sake of the nation’s ills. Many have had enough, as British nightlife bosses will soon find out.

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